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14 April 2021updated 13 Sep 2021 5:03am

Shirley Williams was a political pioneer, and with her death a curtain falls on a historic era

The late MP stood and spoke for three causes on which time has drawn a veil: ­Labour and the economy, education, and the SDP. 

By Philip Collins

If you exclude the victories won by Tony Blair, which the Labour Party disavows, then its last significant electoral victory was in 1964. That year a brilliant young woman called Shirley Williams was elected to parliament for the first time, as the MP for Hitchin. On 12 April Williams died, aged 90, and with her death the curtain falls on an era of British politics.

Williams really was as warm as all her obituary writers have noted. She was always popular and much more reassuring to non-Labour voters than the rebarbative Barbara Castle. I recall once being cast as the Blair-­defending pantomime ­villain at the Hay Festival to George Galloway’s extravagant dame. Williams sat between us, somehow lending dignity to our unedifying exchange.

Williams had that great quality of slowing an argument down when she spoke, so the light could get in. You noticed what a lovely voice she had; honeyed and authoritative at the same time. It is no wonder she was once in the running for the part that  Elizabeth Taylor took in National Velvet. On- and off-stage Williams was a class act.

Yet the affection expressed is more than personal; it is also political. The loss of ­significant political figures is always also the passing of the causes with which they were associated. Williams stood and spoke, with an eloquence unparalleled in her day, for three causes on which time has drawn a veil.

The first is the emptiness of the ­Labour Party on economic questions since the ­Callaghan government fell in 1979, an ­election in which the defeat of Williams in Stevenage was the Portillo moment. On YouTube you can watch an interview that Williams, then secretary of state for price control and consumer protection, gave in 1974 to Tony Bastable and Joan Shenton of Thames TV’s Good Afternoon!, in which she set out the effect of the recent Prices Bill. Never sounding less than reasonable, ­Williams declared that the aims of the bill were to cut the profit margins of retail ­companies by 10 per cent on fresh food and to provide subsidies for bread, milk, butter, flour and cheese.

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The interview is an astonishing missive from an ancient world. For someone as clever as Williams to think that government control of the price of cheese was a good idea is remarkable. It is an instinct for control that runs deep in the Labour Party.

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

Price controls and incomes policy had replaced nationalisation as the Labour ­expression of a desire to tame capitalism. That desire remains, and there is ­plenty of wild behaviour within capitalism that makes it ­attractive. Yet the Labour Party always struggles for a way to exert that control – a struggle that goes on.

The second cause is education. Williams’s biggest ministerial job was her appointment as secretary of state for education between 1976 and 1979. She liked to claim that she had created more comprehensive schools than anyone else, although that accolade probably belongs to Margaret Thatcher. But whichever of them was the true hero, the comprehensive movement did not live up to the hopes that Williams reposed in it.

Comprehensive schooling was supposed to be a royal road to equality. It never was, and the revisionists of the 1960s and 1970s always found it difficult to support Labour’s ­education policy during the Blair years because it seemed to them to rest on an  admission of failure.

Williams would have been a wonderful New Labour minister but she had left the party by then. The third cause, and the ­biggest gamble of her career, was to leave the Labour Party in 1981 and become the most popular of the quartet who formed the Social Democratic Party (SDP).

For a time it looked so promising. The SDP polled over 50 per cent at the height of its popularity. But the electoral system did its job of closing the door on new entrants and the SDP ended in acrimony in 1987 as the most storied instance of the failure of small parties. Williams joined the Liberal Democrats and, in time, witnessed a coalition with the Conservative Party that would have seemed inconceivable to her for most of her political life.

Though perhaps the world that never was opens up here. Perhaps if Williams had fought the Warrington by-election instead of Roy Jenkins she would have won. It was a Labour seat with a large Catholic population. She was the perfect candidate, but to her later regret she “quailed”, to use her own word.

In an article on Thatcher, Williams once wrote, perceptively, that character matters more than mind in politics. There should be more politicians whose memoirs are called Climbing The Bookshelves and who end up as teaching professors at Harvard University. But she lacked confidence and an instinct to kill. ­Perhaps if she had stood against Roy Jenkins for the leadership of the SDP in 1982, a contest she would probably have won, the momentum of the SDP may have been both greater and more sustained.

Perhaps. It is a word that occurs a lot in the contemplation of the life of ­Williams. Perhaps the mould might have been ­broken if Williams had the ego of ­David Owen. She was certainly his equal in ability, just not in the conviction that she was a woman of destiny.

“Perhaps” is the title of the most famous poem by Vera Brittain, Williams’s mother. Written in 1916, two years before the loss of her beloved brother during the First World War in combat in Italy, from which, by her own testimony she never fully ­recovered, Brittain wrote:

Perhaps some day the sun will shine again,
And I shall see that still the skies are blue,
And feel once more I do not live in vain,
Although I feel bereft of You. 

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

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