Shirley Williams on A life in politics

The Daily Politics has been running a series of interviews with political figures in their A Life in Politics series.

This week it was Shirley Williams talking about her varied career and personal life. Look back not he formation of the SDP, her passion for education reform and the prospects for the Liberal Democrats in the election, saying “we’re bound to be a main factor in another coalition.” Oh, and don’t call her indecisive.

We reckoned it was perfect to listen to over breakfast before heading out for a day’s campaigning. Enjoy.

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  • Further evidence that Shirley Williams talks human.

    Let’s hope she is right about the May election.

  • Eddie Sammon 24th Jan '15 - 9:18am

    Very interesting. Thank you. She achieved a lot at a young age.

  • Helen Tedcastle 24th Jan '15 - 9:46am

    Shirley Williams is my political heroine . I admire her greatly and what she did for education in this country. She got rid of an iniquitous system, which I very much hope is consigned to history.

    But we must remain vigilant.

    We can still learn a great deal from her.

  • I sometimes think ‘Oh, not again’ when she appears on Question Time, but she is a star and almost always speaks absolute common sense. It’s a pity we don’t have more like her.

  • All well and good but can you point to Law’s or Policies that Helped people of this country She is Responsible for??

  • Shirley Williams is one of those rare people in any profession who can go by one name – Shirley. When she appears on the television, I usually stop to watch — sharp, concise, and quick to laugh. I am at a loss as to why reporters ask her about decisiveness — she doesn’t come across at all as being anything but decisive , very well-informed,and self-assured. Perhaps it’s because she is a politician who actually listens to people, but that doesn’t make her appear indecisive. As far as grammar schools go, she is absolutely correct in her policy change (a policy change supported by Conservative Education Secretary Margaret Thatcher, by the way — indeed, why leave 85% of students behind from earning a university degree – crazy). It wasn’t Shirley Williams who “dumbed-down” society/education, I blame parents and television, myself. Pick up a book I say, young (and old) people. I am also amused about how she deflects and understates modestly (?) her role in any possible future coalition in the BBC clip — she gives generous credit and deference to the Leadership — does anyone believe that Her Ladyship won’t have a substantial and active role (at least that’s my most sincere hope!!) in anything related to legislative, elective, and party politics? Very amusing.

  • Chris Rennard 24th Jan '15 - 6:58pm

    I always admired Shirley Williams and helped her in the 1981 Crosby by-election when her victory (briefly) took the Liberal SDP Alliance to 50% in the national opinion polls. She speaks regularly in the House of Lords and is incredibly inspirational there and in every forum in which she participates. She might have become Leader of the SDP, and David Owen would have been denied his chance to break up the Alliance. History would have been very different and very much better.

  • Alex Sabine 24th Jan '15 - 7:12pm

    Shirley Williams is a big figure in British politics, but her ministerial record wasn’t exactly glorious. I can’t agree with Helen about her education legacy, and she also had the misfortune to be Harold Wilson’s Secretary of State for Prices (itself an absurdly hubristic ministerial job title and role) at a time when inflation hit a peacetime record of more than 25%, fuelled by her government’s profligate policies.

    I once invited her to give an address while I was at university in Durham and she was a star – a nice down-to-earth person with no airs and graces. Like Charles Kennedy, I think she has a civilising influence on the tenor of political debate.

    The flip side to her natural politeness and gentleness is that sometimes she could be firmer in standing up for the more ‘prickly’ aspects of liberalism such as the importance of free expression even where it rubs up against religious sensibilities.

    Her hand-wringing on Question Time in 2007 over the award of a knighthood to Salman Rushdie – she criticised the decision on the grounds that it “deeply offended Muslims”, said the timing was “unfortunate” and was the only panellist not to stress the important principle at stake – prompted a typically uncompromising rebuke from Christopher Hitchens, who called her statement “contemptible”.

    Hitch pointed out that Rushdie’s book ‘Midnight’s Children’ (about India’s transition from colonial rule to independence) had won the main literary award in Iran, and added: “If you say that Muslims are being offended by this, and you lump them all together, you immediately grant that they are in fact represented by the most extreme, homicidal, fanatical, illiterate, intolerant people who not only haven’t read this book but couldn’t read it – and that’s an insult to Islam.”

    I was heartened to see Nick Clegg take a more robust approach to defending free expression over the Charlie Hebdo cartoons.

  • Ruth Bright 24th Jan '15 - 9:31pm

    When Parliament Channel showed coverage of the 1979 General Election there was a wonderful interview with Shirley Wiliams from the time. Her dignity and good-natured acceptance of her lot when she lost her seat made memorable viewing.

    But it isn’t OK to be an iconic female politician who fails to support other women.

  • Ruth – I remember the interview (with Robin Day I believe, or was it a young David Dimbleby?) and I agree it was dignified, stoic and a credit to Shirley. That’s very much what I meant when I referred to her down-to-earth good nature and “her natural politeness and gentleness”. One can surely disagree with someone while liking them as a person.

  • Williams was someone to admire, back in the day.

    Her performance since the coalition leaves an awful lot to be desired, particularly double dealing over NHS reforms that no one voted for but the party blindly took us into.

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