Climbing The Bookshelves – The Autobiography

Posted on: 24th November 2009  |
Author: Shirley Williams
Publication details: Virago, 2009 432 pages
ISBN: 9781844084760

As new generations rise in British society, internationalists such as Baroness Shirley Williams could be mistaken for representing the Liberal Democrats’ long-held enthusiasm for unique characters who defend strongly held principles. However, this autobiography reveals to new and old generations alike that the woman who will give CAFOD’s Pope Paul VI lecture on 27 November 2009 is a pioneer of depth, breadth, and outstanding ability, as well as enthusiasm, kindness and conviction. While many of us admired her before this book – she once called me to give my first national party political conference speech in 1987 – others will find in it a fascinating story of a woman who made her way in the predominantly male world of twentieth-century democratic politics.

Shirley Williams was brought up by parents who, despite being Catholic, had no belief in the need for infant baptism. Consequently, she committed to Catholicism as a teenager, making her faith a part of a richly lived life. It was to the Jesuits that she ran first when she heard of Oscar Romero’s assassination, and during the crisis that followed the murder of six Jesuits in El Salvador. Despite being a progressive politician she stuck to the annulment process when her first husband, the philosopher Bernard Williams, left her for another woman. And, as a candidate in Crosby, near Liverpool, it was to Archbishop Derek Worlock that she turned when the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC), lacking political judgment, sought to use local parishes to condemn her – not for being pro-abortion (she had pro-life views), but for refusing to take her political lines unquestioningly from SPUC in the future, rather than her conscience.  However, this is the life story of a professional Catholic politician rather than a professional Catholic. It is not ecclesiastical matters that rise and fall through the book’s pages, but questions of government and governance in the UK, the US, Europe and, more recently, the Balkans and the Middle East.

Williams is part of that generation of radical British centre and centre-left politicians who emerged in the years after the Second World War. Many passed through Oxford University thanks to a government scheme that allowed war veterans to take up scholarships for accelerated study. For them, the decadent, crypto-aristocratic dream of Brideshead Revisited was an irrelevance as they sought knowledge, skills and vision to make sense of, and civic contributions after the horrors of the war in which so many of them had fought. They tumbled into the Labour Party’s social democratic right, and the Conservative Party’s moderate ‘one nation’ social conscience, in pursuit of a new consensus that would grant equality in their time. The veterans included Denis Healey and Roy Jenkins and their allies included Shirley Williams at Oxford and, soon after, Roy Hattersley from Sheffield via Hull. Many of them, as this book reveals, are friends to this day.

So, Shirley Williams became General Secretary of the Fabian Society, MP for Stevenage, junior minister and cabinet minister. As the key pioneer of comprehensive education she finds herself perplexed even today at Tony Blair’s innovative enthusiasm for Academies and state school reform. A vital figure on the Labour right, she was a key architect in Labour’s progress until, having lost power, the party collapsed into a mess of recrimination and decay.

It was at this point in the narrative that I was expecting more detail, more description of the gut-wrenching frustration that flowed through the hearts and souls of those who would eventually come to found the Social Democratic Party in 1981.  While in the memoirs of David Owen and Roy Jenkins such frustrations are scattered across the pages, in Williams’s account the seismic impact of the ‘Limehouse Declaration’ and subsequent political events take on something akin to a religious analogy. For Williams, while she is working hard to found a new party and political force, it is almost as if she has not moved on ideologically but rather moved from one denomination that calls itself ‘social democratic’ to another, with the same discourse but a different address.

This is not just a political observation but a professional one too. In the years that follow, Williams emerges – despite her new institutional home in the SDP and then the Liberal Democrats – as an almost classic example of the senior Labour politician with strong US links, who shuttles between an Ivy League School, the UK campaign trail and the House of Lords. This is not a criticism because not since the moral stature of another post-war Catholic woman, Barbara Ward, has the English Catholic community given such female genius to the international community. It does, though, reveal just how many motivations, and networks of friendship and principle, were at play in the creation, sustenance and demise of the SDP, and the rise of the Liberal Democrats under Paddy Ashdown especially. One cannot but wonder how different, or more complicated, these may have been if Williams, rather than Roy Jenkins, had become the party’s first leader and had held a seat in Warrington, Crosby or Cambridge.

This is an admirable autobiography by an admirable human being. Particularly encouraging are the chapters that add news of the personal happiness found in marriage in later years to Harvard Professor Richard Neustadt, of the joy of being a grandparent, and of friendship and civic contributions across the political divide.

Underlying all of this, though, I couldn’t help noting how understated so much of this progress is. For Williams, there were no family political patrons or allies such as those enjoyed by Douglas Hurd in the Conservative Party or Roy Jenkins in Labour, nor any instinctive backing from the male bastion of the trade unions such as those upon whom Labour’s Hugh Gaitskill could rely. How interesting then, that after Williams has been grilled by an all-male parliamentary committee it is a young Margaret Thatcher who encourages her with the words ‘we mustn’t let them get us down’.  

It will be the responsibility of a future biographer to tease out just how costly, in personal and political terms, the struggles of this outstanding generation of public servants – and especially its female figures – have been. And that responsibility will be more than likely to include recording just how much a new generation owes them, no matter what their political or religious affiliation.

Francis Davis is a Fellow of Blackfriars Hall, Oxford and Visiting Fellow at the Helen Suzman Foundation, Johannesburg.

 Find this book on Virago's web site



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