Watch: Shirley Williams on retirement and how the government’s attitude to junior doctors could break NHS

Shirley on Victoria DerbyshireOn Thursday, her last day in the House of Lords before her retirement, Shirley Williams spent 20 minutes talking to Victoria Derbyshire.

You can watch the conversation, which covered women in politics, social media (she thinks that “the cruellest people in society” shouldn’t be given a voice), how some were bemused by her specialism in fields not traditionally done by women, such as nuclear proliferation, how we should take thousands of refugee children and relived the previous struggle over Ugandan refugees in the 70s when she stuck to her guns.

She says Jeremy Corbyn is a decent guy, much more like Michael Foot than the “left wing ideologues” who are riding on his coat tails. She predicts that some people will leave Labour, some for us and others for the Conservatives.

She told the horrible story of how she and her friend, at the age of 13, spent 4 days of a Transatlantic voyage hiding to avoid being assaulted by sailors.

As Education Secretary she was responsible for introducing comprehensive education. She talks about the reality of life for those condemned to the lack of opportunities in the old system. Even now, people come up and thank her for giving them the opportunities she had given them.

If you do nothing else, watch the whole thing here.

You just wonder how much better life would have been if it had been her and not her predecessor as Education Secretary, who had been Britain’s first woman PM.

The Independent ran a wonderful profile of her this week, too:

When she wasn’t busy co-founding the Liberal Democrat party, Williams was pushing through legislation to abolish capital punishment and hurling punches at an unruly anti-colonial rally in Nyasaland.

Widely revered as a strong and fiercely independent woman, Williams fought and overcame sexism throughout her political career.

Growing up in a learned, erudite household, Williams is the daughter of Vera Brittain, the esteemed feminist, avid pacifist and author of Testament of Youth – the seminal book stirred by the death of Brittain’s fiancé, brother and two closest male friends during the First World War.

We’ll miss her from the Lords, but Shirley will be a strong force in the European Referendum campaign.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Catherine Jane Crosland 13th Feb '16 - 10:42am

    A fascinating interview, which for many of us will bring back so many memories, and a whole mixture of emotions. If you closed your eyes, it could have been the Shirley Williams of the 1970s or 80s speaking. Whether you are always in agreement with her or not, no-one could deny that Shirley is not one of those politicians who regularly change their views to match what they believe the public want to hear.
    I found myself thinking a lot of Shirley’s mother, Vera Britain. In “Testament of Experience” (the sequel to Testament of Youth), Vera spoke of her pride in Shirley, who at the time of writing was just embarking on her political career. I believe Shirley, in interviews, has sometimes suggested that her brother was their mother’s favourite. Obviously no-one really knows what goes on in some-one else’s family, but “Testament of Experience” gives no evidence at all of any such favouritism – indead I think one might get the distinct impression that Shirley was the favourite. I am afraid Vera would have been saddened if she know that Shirley would reject her deeply held pacifism, and become an advocate of the nuclear deterant . One is reminded a bit of Tony and Hilary Benn.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 13th Feb '16 - 10:48am

    But Tony Benn always refused to listen to any criticism of his son Hilary, and I am sure that Vera Britain would similarly have continued to be proud of Shirley, despite the differences in their views on a number of issues.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 13th Feb '16 - 11:08am

    I don’t know if Vera Brittain’s novel “Born 1925” is still in print? It’s the story of a family in the years before, and during, the second world war. It was only when I heard this interview, in which Shirley talks about the terrifying experience she and her friend had while returning from evacuation in America, that I realised that a scene in 1925 was based on what happened to Shirley. In the novel, the young girl’s elder brother is also travelling on the ship, and bursts in at the last moment and saves her. In real life, Shirley and her elder brother travelled home separately, and she and her friend of the same age were quite on their own. People will be wondering what Shirley’s parents were thinking of, letting her travel, at thirteen, with no adult supervision.But I believe from what Vera Brittain said in “Testament of Experience”, that the parents thought their would be some adult supervision on the ship, which however turned out to be non-existant

  • Eddie Sammon 13th Feb '16 - 12:20pm

    I have a lot of respect for Shirley, even if I disagree on some things. I might watch the interview later if I find the time.

    When it comes to her views on the nuclear deterrent: I’m not fully aware of what these are, but my views on Trident are becoming more supportive after watching the documentary that Kishwer Falkner participated in (Inside the War Room). Only slightly more supportive of it though. I’ll outline my views under a specific article on it another time.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 13th Feb '16 - 1:50pm

    My understanding is that Shirley Williams, and virtually all the Labour MPs who defected to the SDP, were very strongly pro nuclear deterrent – many of them cited as one of their main reasons for leaving the party, the fact that the left wing of the Labour Party, who appeared to be taking over, were so strongly pro unilateral disarmament. Members of the Liberal Party, on the other hand, were often just as pro unilateral disarmament as the left wing of the Labour Party were. Which is one reason why the SDP/Liberal alliance, and later merger, was a somewhat uneasy one. The Lib Dems still contain many in the old Liberal Party tradition, who would like to scrap trident, as well as many in the SDP tradition, who are strongly pro keeping trident. We need to face the fact that the Lib Dem party as a whole, though perhaps not the parliamentary party, are just as split on this issue as Labour are

  • Paul Holmes 15th Feb '16 - 2:37pm

    I admired Shirley Williams enormously and of the Gang of Four she was undoubtedly the most important one in influencing me to join the SDP in 1983. Throughout her long career I can think of only one occasion when she disappointed me and that was when she let the Party Leadership use her as a human shield during the controversy over the Coalition’s NHS ‘reforms’. There @nvelope2003 a criticism for you!

    I taught History for many years in Buxton and every year when teaching WW1 made sure that my classes knew all about Vera Brittain (much as I personally am not a pacifist) and, in passing, Shirley Williams as I always believed that strong feminist role models were important.

  • @ Paul Holmes

    I admire her too and agree with what you say about the NHS. The other time she was used as a human shield was last September in the Trident debate at Bournemouth.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 15th Feb '16 - 4:06pm

    I admire her more than any other politician in this country.I think it is a little patronising to her and insulting of others to use this emotive and unnecessary human shield analogy.Shirley Williams knows her own mind, on the NHS , reforms or otherwise. Respect that and her and others and move on if there is an issue to agree to disagree on . To read some on this you would think every one in Britain was now paying for their privatised health care !Post coalition reforms or not , even Lansley s misguided reforms, if carried out would leave us with an NHS Bernie Sanders would call “democratic socialism ,”in comparison with what the US has even after their Affordable Care Act , or so called “obamacare “!

    As for the supposed differences over nuclear deterrent, the problem is attitudes to our own allies vs enemies .The far left of Labour seemed at times as anti America and Nato, as they were anti communist .Grimond and those of his view in the Liberal party felt an independent British nuclear deterrent unnecessary, but were very keen for Britain to play its part in multilateral defence and disamament as part of our Nato alliance and house war heads and missiles accordingly .That is not the same sort of unilateral disarmament at all .

  • nvelope2003 17th Feb '16 - 3:07pm

    Paul Homes: You were lucky to see my comment. It has now been removed as was my questioning of her views on education. I am not sure whether to laugh or cry. With these sort of attitudes maybe the Liberal Democrats would feel more at home in North Korea. It is not surprising they are at 6% in some opinion polls and have just lost a seat in Yeovil.

  • nvelope2003 17th Feb '16 - 3:09pm

    Sorry I should have typed Paul Holmes. You do not know what my criticism was, though, and of course I cannot tell you.

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