I hesitate to write about politics here, but I have long since realised that the bubbles in which we live - both real world and online - are very small, meaning that my posts are read largely by people of remarkably similar mind-set. I have therefore concluded that there is little risk of causing offence by breaking the traditional “no politics, no religion” rule. And in any case, there is only so much that can be said about diabetes without repeating oneself or others, so I have always taken opportunities to write about other topics, if only for the enjoyment I derive from gathering and expressing thoughts.
So here’s a piece about Shirley Williams, a politician whom I greatly admired, who died this last Monday, April 12th 2021 at the age of 90. One reason to write about her is that I have been forcefully reminded of the passing of the years by my recent Ruby Anniversary, which inevitably brought reflections on the world of 1981 and what has changed since then, so her death 40 years after her greatest fame was somewhat more poignant for me. Given that you have to be over 50 years old to have any clear direct memory of Shirley Williams in her prime, I hope that those who do not remember the events of the early ‘80s will be interested to read my perspective on those interesting days, particularly as I also had an indirect personal connection to her which may be of interest.
Deaths of the famous rightly provoke much reflection and retrospection; this week of all weeks in particular, as the passing of Prince Philip gave us a foretaste in “Operation Forth Bridge” of what will happen when we finally get to “Operation London Bridge”. On the whole I have appreciated and enjoyed the way in which Philip’s death has been marked, and whilst the haters have been rather too visible on social media, I think the vast majority of us recognise and understand that a remarkable man who achieved a great deal in an enormously difficult role deserved to be the subject of such attention, respect and even love.
But the less well documented death of Baroness Shirley Williams perhaps deserved greater attention. It reminded me that she was a politician whose contribution to recent history could perhaps have been much greater. The fact that I was obliquely connected to her through a mutual friend who was her mentor has given her death added significance for me.
She is certainly one of several “might have been” figures of recent political history, notably on the centre left, taking her place alongside Tony Crossland, John Smith, Alan Johnson, David Milliband and Ed Balls as people who had more to offer than political circumstances allowed, and who might perhaps have steered the country on a different course had they had the opportunity to become Prime Minister. Obituaries such as the one linked to her name above, or this from the Guardian rightly drew attention to her self-confessed shortcomings, but there is no doubt that she was for some years considered to be a potential Prime Minister.
So what was my connection to Shirley Williams? Well she was a close friend and protégée of my late family friend Margaret Higginson, who was Headmistress of Bolton School (Girls’ Division) from my mother’s time as a teacher there. Margaret was one of the leading educationalists of her time, a mildly eccentric, lovable spinster, a “schoolma’am” whom my mother had befriended back in the seventies by including her in many of our family events and outings, recognising that being an unmarried headmistress of such a prestigious school was in fact a lonely job, especially in the holidays. My mother popped her head round the door of the Head’s study on the last day of term and found the normally stoical Miss Higginson looking tearful, and when my mother asked if she was OK, she admitted that holidays were a lonely time for her. Mother invited her for tea a couple of days later, and she gladly accepted. Thereafter she became to me and my brother Chris an aunt-like figure, a frequent visitor to our home, an extra on family outings and a guest at our respective weddings. She loved serious conversation, and I remember her talking proudly of an ex-pupil named Shirley from her time teaching in London, who had become a Labour MP. Despite leading a traditional grammar school, which under her headship became an independent school rather than turning comprehensive, Margaret was a socialist intellectual, whose headship of Bolton School was characterised by constant reminders to the girls in her care that they were privileged to be at the school, and therefore morally obliged to give back to society both whilst at school and in their lives beyond it.
As Shirley Williams rose to prominence, becoming a Cabinet Minister under Harold Wilson’s third administration in 1974, I was always aware of her connection to Miss Higginson and I followed her rise to prominence with not only that personal interest but also with admiration for her manifest authenticity, her ability to connect to people and her espousal of moderate socialism.
Sadly, her cabinet career proved to be short-lived: a few years after her joining the Cabinet, the country had moved on in a contrary direction. Harold Wilson resigned out of the blue in March 1976, provoking enduring conspiracy theories, and his successor Jim Callaghan fell victim, like another unelected Labour PM Gordon Brown 30 years later, to a sense that he was a weak leader without the full authority of an electoral mandate. A badly-judged response by his government to public sector strikes in what became known as the “winter of discontent” of 1978-79 allowed the Tories under their new leader Margaret Thatcher to portray Labour as being in the pockets of over-powerful trade unions, and to perpetuate a narrative which has persisted to this day that the late 70s were a period of chaos and decline. My own memories of the period, and to a good extent economic, social and political data, beg to differ.
Nevertheless Thatcher was elected, and whilst the event was rightly heralded as a step forward for women’s rights, it was already clear that Mrs T was, as Spitting Image so cuttingly portrayed her, more like a ruthless, ideologically driven man in women’s clothing. I was living in France at the time, and on more than one occasion I had cause to caution ill-informed female French feminist friends who were excited by Britain’s taking a leap forward for gender equality by electing a woman Prime Minister. “Attention - du point de vue politique, c’est un homme” are words I recall uttering more than once to bemused observers.
I don’t think that history has proved me wrong, but for a brief period early in Thatcher’s reign, a very different woman, Shirley Williams, offered a tantalising glimpse of what a less dogmatic female leader could offer the country. In early 1981, with the country reeling under the effects of the first doses “Thatcherism”, by which what was now very clearly a radical right-wing government was seeking to roll back the power of the Trade Unions and the State with a degree of ruthlessness which, however justifiable some of her aims, was proving difficult for many - including me - to stomach. Unfortunately, the Labour opposition was doing what losing parties often do in response to heavy defeats, namely shifting to its own extremes under the worthy, admirable but unelectable Michael Foot. Interestingly, history repeated itself, as it always does in politics, when Labour under the equally unelectable Jeremy Corbyn handed Boris Johnson and Brexit victory on a plate in 2019.
However, in 1981, things suddenly got very interesting. Despairing at Labour’s lurch to the left, a new “Centre Party” was formed by a group of four ex-Labour ministers, David Owen, Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins and Bill Rogers, who left their party and formed a new group, the Social Democratic Party. I was delighted: the SDP was a natural home for me, having long called myself a social democrat, not least because of my admiration for what social democracy had achieved in post-war West Germany. I was newly-married and by two coincidences the SDP story became entwined in our lives in a manner which was briefly exhilarating and exciting: Firstly, in autumn 1981 Shirley Williams bravely announced that she would fight the safe Conservative seat of Crosby, North Liverpool in a by-election caused by the death of the sitting MP. The newly-retired Miss Higginson - or “Higgy” as she was always known to us - announced that she would campaign for her protégée, indulging her own lifelong moderate socialism, free of the need to supress her true political colours. Moreover, in her famously and lovably insensitive manner, she invited herself to stay with us in Southport, having realised that she could commute with my wife to Crosby throughout the final week of a campaign which was by then making national and international headline news.
|Shirley Williams campaigning in Crosby, Autumn 1981,
flanked by Bill Rogers & David Owen
Then there was a second coincidence: a colleague of my wife’s, a young maths teacher named John Backhouse, was standing as the Labour candidate in the by- election. Backhouse was typical of the Merseyside Labour Party of the time, extreme left and with little grasp of the realities of life in Thatcherite Britain, but it quickly became apparent that Shirley Williams was a real contender, thanks to her erudite, eloquent, pragmatic and moderate policies and her engaging and caring manner. My wife’s school was very much a centre of activity during the campaign, and as Higgy came home every day with tales from the doorsteps of Crosby, we felt genuinely connected to a story that was causing so much attention. On the eve of the election, with a sense of a political earthquake in the air, we attended an SDP rally, accompanied by Higgy, addressed by all four of the now famous “Gang of Four”. It was a truly exhilarating event, with the feeling of a new political beginning very real. Shirley Williams duly won a decisive victory in what had been a rock solid Tory seat and for a few months, with unemployment soaring and Margaret Thatcher proving to be divisive and inflexible, it really looked as if this centrist force could consign Thatcherism to history as a short, failed experiment.
But then in April 1982, General Galtieri’s Argentinian Junta took the fateful decision to invade the Falkland Islands, giving Thatcher the opportunity to transform herself almost overnight into a latter-day war leader, dispatching a task force to an ultimately successful old-fashioned war with a frankly incompetent and ill-equipped enemy. The political tide turned, Thatcher won two more elections, transforming the UK forever, and the SDP died a long and lingering death. I had joined the party and done a bit of door-knocking and leafletting for the May 1982 local elections in Southport, but it was immediately apparent, even on the doorsteps of Birkdale, that Galtieri had unwittingly saved Thatcher.
Shirley Williams lost her seat at the next General Election, and remained a public figure of significant influence, as the many tributes paid to her have acknowledged, but never came anywhere near power again. As a peer, she exemplified exactly what members of the House of Lords should be, namely a wise old head and a mentor and advisor to younger, less experienced politicians of all persuasions. She was a frequent guest on shows like BBC’s Question Time, often as a nuanced voice of opposition to prevailing trends, and her lifelong pro-European views came to the fore during the grim years of national infighting over Brexit.
Meanwhile, centenary commemorations of the First World War brought fresh attention to her mother Vera Brittan’s wonderful book “Testament of Youth”, as powerful a telling of the impact of that conflict on those left behind as I have ever read.
I met Shirley again relatively late in her life when she was a speaker at the memorial service to Miss Higginson, held at Bolton School in 2010. It was a difficult day for me, as my brother and I took our mother, who was at the time displaying rapidly worsening symptoms of the Alzheimer’s Disease which was about to consume her, and in the event that was the last time she attended any sort of public social event. Shirley Williams was eloquent and generous in her tribute to Higgy, and was every bit the sharply attentive conversationalist that her public persona suggested.
Her death leaves me reflecting, not for the first time, that politics at the highest level is not really a game for those who display the most authentically human, or should I say humane, qualities. My own fifty-plus years of keen interest in politics tells me that almost all of the most appealing characters - from all parties - are those who never sought, or were overlooked for, high office: Alan Johnson, Sir Peter Bottomley, Sir Gerald Kaufman, Harriet Harman, Ed Balls, Alan Duncan and many more. Conversely, the most successful Prime Ministers of modern times - Churchill, Wilson, Thatcher, even Blair were successful despite very apparent character defects which made them less than attractive to many, yet eminently electable, highly successful, and indeed admired by many. I cannot help but speculate that history may add Johnson to that list.
I don’t believe this "nice guys don't win" thing to be confined to politics: in many walks of life, the toughness required to be a successful leader is difficult to find in “nice” people, and certainly in high-profile management roles, most obviously football management, the ruthless streak required is commonly found to be an essential prerequisite for success. It is no coincidence that I, a pragmatist, conciliator and conflict-avoider, never sought seriously to climb the greasy pole of school management.
A depressing conclusion? Well perhaps it is, but then again, I do believe that it “takes all sorts”, and among the many things that the past year or so has taught us is to value authentic human values such as kindness and generosity, and to look for true heroism among the unsung heroes like nurses and research scientists, and to value those who say less and do more. The relative silence emanating from the White House since January has been a refreshing pleasure after the incessant nasty “noise” generated by its previous occupant. The meek may not inherit the earth, but the earth is a better place because of them, and thankfully they are in the majority.
It’s my blog, so it needs a song title: how about The Land of Make Believe by Bucks Fizz? A UK No1 from the heyday of Shirley Williams and the SDP in early 1982, a song derided at the time but now rightly lauded as an overlooked classic. The “land of make believe” is the one where the UK elects a modest, gentle, conciliatory Prime Minister, but by a nice coincidence, the writer of that song claims, somewhat spuriously I have to say, that it was an anti-Thatcher song. Really?
Something nasty in your garden's waiting
Patiently, till it can have your heart
Try to go but it won't let you
Don't you know it's out to get you running
Keep on running
They're running after you babe..
Maybe it is an anti-Thatcher song. Either way, enjoy it here, and think of an alternative reality from 1982 onwards in which Galtieri hadn't invaded the Falklands, Thatcher had only lasted one term, and Shirley Williams had risen to high office, even PM.
Now that is, truly, a Land of Make Believe.