Climbing the Bookshelves: the Autobiography

For all the publicity they attract, very few politicians, even of the first rank, leave much of a mark on society. Shirley Williams is one of the select few to have done so. She will be remembered as an inspirational moral force, one of the first generation of prominent female politicians, unique in her appeal to the British liberal conscience.

Williams's career began in earnest 55 years ago, when she fought the Harwich by-election at the age of 24. It continues today as she sits
in the House of Lords and continues to make regular, and always commanding, appearances in the media.

At one point in this candid and thoroughly engaging autobiography, she discusses the difference between courage and fearlessness. She claims for herself the second quality rather than the first, describing it as an instinctive cast of mind rather than an attribute of character. Few readers, I suspect, would agree. Courage shines through every phase of her life. Her remarkable parents endowed her with much of her self-confidence, as well as her outlook on life (particularly on sexual equality), though they shipped her off to the American Midwest at the age of ten in anticipation of a possible German invasion. It was three years before she returned.

While a student at Oxford, Williams did as much acting as politics, including Cordelia to Peter Parker's King Lear. Few of us, in the 1970s and 1980s, realised just how much her strong and reassuring public face masked deep personal vulnerability and insecurity, as she struggled, a single parent in a boozy, aggressive, male-dominated political world of endless late-night votes. "Like many women of my generation and of the generation before mine," she writes here, "I thought of myself as not quite good enough for the very highest positions in politics."

This explains the biggest missed opportunity of her career, one that left me, a student SDP activist at the time, aghast: her decision not to fight the Warrington by-election of July 1981, which she would surely have won. (Roy Jenkins assumed the mantle and came within 1,800 votes of winning.) She describes this as "probably the single biggest mistake of my political life . . . My reputation for boldness, acquired in the long fight within the Labour Party, never wholly recovered."

It is this intertwining of the personal and the political that makes Climbing the Bookshelves so compelling - to my mind, the best autobiography by a left-of-centre politician since the memoirs of Jenkins and Denis Healey. She even quotes, describing it as "wounding and clever", the anagram of her name put about by those who criticised her indecisiveness: "I whirl aimlessly."

Would Shirley Williams have made a good party leader and prime minister? She clearly lacked the killer instinct to go for the job in a serious fight, standing aside even from contesting the SDP leadership in favour of Jenkins, which cost the Alliance dear in the 1983 general election. But had leadership been thrust upon her, her immense popularity and common sense, combined with a steely femininity every bit as powerful as Margaret Thatcher's, may have proved highly appealing. How she would have coped with the compromises of the liberal in high office - she is highly critical of Tony Blair on this score - we shall never know.

Andrew Adonis is Secretary of State for Transport

This article first appeared in the 28 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter