Shirley Williams stood out. I remember seeing her on the platform at that special Labour conference in January 1981. I was ten, and knew very little about the substance of what was unfolding, but I remember thinking how brave, lonely and pleasant she seemed in the midst of all that turmoil with Labour delegates berating, dismissing or pleading with her. When the Social Democratic Party was founded a few months later, it felt fresh and exciting and Shirley was the main reason that was so, because she exuded a special kind of star quality – a charisma based upon unrivalled grace and reasonableness. There was an approachable, honest ordinariness about Shirley which contrasted with the pompous flannel of others in political leadership. People liked the cut of Shirley Williams’s jib.
On the day she passed away, I heard Neil Kinnock remark that of the “Gang of Four” who left Labour to form the SDP, “she was the only one we missed”, which is an unfair thing to say of Roy Jenkins, David Owen and Bill Rodgers. But Kinnock’s comment is a reminder of how Shirley’s opponents saw her. Even those who were furiously opposed to her because she left Labour, or introduced comprehensive schools or fought for British engagement with Europe, couldn’t really muster a bad word about her on a personal level.
I joined the Liberals in 1986 but I was never one of those members who disliked the SDP. Had you asked me back then which politicians I most admired, I’d have said David Steel, David Penhaligon and Shirley Williams. Because you can’t fake authenticity.
I first saw Shirley in the flesh when she waved at a group of us from the back of a campaign truck alongside Liberal MP David Alton and then-Liberal candidate (now Labour MP) Rosie Cooper during the Knowsley North by-election in 1986. I met her properly at the inaugural conference of the Liberal Democrats in 1988.
The merger of the SDP and the Liberals was a complex and traumatic affair. You’ve heard of messy divorces, well, this was a messy marriage. Shirley was instrumental in the eventual emergence of the Liberal Democrats, offering soothing overtones to all sides and showing passion for the project.
The new party bore the dreadful and cumbersome name Social and Liberal Democrats and it came into being in March 1988. The party’s first conference of any kind was a North West Regional gathering the Saturday after its formation. Shirley was the guest speaker and I got to meet her. I remember her kindness and the genuine interest she showed as she asked about my politics A-level – I also recall how mesmerising, fluent and unflappable she was from the rostrum despite the appalling, amateurish shambles of that first conference, with a badly stitched, misspelt banner behind her reading “Social and Liberal Demorats”.
That day, Shirley offered a model to me of how to be a Liberal Democrat. Speak passionately, be clear, be engaging and human – and don’t be afraid to take the mickey out of yourself and your party if, as above, we sometimes come across as a shambles.
That day I also asked Shirley what she made of comedian Kenny Everett’s sketch on her and the satirical song “Waiting For The Hairdresser”. She thought it was funny and clearly wasn’t offended. Personally, as well as politically, Shirley was all substance and couldn’t give a hoot about style… indeed, that was her style. Be yourself, she once told me, and no one will ever “find you out” because there will be nothing to find out.
In later years, I often saw Shirley up in my constituency in the Lakes, largely because that was where she spent her childhood summers at the home of her godfather, Henry Leigh Groves. He bequeathed to the people of Westmorland the Holehird mansion, which is now a Leonard Cheshire care home threatened with closure – as it was 15 years ago when Shirley helped us to save it. We will fight to save it again in her honour. Leigh Groves also bequeathed to the people of Westmorland the bed of Windermere lake. I once joked to Shirley that, in a parallel universe, she had inherited the estate and was now the owner of England’s largest lake. “Hmm,” she replied, “it would’ve made a rather nice prize in a Lib Dem raffle.”
Never meet your heroes, they say. Well, I met mine and I wasn’t disappointed. God rest you, Shirley.