LibLink: Vince Cable: Baroness Shirley Williams, the Lib Dem peer who defined British public life

Over at the New Statesman, Vince Cable has been reviewing Mark Peel’s new biography of Shirley Williams.

He starts off by expressing annoyance at the conclusion – and quite rightly, too, given her major contribution to national and international life over 6 decades:

She is, of course, approachable, informal, engaging and whatever else “nice” means. But “niceness” is also a dismissive put down, as in William Hague’s comment in an Oxford Union debate (quoted as the punchline of the introduction): “In politics, Mrs Williams, it isn’t enough to be nice.” And it misses the essential point, that she is an extremely interesting woman who has played a major role in British public life over a long period;

He points out that she had a professional background in economics, something she was never able to use in government:

Sexism also probably explains why in government Williams was not allowed to realise her ambition of an economic min­istry. The nearest she got was to be secretary of state for prices and incomes – part of the doomed project to curtail inflation through price controls – where she was deployed as the “housewife’s friend”. I am therefore somewhat baffled that, with that hinterland, she is so reticent in the current economic debate.

He also reminds us that she tackled a very contentious issue before he did:

Williams is now thought of almost exclus­ively as a politician who “broke the mould” while in opposition.  But before then, she served for almost a decade as a minister in government, where her achievements included piloting through parliament the  legislation to abolish capital punishment. I am indebted to her for her brief stint as higher education minister. She questioned for the first time the financial sustain­ability of mass free university education (there were then 635,000 students; now there are 3 million). She put forward 13 possible reforms, including student loans and longer terms. Outraged academics ceremoniously burned her polite questionnaires and students went to the barricades. When I had to grasp this nettle four decades later, I knew  I was in good company.

And the strength of this book?

Where the biography scores is less on the party politics – the Labour civil war and schism on the centre left is well trodden ground – than on the person behind the politician. Most commentators do not get much beyond Williams’s dress sense and unpunctuality. Peel describes a strange lack of self-esteem that prevented her (unlike Mrs Thatcher) from bidding for the top jobs,  and attributes this to the shattering of her self-confidence when her first husband went off with another woman. Her rather fitful engagement with party colleagues in the turbulent 1970s is explained in part by her role as a conscientious single mother,  as well as a politician.

You can read the whole article here.

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5 Comments

  • Spot on. Baroness Williams is nice, and it has been somehow turned into a putdown, curiously; but Shirley is tough as nails and doesn’t let things slide. (I can hear the NHS lobby complaining now — but she was able to reach a compromise. Despite the moaning — after all, the Government has to govern, and in order to save the NHS, it has to reform somehow to accommodate people living longer and provide research or tech and pharm advances, and other rapidly rising costs… ) She has taken many strong positions against the grain on a number of matters, including Europe — even when she was a cabinet minister against her own Prime Minister, remarkably. Just because she is civilised, her arguments are not diminished. When she talks, people listen: she has an amazing ability to recall information and present it clearly without patronizing people. Britain, and Europe, is better for having her voice heard, even if one doesn’t always agree with her. An incredible life lived and still living fully!

  • Leekliberal 24th Jan '14 - 6:50pm

    Oh! My heart missed a beat just momentarily as reading the title to this piece as I feared that Shirley had died. Like so many in our party I have been in love with her (spiritually) all my political life, envying her emotional lucidity in encapsulating exactly what I would want to say in any situation. Phew!

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 24th Jan '14 - 9:28pm

    Sorry, Leekliberal.

    I disagree with her on some issues where she is more socially conservative,but she is a real hero for me.

    And she called me spirited at a supper in Edinburgh last Summer when I described a tussle with the cybernats.

  • From the full article:

    “anyone inclined to underestimate Williams’s personality or her intellect should reflect on the serious relationships she had with men”

    Oh dear, Vince Cable….

  • Shirley Williams is a remarkable woman and has made a very significant contribution to politics in the UK.
    Her autobiography ”Climbing the bookshelves” is one of the best books I have read in the last few years. Unlike a lot of autobiographies by politicians is it iis both interesting and highly readable. But it also shows someone whose background is very unusual and whose understanding of political issues goes far deeper than some of he ramble contemporaries. The party should do more to celebrate Shirley!s contribution. I bought her book for my daughter because I thought it might be an inspiration.

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