During a discussion marking the death of Margaret Thatcher in April 2012, the journalist and broadcaster Andrew Neil turned to Shirley Williams, the Liberal Democrat peer and former Labour Cabinet minister, and asked her why Thatcher had beaten her in the race to become Britain’s first female prime minister. It was a pertinent question because for many years Shirley had been everybody’s favourite to gain that particular accolade.
Five years the younger of the two, Shirley’s early years were gilded in comparison. Born in 1930 to eminent parents, especially her mother, the writer Vera Brittain, and given every opportunity to shine, Shirley not only inherited her parents’ restless ambition but also their intelligence, winning a scholarship to Oxford aged seventeen.
Going up to Somerville College in 1948, she immediately turned heads with her magnetic personality and all-round brilliance. Actress, journalist and esteemed public speaker with her marvellously husky voice, she became the first female chairman of the University Labour Club, convincing many of her contemporaries including Robin Day, later the renowned political broadcaster, that she was destined for Downing Street.
Ten years trying to enter Parliament while Labour languished in opposition in no sense silenced her supporters, for less than eighteen months after her election in 1964, she had climbed the first rungs of the ministerial ladder. A year later she was promoted to Minister of State for Education, enabling her to help usher in comprehensive education, Labour’s big idea at that time, and one which she passionately supported, before helping to quell the student unrest of 1968-69 with some judicious reforms. In a government which generally disappointed, she emerged as one of Labour’s rising hopes, a point noted by The Times during the 1970 election when it singled her out as a potential prime minister in the making.
Had Labour gained re-election, Shirley would almost certainly have won promotion to the Cabinet. Instead she was elected to the Shadow Cabinet and the National Executive Committee, Labour’s main policy-making body, at a time when the party was seriously divided over the Common Market and left-wing extremism. In this context her credentials as an ardent pro-European moderate- she was one of 69 Labour MPs to defy the party whip by supporting the Heath government’s application to join the Common Market- were slightly tarnished, so that by the time Labour returned to government in 1974, she had lost some ground in the Cabinet pecking order. Compelled to accept the new department of Prices and Consumer Protection in an age of mass inflation – she called it a ‘bed of nails’ -there was little she could do aid shoppers and consumers from rocketing prices.
A truer test of her ability would come at Education between 1976-79. A national outcry against the deficiencies of comprehensive education, real or imaginary, had persuaded the new Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan, to call for a great debate on education and a restoration of standards in the classroom. He looked to Shirley to deliver a programme of far-reaching reform, but up against the vested interests of the local authorities and teaching unions she was unable to make much headway. It is true that the Government’s minority status in the Commons and economic retrenchment did little to help her cause, but, equally, to her detriment was her tendency to procrastinate. According to David Owen, the Foreign Secretary 1977-79, she wasn’t at ease with responsibility and decision-making, while to Bill Rodgers, a friend from Oxford days and co-founder of the SDP, her brilliance as a public performer couldn’t mask her shortcomings; taking responsibility, managing a team, taking a risk and being unpopular.
By the time Shirley had moved to Education Thatcher had become leader of the Opposition. Although a competent Education Secretary in the Heath 1970-74 government, she seemed very much Shirley’s inferior lacking her charm, imagination and magnetic powers as a speaker, but compensated with her dogged determination and raw courage. Fully alive to the importance of a leader’s image, especially a female one, in a mass media age, she modernised her wardrobe, lowered her voice and projected the image of a meritocratic housewife, despite being married to a millionaire.
Such cosmetic tinkering was anathema to Shirley, but now in comparison with Thatcher, the crumpled dresses, dishevelled appearance and chronic lack of punctuality told of a disorganised lifestyle inappropriate for political leadership.
More important than the style was the substance. Although Shirley enjoyed the limelight, especially her countless media appearances at which she excelled and sitting on influential committees, she was much more ambivalent about being primus inter pares, let alone maximus optimus. Aside from the fear of an intrusive media prying into her personal life in the aftermath of her divorce to Bernard Williams, she lacked the inclination to get one over her rivals and make unpopular decisions , not least disciplining those dissenting from the party line. This may well have had something to do with her being a woman in a man’s world but such inhibitions never bothered Barbara Castle or Margaret Thatcher. Had she really gone all out for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party in October 1976 against the left-winger Michael Foot she very probably would have won and the party might well have been spared some of the travails it endured over the next two decades.
Shirley fought gallantly against the inexorable left-wing tide but found herself increasingly isolated and left Labour in 1981 to co-found the SDP. As Britain grappled with the savage recession of the early 1980s her consensual approach seemed preferable to Thatcher’s hard-nosed monetarism, but while the latter was prepared to take tough decisions, not least sending the fleet to the Falklands, Shirley once again vacillated. Not only did she fail to stand in the Warrington by-election of July 1981 when all runes appeared favourable, she later, as MP for Crosby, refused to contest the SDP leadership despite many people’s favourite to win. Within a year she was out of Parliament never to return, an anti-climatic ending to a career which promised so much.
Shirley Williams: The Biography by Mark Peel is available to buy in hardback for £25 at www.bitebackpublishing.com