Sunday, January 10, 2010

Book Review: Shirley Williams' Autobiography

This is a political autobiography which has had some mixed reviews. Some reviewers thought that Shirley Williams hadn't dished enough dirt. She was even nice about David Owen, wrote one disappointed reviewer. But isn't that the point? An autobiography is supposed to reflect the character of its author, and Shirley Williams, is, well, just plain nice.

Shirley was the first politician I ever met. When I was 15 she came to speak at my school in Saffron Walden. She was Education Secretary at the time. When I met her for lunch a couple of months ago she feigned to be rather horrified when I said it was her that had started me on the road to Thatcherism!

Perhaps the most unexpectedly interesting part of this book was about Shirley's childhood. With a mother called Vera Brittain and being evacuated to America for part of the war, it couldn't fail to have been eventful. She is also very open about her love life and speaks movingly of her relationship with her husband Dick Neustadt, an American political academic who died in 2003.

Dick was a regular customer at Politico's and loved to chew the political fat with me over the counter. He was a lovely man and they were both clearly very happy together.

I remember taking part in one of the Dinner with Portillo programmes, where the subject was Margaret Thatcher. I remember being quite intimidated by the establishment status of most of the other guests. Shirley was brilliant and sought to draw me into the conversation at every opportunity. But we all deferred to her. She was the star turn and she knew it.

In some ways I think it is true to say that Shirley Williams never achieved her full political potential. If things had been different she could have reached the very top. As she herself says, at times she lacked self confidence and perhaps wasn't quite ruthless enough. She was also too often in the wrong place at the wrong time.

This is by no means a classic political autobiography. Too often it relates events but gives little fresh insight into them - that's especially true of her account of the history of the SDP. But it is a very enjoyable book, full of anecdote, endowed with more humour than I had expected and above all it is quite an honest book. Shirley is well aware of her own weaknesses and deficiencies and is quite content to write about them.

Shirley Williams has been a real character in our politics for forty years. I feel as if I grew up with her. I may not approve of many of her political beliefs, but I recognise a massive and historically important political figure when I see one. She rightly commands huge respect.

Buy the book HERE.


Norfolk Blogger said...

I think fairness is her trademark., You might not like her methods, but her whole philosophy is based on giving people every opportunity to achieve.

tapestry said...

This assessment reminds me of anecdote of Aneurin Bevan talking to a young MP in The Commons.

You'll never make it in politics, Lad, He said.

You can always see the other fella's point of view.

Might be said of someone else we all know round these here parts. Mind you Shirley didn't do so bad.

Richard Calhoun said...

I have always found Shirley Williams to be a populist, I love you all politician. She will say what she thinks the majority want to hear in her cloying and inclusive manner.

She destroyed the education system in this country and has never been made accountable.

Sic Semper Tyrannis said...

Shirley Williams may well be 'nice' in person, but she must bear a huge amount of the responsibility for the destruction of the education system in this country.

Colin said...

Norfolk Blogger @10:34

Read Richard Calhoun's comment, regarding her role in the destruction of our education system.

She's responsible, along with one or two others, for limiting the opportunities and aspirations of millions of ordinary people.

Like tony benn, she's nothing more than an old political chancer, who should be vilified wherever she goes.

MikeyP said...

A dreadful woman who bears more responsibility than most for creating the third rate state education system we now "enjoy"!

Moriarty said...

I'd be interested to know whether she was still in touch with Bernard Williams towards the end of his life. That cannot have been an easy marriage. One half of it intelligent and with an impressive range of cultural reference; the other half of it Shirley Williams.

Twig said...

And the Tories have no policies to undo the damage that Shirly Williams and her ilk have wreaked upon the british education system.

Click here to see the Question Time debate where she came last against Christopher Hitchens on the Rushdie knighthood.

Stepney said...

A lovely woman maybe but responsible for the disastrous decline in social mobility and the death of hope amongst swathes of intelligent working class children.

By doing so she was the catalyst for the continuation and augmentation of a class based system of educational and life achievement.

Exactly what she wanted to get rid of. Indeed it is the best ever case study of the potential disaster of well-meaning, liberal social engineering.

Yes, lovely lady she may be but she'd never be welcome here. Foolish, foolish woman.

Norfolk Blogger said...

Colin and Mikey, you are testament to any failings in our education system because you failed to read what I said.

Her philosphy was about giving everyone a chance, not labelling people as failures at 11. Now as I wrote, you can disagree about her methods and the results, but no one can doubt she did what she did out of a sense of fairness.

The funny thing is that Iain met Shirley Williams and it made him a Tory. Norman Lamb met Shirley Williams and it made him join the SDP. Two meetings with the same person made two political adversaries, and argualy Shirley Williams won out in the end (as the North Norfolk result testifies).

I have met her on a number of occasions and she has always been thoroughly charming.

Victor, NW Kent said...

Baroness Wiliams' tinkering with the educational system illustrates clearly the dangers of ideology ruling over pragmatism in governments - always a disaster.

Most of the crushing disasters made in this way stem from Leftist ideologies.

From the Right we had the nonsensical and shambolic rail privatisation as an example.

If you accept my analysis it is is then clear and evident that UKIP and BNP are almost certainly advocating disastrous policies based on ideology only.

pheonix said...

She is a bloody minded fool.

"fairness" and "equality" sound great, but the reality of these terms is always destructive, so no thank you.

David Galea

FireForce said...

Nice maybe.Put the word nice in a thesaurus.
A hypocrite certainly.

MikeyP said...

Norfolk Blogger:

Rubbish. I went to a Grammar School and had the good fortune to got on to Uni. It was about this time that people started appearing having had a comprehensive education. One of my best friends at Uni had come from a comprehensive and already it was apparent that, although he was just as bright as those of us who had been to grammar or public school, his education was lacking far behind ours and it took him a long time to catch up. (He never did really, and only got a Richard). Eleven plus may not be the best way, but we definitely need some form of selective (other than by ability to pay) education.

Colin said...

@ Norfolk Blogger

"but no one can doubt she did what she did out of a sense of fairness."

Sorry, but I strongly doubt what she and her ilk did was out of a sense of fairness. More to do with keeping the poor, the disenfranchised and the working classes exactly where she and her comrades needed them - poor, disenfranchised and working class.

Poverty of aspiration for millions is all she achieved.

Like I wrote earlier - this spiteful old chancer should be vilified wherever she goes.

Anonymous said...

She had a large part in destroying our education system. Never liked her arguments which was always slanted towards what the majority wants to hear. Still remember her joining other MPs to march to the Polish Embassy about the restriction on the Soliarity Movement. She did it, because the others before her did it.

David Cox said...

It's one of history's great ironies that Margaret Thatcher actually closed more Grammars/ Secondary Moderns, than Shirly.

Steve H said...

***"but no one can doubt she did what she did out of a sense of fairness."***

A sense of equality maybe - but fairness????

A sense of equality might well lead you to conclude that either everyone should have access to a good education or nobody should.

A sense of fairness would surely lead you to conclude that everyone should have access to a good education.

Steve H said...

Interesting that on the QT link which Twig kindly provides, she behaves like any other duplicitous politician by first complaining about how much it cost to police Rushdie's safety and then, when it was put to her that there shouldn't be a price on free speech, she angrily denied that she had a problem with the policing costs. And she denied it, as Shirley Williams so often does, by suggesting that the person pointing out that she was fibbing was basely motivated.

Tim Hedges said...

My memory of her is joining the Grunwick picket line, perhaps the only time a cabinet minister has done such a thing. I spoke to George Ward afterwards- shame he isn't alive to review her book

Anonymous said...

I am pleased to say that I was in the Crosby YCs at the time Malcolm Thornton managed to unseat Shirley Williams in 1983.

This had been a safe Conservative seat for years and she had only won it on the back of the hype that the SDP had been given by the media.

She did nothing for the constituency in the two years she was its MP and wasn't missed when she went.

I'm sure she's a perfectly nice person but her political legacy is at best, chequered.

OldSlaughter said...

Then again, there is her appearance on Question Time in between the Hichens Bros. She sounded appalling, stupid and cowardly.

But that's just my opinion.