The NS Interview: Shirley Williams

“Nick’s surge was too soon. The soufflé had time to stop rising.”

You've spoken out against a Lib-Con coalition. Could that still be on the cards?
I don't think there's going to be a coalition. There might be an arrangement in which we would not vote down initial Tory Budget proposals, but Nick Clegg has been pretty resolute on Europe. When the Tories put a ring fence around that, I think they knocked out the pros­pect of a coalition.

What about a Lib-Lab coalition?
I'm rather anti-coalition because the lesser party almost always gets a rough deal. But I like the idea of a major reform act, taking in expenses control, reform of the Commons, of the Lords and of the select committee system.

Is that a realistic goal, given the current confusion in the House of Commons?
If you had a committee representing all three parties reporting back before summer recess, one could get in the reforms which were half-cooked before the end of parliament.

Whom do you want as prime minister by then?
I can't answer that question - but under David Cameron or Gordon Brown, I hope there will be an interim period to deal with the immediate crisis, to calm the markets down.

Where did Gordon Brown go so wrong with the public?
I have a lot of time for him, but he let himself be consumed by the idea that he'd been cheated of his natural inheritance by Tony Blair. Gordon is from a different era of politics. Now, everything is soundbitey. It rewards the immediately attractive, often the superficial.

That style of politics seems to suit Nick Clegg very well.
He does believe in things, actually. Leon Brittan offered him support to become a Conservative candidate, but he refused. He is first-generation Liberal Democrat - neither a Liberal nor a Social Democrat, but something new.

Why didn't that enormous swell of approval he enjoyed translate into seats?
Arguments about lack of experience and the weakness of a hung parliament hit home. And Nick's surge was too soon. The soufflé had time to stop rising.

You taught at Harvard's School of Government for over a decade. Can British politics learn lessons from the US system?
I dislike the American system very much, including the primary system. It is run almost entirely by money. The UK is just hanging on by its fingernails, because of the limit on what can be spent during an election. Michael Ashcroft has already undermined that by spending lavishly before the election was called.

Financially speaking, the three main parties are hardly on a level playing field.
If there's another election in the next year, my party will be crippled - we're not rich. Labour will be semi-crippled. And the Tories will float in on a vast sea of Ashcroft money.

Are there other parliamentary structures we can learn from?
Ireland has more women in parliament than we do, despite having a much more patriarchal history. It is primarily because of the voting system. For me, the right system is the Single Transferable Vote.

Are you disappointed by the state of women's representation in parliament?
We're slipping backwards - it's terribly depressing - and not just in numbers, but influence. In 1974, Barbara Castle and I drafted the Labour manifesto and played a major part in the campaign. Now you have to hunt for a woman.

Did you expect us to be doing better by now?
We've all fallen for endless media pictures of leaders' wives. It's almost 19th century.

You published a memoir last year, Climbing the Bookshelves. Your mother, Vera Brittain, is famous for hers. Did you feel her influence?
I don't really write the sort of book my mother did. But I admire her. She was brave - denouncing the saturation bombing of Germany in 1944 was hardly popular, but she was right.

When did you last look at Testament of Youth?
Well, I have just been given a DVD of the TV adaptation, so I'm pleased to say yesterday.

You have been a politician since 1964. Was there a plan?
I became madly keen on Labour while I was still at school. I got wrapped up in it all and imagined it would be the dream of my life to become an MP. That's why I stood at 23.

What would you like to forget?
I always accepted the lesser role - deputy this or deputy that - which is what women do. And looking back, I wonder if I had to.

Are we all doomed?
It's not better than evens. We avert our eyes from the challenges we face, environmental ones above all. You can't live like that for ever.

This article first appeared in the 17 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, On a tightrope

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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