Shirley Williams had all the right beliefs – but was the patron saint of lost causes

Sean O'Grady
·3-min read
<p>She stood for moderation, but it rarely prevailed</p> (PA)

She stood for moderation, but it rarely prevailed

(PA)

About 40 years ago, Shirley Williams was one of the few women in politics to be considered remotely likely to become leader of a party and, even more remotely, prime minister.

In fact, there were few women in politics, full stop.

Insofar as anyone might have speculated, most would have put their money on Shirley Williams or her Labour colleague Barbara Castle, rather than Margaret Thatcher, who was in the supposedly more chauvinistic party and already had a reputation for strident haughtiness.

Mrs Williams, as she was known for most of her career, was much nicer – but her legacy, compared with that of Thatcher and Thatcherism, scant.

Alas, the political career of Shirley Williams is proof that being nice is not enough.

She lived a long, eventful life, mostly spent occupied by politics, partly in academia, and was motivated by all the right beliefs.

In her memoir Climbing the Bookshelves – a nod to her early ambition and book-filled comfortable childhood home in Chelsea – she states them clearly: “I have never understood or accepted that some people, through the accident of birth, should be so much richer, have so much greater opportunities and better access to education, health care and good housing than others.”

Fair enough, but Williams’s political career was an almost unbroken series of failures to change such injustices, and much of what she did achieve was reversed.

She was the education secretary who helped destroy the grammar schools, implementing comprehensives, only to see them blamed for a decline in standards and reformed out of existence by new Labour and Michael Gove.

She was the secretary of state for consumer affairs in a lost world when governments thought rising prices could be abolished by decree, persuasion and subsidies.

She thought social democracy was the wave of the future, whereas – as Denis Healey, a social democrat who stuck with Labour, pointed out – the SDP was merely promising a “better yesterday”.

She was one of the leading female figures of her time but never stood for the party leadership of either Labour or the SDP when she had the chance to “break the mould”.

She backed Nick Clegg, crucially, when the Liberal Democrats were deciding whether to enter coalition with David Cameron’s Conservatives. Whatever that experiment achieved – and history is becoming kinder towards it – the dangerous liaison smashed into irrelevance the Liberal Democrat party she had done so much to build.

She campaigned on the picket line during the 1970s Grunwick dispute for the automatic right of trade union recognition, and tirelessly in subsequent decades for proportional representation, European integration, equality, internationalism and refugees. All noble causes, all in almost permanent retreat.

She was assuredly one of the most popular politicians in the land, but never won an election after 1983. She stood for moderation, but it rarely prevailed.

The wonder of it is is that none of it was her fault. Williams was just the wrong politician for her times, much as she was a product of them and an eloquent advocate of the conventional wisdom of the day.

She worked hard, and seemingly never turned down an invitation to write or speak up for what she believed from a very young age.

Yet the panoramic scale of the defeats cannot be ignored.

In her time, Shirley Williams was regarded almost as a political saint, but it turned out she was the patron saint of lost causes.

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