LibLink: Vince picks out Shirley Williams as the female parliamentarian that he most admires from the last 100 years


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To celebrate the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote in the UK, House magazine have done an article where prominent MPs pay tribute to the female parliamentarian they most admire from the last 100 years.

They have the Speaker, John Bercow, paying tribute to Eleanor Rathbone. Andrea Ledsom writes about Nancy Astor. Cheryl Gillan and Emma Little-Pengelly talk of Margaret Thatcher. Baroness Smith and Angela Raynor pay tribute to Ellen Wilkinson, while Kirsty Blackman extols Winnie Ewing and Lord Fowler describes Baroness Swanborough (Stella Isaacs – the first female member of the House of Lords).

Vince Cable writes eloquently in tribute to Shirley Williams:

Shirley Williams is still one of the most recognisable and influential figures on the political landscape, even though she first became a minister half-a-century ago and her political life stretches over almost the whole of the post-War period.

Together with Margaret Thatcher and Barbara Castle, she was one of the dominant women politicians of that era with a long list of accomplishments. These included being the co-founder of a new party, the SDP, and, then, the Liberal Democrats, which I now have the honour to lead.

And the party has proved a lasting political force – this month marks the 30th anniversary the formation of the Lib Dems, which has become a party of both local and central government.

Shirley was also, with Roy Jenkins and Ted Heath, one of the most significant and committed Europeans in British politics and I know she feels personally the hurt of seeing that ideal under an existential threat. Shirley started her political life on the left as a teenager, in the Labour Party, and the egalitarian, social democratic ideas she espoused – and put into practice as Education Secretary in the late 1970s – remain essentially intact. She translated these principles into her personal life: she has always been unassuming and down to earth, but with a modern lifestyle.

She is a true liberal and this was reflected in the stands she took on race and immigration in the 1960s, capital punishment, prison reform and, later, the civil libertarian values of the Liberal Democrats.

You can read the full House magazine article here.

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15 Comments

  • Lorenzo Cherin 6th Mar '18 - 1:49pm

    Typical of Vince, eloquent but subtle ,well mannered and heartfelt, about one of the best people in our political history, Shirley Williams.

    She has been not just my favourite woman in politics, but , as someone who has never been one to need emphasis on gender because I am an egalitarian, and it is as an advocate for egalitarianism rather than feminism, I have felt keen, she has long been my favourite politician .

    A person who was in many ways the most impressive because she seems to be both very strong and powerful in her personality as well as warm and vulnerable in her humanity. Her descriptions of understanding towards her first husband, a philospher and academic, her marvellous development from years of friendship, into marriage with her second husband who was a thinker and adviser to John f Kennedy, her relationship with her daughter, all that she reveals is enough but not too much, to show her human and personal as well as more obvious professional role.

    I would say it is frustrating that I have met so many great, good, fair to middling politicians, from Foot, through Benn , Kinnock, and many in our party, but not Shirley Williams who is the bridge between my being once as a youth moderate Labour, and for so many years a Liberal Democrat.

  • Richard Underhill 6th Mar '18 - 4:09pm

    Shirley Williams is a good one. Principled: ” Some people have been doing something known as keeping your head down” … “It is time to stick your head up”
    Also the winner of the Crosby bye-election.

  • Richard Underhill 6th Mar '18 - 4:29pm

    Clementine Churchill was ennobled in May 1965 as Baroness Spencer-Churchill of Chartwell, sponsored by Lord Normanbrook and Lord Ismay. She sat on the cross-benches. She had never voted Tory. Winston had commented on her Liberalism.
    “In 1965 she attended the house thirteen times, voting for Abolition of the Death Penalty Bill on 20 July. She never voted again and never made a speech.” [Page 553 ISBN 0385 607415, Mary Soames nee Churchill]
    Her suffragist letter to the Times had annoyed PM Asquith.
    When Chamberlain resigned as PM Winston became PM of a three party coalition. When Chamberlain died Winston became leader of the Conservative party. Sources include Roy Jenkins and Winston himself. Mary Soames records that Clementine argued strongly that being PM of a three party coalition was a better way to unite the country in wartime. At the time the Labour party was in government and in opposition.

  • David Evans 6th Mar '18 - 4:52pm

    Now Shirley Williams is a woman politician who really deserves a statue.

  • Chris Rennard 6th Mar '18 - 5:00pm

    On Sunday, Vince was praising Roy Jenkins (rightly) as a great Liberal hero. I am glad that he pays tribute to Shirley Williams in the House Magazine. In 1981, Liberals (almost all of us) cheered Shirley to the rafters for her rally speech on the eve of the formation of the ‘Liberal SDP Alliance’ in which she spoke of addressing the issues of our ‘battered and unhappy world’. One of the greatest speeches at one of the greatest political events of my life. Later that year many of us cheered at the Marine Club in Crosby at the victory party for her by-election win (‘Shirl the Pearl’ was the song) and the Alliance soared to over 50% in the polls by the end of the year. When David Owen made the Alliance unworkable, Shirley was at the forefront of creating the Liberal Democrats and she ranks amongst the greatest politicians of the last 50 years. In my view, she should have been in the Cabinet in 2010 and she would have helped to promote the distinctive, liberal and just values that the Lib Dems were formed to promote.

  • John Marriott 6th Mar '18 - 5:07pm

    As Secretaries of State for Education, Margaret Thatcher and Shirley Williams closed down more grammar schools in the early 1970s than anyone else. It’s just a pity that they couldn’t have closed down the lot!

  • Yeovil Yokel 6th Mar '18 - 6:03pm

    A personal anecdote about Shirley Williams: in the 1970’s, just before taking my O-Levels, I wrote a hostile letter to her as the Education Secretary about the imminent conversion of my grammar school to a Sixth Form College ( I came from a True Blue Tory family, that all changed after 1979 when You-Know-Who became PM). Her reply was a model of promptness, pleasantness and reasonableness, but more to the point it was signed by her and must have been dictated in person by her, which even my then snotty right-wing 16-year old self appreciated.
    Contrast that to a few years ago when I wrote to the Transport Secretary (Justine Greening?) about the expansion of Heathrow, and received in reply many weeks later a patronising standard letter listing the government’s achievements and ambitions for the UK’s transport infrastructure which didn’t address a single point I’d raised and was signed by someone at a very low level within the Department.
    My parents used to say that Shirley Williams was the one Labour politician they admired, which coming from them was saying something.
    I agree that Shirley would be a good candidate for a statue, along with Barbara Castle.

  • Kath Fifield-Rhodes 6th Mar '18 - 9:08pm

    One of my proudest moments , and one that I’ll never forget, was Chairing a meeting when I had the pleasure of introducing Shirley Williams to the People of Plymouth. I was in the presence of my hero, and managed to say to her that she was the best Secretary for Education there had ever been ( or something along those lines). i will always be grateful that I was able to tell her personally what an inspiration she was to young women such as myself.

  • Neil Sandison 7th Mar '18 - 10:29am

    Shirley represents the best in our political movement a true social liberal who practiced what she preached throughout her political career .When she turned her attention to the issue for example the growth of a new underclass of left behind people in the 1980s she was miles ahead of Corbyn and his class warriors but she came up with solutions not the politics of envy now promoted within the Labour party she wasnt dragged along by the mob but steadfastly supported parliamentary representative democracy . Perhaps we should have an SLF award that represents the ethics and principles Shirley promoted.

  • Denis Loretto 7th Mar '18 - 2:23pm

    I had the honour of serving with Shirley as a member of the Joint Commission on Northern Ireland policy set up in 1984 by David Steel and David Owen as joint leaders of the Liberal/SDP Alliance. She made a major contribution to the report published in July 1985. The quality of the work was recognised by a lengthy leader in the Irish Times including this accolade –
    “The Report……is one of the most important documents published on the Anglo-Irish question in recent years……..it shows signs of hard work, rigorous thinking and a commendable attempt at objective analysis.”

    The report set out in detail how power sharing could work and was forthright in defence of civil rights and the rule of law including the conduct of justice. While stating that the status quo was not an option it upheld the principle of consent in pursuing change. It formed the core of Northern Ireland policy eventually inherited by the Liberal Democrats and much reflected in the terms of the eventual Good Friday Agreement..

  • Richard Underhill 7th Mar '18 - 3:29pm

    Yeovil Yokel 6th Mar ’18 – 6:03pm: Barbara Castle failed to push through her reforms despite the support of the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. The strikes of the winter of 1978-1979 affected the electability of Jim Callaghan, a trade-unionist with the IRSF.

  • As a then 19 year old, to be honest I didn’t know too much about Roy, David or Bill. But Shirley and her views had already made a big impact on me. Especially in the direct contrast to the inhumanity of Thatcher. So I joined the SDP, rather than Labour. And I found my political home. Thanks to Shirley and her views.

  • I’m for little Ellen Wilkinson –

    Suffragist, much loved MP for Jarrow, marched 300 miles to London with constituents in their demands for jobs, second ever woman Cabinet Minister (Education) raised school leaving age, providing milk for school children when we were still on rations, university scholarship money to local authorities – enabling me to go to University. Sadly died of pneumonia at only 55.

    London – Ellen Wilkinson (1947) – YouTube
    Video for ellen wilkinson▶ 1:06

  • Lets not forget Margaret Wintringham valiant Temperance advocate. The first woman Liberal MP.
    Lets not forget the Yellow Book, ‘We can conquer unemployment’ now recognized as a policy that would have reduced unemployment in the 1930s

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