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14 April 2021

First Thoughts: Shirley Williams, the SDP’s lost leader, and what the Duke of Edinburgh knew

As a politician, Shirley Williams was a trailblazer, engaging and popular with the public; if only her SDP co-founders, and Williams herself, had recognised that.   

By Peter Wilby

Shirley Williams, who has died aged 90, really was as nice as her popular image. I was a young reporter in the early 1970s when the Observer sent me to report a Saturday speech of hers. Thanks to transport delays, I arrived late and, for my benefit alone, she more or less repeated the speech, reading for nearly 20 minutes from her scribbled notes and pausing to answer my questions while ignoring Labour aides pressing her to move to another engagement.

The contrast with Margaret Thatcher, for one of whose speeches I was also late, was striking. “Excuse me while I deal with the press for a moment,” Thatcher commanded Tory admirers clamouring for her attention. It was indeed a moment: Thatcher brusquely told me to consult a press officer.

[See also: Shirley Williams was a model politician and human being]

The Great Debate

Williams then seemed the more likely to become Britain’s first woman prime minister. But as a departmental minister, she was uninspiring and indecisive. Appointed education secretary in 1976, she launched a “Great Debate” on schools, which were accused of failing to give children skills that employers needed. Jim Callaghan, the PM, hoped for agreement on a national curriculum. Williams presided over a series of regional meetings in which the public were supposed to have their say. She made a great show of listening, with eager, bird-like movements of the head, while a familiar cast of teachers’ union leaders, college principals, heads of quangos and employers’ representatives delivered prepared speeches. In Bradford, which then had 30,000 citizens of Asian heritage, the 200 “delegates” included not a single non-white face until panicked officials enlisted two at the last minute. Neither spoke.

No national curriculum emerged until the Tories imposed one a decade later. The net effect of the “Great Debate”, one historian observed, was “to prepare the soil for a breakthrough by the radical right”.

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[See also: Shirley Williams was a political pioneer, and with her death a curtain falls on a historic era]

A better bet

Though she went into politics with far more cultural capital than Thatcher – her mother, Vera Brittain, was a distinguished feminist, author and pacifist – Williams, on her own admission, was overawed by male political colleagues. Despite her public popularity, she didn’t stand against Roy Jenkins for the leadership of the Social Democratic Party, which they co-founded as members of “the gang of four” Labour defectors in 1981. “I didn’t think I was good enough,” she said.

The SDP, in alliance with the Liberals, drew support from all social classes and regions. That was its problem. In the 1983 election, it got 26 per cent of the vote, but, under the first-past-the-post system, just 23 seats. It needed far more support to “break the mould”. Jenkins wasn’t personally popular enough to achieve that. Williams, with her untidy hair and permanently distracted manner (remind you of anybody?), could have been a better bet.

Gazing at the Gainsboroughs

The Duke of Edinburgh has been portrayed as a “Renaissance man” in tributes since his death aged 99. His interests and talents, we are told, were not confined to traditional masculine pursuits such as shooting, flying, yachting, polo, cricket and carriage driving.

Jennie Bond, the BBC’s former royal correspondent, declared the duke “a prolific reader” with a “personal library” of 13,000 books, “many of them with deep, philosophical content”. Andrew Marr hailed him as “a radical who loved poetry and philosophy” as well as “devouring books on management”. Max Hastings detected a passion for history. According to Tim Heald, a biographer, he owned 203 poetry books. The physicist Brian Cox “discussed cosmology” with him “at a lunch”. Other accounts identified the duke as a pioneering environmentalist, compared his oil paintings to those of the French post-impressionist Pierre Bonnard and claimed that he roamed Windsor Castle at night with a torch to view the Gainsboroughs.

Forgive my scepticism, but owning thousands of books doesn’t mean you’ve read them. And who wouldn’t discuss cosmology if they had lunch with Cox, or look at the Gainsboroughs if they spent time at Windsor? 

[See also: The greatest tribute to Prince Philip is not media panegyrics, but the silence of republicans]

This article appears in the 14 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Careless people