Shirley Williams: a woman apart

13 April 2021

1:25 AM

13 April 2021

1:25 AM

Shirley Williams, the Liberal Democrat politician, died peacefully at her home this morning, aged 90. In 2009, our columnist Matthew Parris reviewed her autobiography, Climbing the Bookshelves, for the magazine:

Anticipate the demise of Gordon Brown. Imagine Labour’s search for a leader with voter-appeal. Picture a younger Shirley Williams, but with the experience and affection she already commands. Wouldn’t she be a powerful contender? Couldn’t a new Shirley Williams, updated for the 21st century and reinserted into the Labour Party, give the rest a run for their money? Lady Williams’s style of politics has weathered better than that of any of her erstwhile Labour contemporaries. She’s just the sort of thing they need.

Climbing the Bookshelves is the story of the woman who forsook all that, and what made her. The story of what made her is much the more interesting half. This is a better autobiography than many will have expected: sharper, franker, more self-critical, more vulnerable, and oddly more melancholy, for I think she thinks she’s failed.

Millions of us think we know her. We don’t. I’d imagined a comfortable childhood in a wealthy, intelligent setting: radical chic — but it’s all much spikier than that. Her mother, Vera Brittain, was certainly clever and radical, but her campaigning feminism, her furious pacifism, her remoteness as a parent and her intense friendships with other women conspired, with the strange insecurity of her husband (Shirley’s adoring father), to pitch the infant into what became a rather solitary, tomboyish girlhood, independent teens, bold twenties and the life of a pretty angry young woman. She climbed rocks, climbed roofs to see London burning, and scaled the under-girders of Chelsea Bridge. She insisted on going to a state school. Sent to America as a child during the war, she seemed almost to turn her back on home — and was pipped to the post for the leading role in National Velvet by the young Elizabeth Taylor.

After the war, and Oxford, and some extraordinary friendships and affairs, she worked as a cowman, a waitress and a shoe-polish maker; she failed as a journalist, made wretched by ambulance-chasing. Men kept falling for her — they do all through her life: close to death, the late Earl Russell (Conrad) told me with burning eyes how after his wife’s death he had come to adore Williams. Often she fell for them (an affair with Anthony King!) though as a teenager her crushes were for girls. As she left for America on a Fulbright scholarship Roger Bannister raced her departing train bearing a bunch of flowers. She doesn’t name-drop, but names — personal friends — glide, glittering across these pages like newsflashes across the hoardings of Times Square: Kenneth Tynan, Herbert Morrison, Peter Parker, Hubert Humphrey, Clem Attlee, Nancy Astor (‘not with that hair,’ said Astor, on hearing of young Shirley’s political ambitions), Marshal Tito’s doctor (he had to swim out to sea with Williams before he risked talking), Margaret Thatcher (she told Williams ‘we can’t let [men] get the better of us’) … and all this before she became famous.

But for me the biggest, and saddest, surprise is to realise how being left by her first husband, Bernard Williams, my Cambridge philosophy professor, cut her up. I remember the stickers ‘Vote Shirley Williams’ on the back of his car, and noting his eye for the prettiest and liveliest female undergraduates; and supposing this was a marriage of convenience. Not so — not for her. Though her Catholicism emerges more insistently than I had expected, the failure of her marriage hurt her in the most personal way too; you can feel how even now it wrenches at her innards — as her love of her only child (among many miscarriages), Rebecca, keeps shining through. Lady Williams is hardly a confessional writer; her opinions of others are mostly hinted at, she never gushes, and you can tell she doesn’t find writing intimately about herself easy. The personal is understated. It is, however, there.

I’d always thought her cheerfully unstylish and unkempt. Not so. You sense the pain as she confesses that Roy Jenkins and his friends ‘made me feel pedestrian and clumping’; you feel for her when she writes about ‘an anagram of my name: “I whirl aimlessly” … it was both wounding and clever.’ You wince with her at David Owen’s scorn. You turn the pages waiting for her to take her revenge — and then you read: ‘What [Roy Jenkins] failed to recognise was my lack of self-confidence. I readily conceded … that Roy was a greater person than I was.’

That is more than modesty. It is a sincere disbelief in the primacy of her opinions, or the infallibility of her political judgment. Her small-s socialism (stronger than I’d known: her core belief being that ‘I’ve never understood or accepted that some people, through the accident of birth’ should have so many advantages denied to others) is fiercely felt rather than coolly argued. She is hesitant about sweeping judgments, personal remarks or abstract reasoning. This reticence is perhaps why the second, more political, half of the book, tracing her progress through and out of the Labour Party, to the Limehouse Declaration, and onward through the rise and fall of the SDP and her final entry into the Liberal Democrat fold, was less gripping to this reader.

The history of that political tale is rather well done, the framework carefully traced; but a framework leaves spaces for something more idiosyncratic: a shin-kick here, a stiletto there, a scattering of revealing anecdotes or colourful pen-portraits. Shirley Williams turns out (again to my surprise) to be a fine stylist with a plain-speaking but sometimes poetic turn of phrase, but her career judgments are reserved and polite — except perhaps about herself. ‘… I thought of myself as not quite good enough,’ she writes at the end, ‘for the very highest positions in politics … I accepted the criticisms made of me, that I was disorganised and lacked a ruthless killer instinct.’

If you’re anything like me, you’re torn on Shirley Williams. At times she has seemed the very embodiment of the shying-at-fences that disfigured the politics of the pre-Thatcherite British Centre. At others she has seemed to represent so much that is decent in our national life. I’m a sucker for that profoundly upper-middle-class classlessness that Englishwomen of a certain age and background can breathe out. I’m drawn to the brisk decency, the unpompous public-spiritedness, and the sense of personal honour that for four decades in politics she has radiated. Yet at the same time I’m baffled by a mismatch between the warm and muzzy ideological haze in which Shirley Williams has appeared to drift, and those key moments of huge moral courage with which this haze has been punctuated. No one can use the word cowardly of a woman who risked (and arguably lost) everything on an angry, principled move to found a new force in British politics. No one can call a minister brave whose response to inflation was to spearhead a campaign of sticking approving red triangles onto the windows of shops that promised to keep their prices down.

So I’m baffled about Shirley. I think she is, a bit, too. You’ll like her, though, if you read this book.

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