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12 May 2010

The NS Interview: Shirley Williams

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

By Alyssa McDonald

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.

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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.

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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.