Saturday, September 18, 2010

Interviewing Shirley Williams

This is the latest of my IN CONVERSATION interviews for Total Politics. It's in the conference edition of the magazine.

ID: You have just turned 80. Is that a real milestone?
SW: I've had four birthday parties. Everyone loves celebrating someone else's 80th birthday. The actual person who has the birthday isn't so sure. I've noticed several of my friends are very keen indeed on my 80th birthday. Whether it means I won't be there that much longer or they genuinely love parties, I'm not sure.
I'm reading Peter Mandelson's book at the moment. Together with Alastair Campbell's diaries, you wonder how that government survived so long.
First of all, they are extraordinarily gifted people. In most cases, you have to bang people's heads together and say: "What the bloody hell do you think you are doing?" When Peter Mandelson became a peer and answered a question in the Lords, I was terribly impressed. I sent him a note saying: "I know when I can see a class act." Not that Peter Mandelson is someone I feel terribly close to. But I was just impressed by the sheer professionalism of the man. You could say the same about Tony Blair, an extraordinarily professional performance. Possibly less so about Gordon [Brown]. Gordon had more solidity than the others. He was a man of huge intellectual power. You wouldn't send a note to Gordon saying: "This is a class act." It would be an odd thing to do. In a funny way, Gordon was slightly haunted by a feeling of having been cheated - which everyone talks about. He was also haunted by a very powerful nonconformist conscience which nobody talks about because nobody remembers what it is. It was something very real, very strong. And that non-conformist conscience partly affected him when he felt that he had not conducted his policies according to what a powerful non-conformist preacher would expect. The second bit was when he thought he behaved badly towards people. He could behave very badly towards people but I didn't think he did it without cost.

So you think he recognised that he had behaved badly?
He did to some extent. He felt, retrospectively, rather bad about it. There was always this running sore for Blair of Gordon in the background. It was the same the other way around with Gordon. First of all, Gordon felt he had been cheated. It doesn't really matter if they did or didn't have that famous dinner. Gordon had laid down this solid step-by-step ascent up the stairs of the Labour structure. Not only going through all the motions you go through - student politics, youth politics, Scottish politics, parliamentary politics, ministerial politics etc - starting very young and being very predictable. We've got Blair still running around being a pop star at the point at which Gordon has already become rector of Glasgow University.

There was a sense of entitlement from Gordon. He was prepared to not push that entitlement while John Smith was alive. Gordon deferred to him, although John Smith wasn't that much older than him. When it came to Tony, parachuting in from nowhere much, I think Gordon must have felt both revulsion and anger. It was feeling cheated more than being overtaken that really rankled with him. Gordon is a difficult man by any standards, but also in some ways a very impressive man. I always felt Tony was brilliant. He was a brilliant communicator, a brilliant actor. I always thought he was more actor than politician. He could play Coriolanus at the drop of a hat, or Henry V Part II. A lot of him was like that. He was chameleon-like in a way. He could slightly change his colour as he went around, according to what the scene was. He also, I think, became very seduced by America to an extraordinary extent. Having spent a lot of my life in America, I like a lot of things about America and I find lots of things very attractive, but I'm not seduced. I can see what's wrong too. I'm always interested by the way in which one British politician or another is just swept off their stupid feet. Geoff Hoon is another one.

Do you think Gordon Brown was undone by his own ambition?
No, not by his ambition. By his bitterness. It was like getting the fag end of an administration. Already the Labour administration had become relatively unpopular. He had inherited what was beginning to be quite a split party. Not split over him, but split between old Labour and new Labour, with quite a lot of restlessness about new Labour. Gordon's great opportunity came in the economic crisis because he was suddenly able to project himself as being a world statesman and onto the stage of the G20. He was one of the people who had a solution - a solution that with a lot of hard work, he won the G20 over to. All of that buoyed him up. The real disappointment came shortly after that when we first of all learned that we had a new crisis over the deficit and so forth, and even the global response couldn't get us completely out of that. Then you have a fairly sharp decline. A lot of the Labour Party didn't really understand what he had done as it was quite technical stuff. Perhaps more significantly, by that time a lot of the media had just got it in for him. They never liked him. They didn't like the fact that he didn't have press conferences and he didn't schmooze them as Tony did. They really had it in for him. They decided he was going to be an ogre. I don't think he had a clue how to handle that.

We underestimate his status in other countries. They really did respect him, didn't they?
With the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament, I spent the last year and a half travelling extensively around the world. I was very impressed by the number of people who said: "I cannot say how grateful I am to your prime minister. He has been immensely helpful to me and he has given me support all the way along the line" - particularly from developing countries. An example was the President of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, who said he had been wonderfully supportive and had assisted her with economic ideas and so forth.

By this time, Tony had - if not left the stage - had done himself so much damage in Iraq that most of these third world leaders were not going to be particularly nice about him. Some may say he was a charming man but there was no substantial serious appreciation of him. He had thrown that away by the Iraq thing. Gordon was untouched by Iraq, really. Remember he said almost nothing during the period. He was thought to be supportive because he couldn't say he wasn't. He did have this astonishing following which came from his economic capacity, but mostly from his evidently very honourable commitment to economic development. It was a funny mixture of socialism and imperialism. I would say that Gordon was badly underestimated in the country, seriously underestimated. I think that is quite souring if you know people love you somewhere else, but in your own country you're treated as a joke, an ogre, a bad tempered-bear or whatever the cartoon was.

Was there any time in the new Labour years when you thought: "Actually I could go back now?"
Never. I was asked more than once, by people like Peter Mandelson. The reason was quite straightforward. It was actually to do with the liberal core about civil liberties. They were bad about civil liberties, there was no doubt about that. I was outraged by how they dealt with terrorism for example. I was outraged by how they pressed on and on for further detention without trial. I was pretty outraged by the unquestioning willingness to see the prison population go up and up and up, without asking whether it was a sensible way to deal with a falling crime rate. When it came to almost all the Home Office stuff, it was terribly disappointing. No, I couldn't have gone back.

How did Mandelson try to tempt you?
He just took me for lunch -a nice lunch. I think he thought the time had come to try. I think I was just a trophy wife.

This was in the early days?
Yes, quite early on. Must have been 2002, when Tony had been re-elected. About then.

Let's talk about the coalition. I can imagine you weren't enthusiastic...
I began by thinking we should try for a Labour coalition. I realised after a while that a) they didn't even want it and b) they were clearly quite contemptuous of the whole idea. Also the attention had shifted over to who was going to be the new leader. Once Gordon was going to go, a lot of the energy of the Milibands and others went over to who will be following, not 'let's have a coalition'. A lot of them were scared that if they were seen to be cosying up to the Liberal Democrats then they would burn their boats with the unions and the left wing. So it wasn't a very attractive suggestion from their point of view. I'm satisfied they didn't want it. Then I thought, how about a minority Conservative government with what they call a support and supply, which is probably what I'd have gone for myself. But reflecting back, I'm not sure I was right. What is true is, I didn't like the idea of a coalition with the Conservatives and I still find elements of it very hard to live with.

Isn't that endemic in any coalition?
Particularly with the junior partner in any coalition. There are some things, from my point of view, that are peculiarly difficult. Education is one of them. Luckily the Conservatives, as you know, have avoided a great conflict over the EU. Those two are the most neuralgic for me. I wouldn't have left the Labour Party in order to join a party that was going to do the same thing all over again. In the end, two things persuaded me. For the whole month of April, I travelled from the top to bottom of England, Newcastle to Penzance and Land's End. I didn't just do meetings. I spoke to thousands of people on the streets and pavements. What I got from them was a very strong sense of outrage about MPs' expenses, disproportionate outrage really because the level of anger was even greater than the level of misbehaviour. Some of these were a shock to the core. Some things were almost ludicrously exaggerated like the issue of the rocking chair, or the dolphin or whatever. It was very silly of the MP but not wicked. There were wicked things like the switching around of one's house to get capital gains. I was quite surprised by the fury of the public which was very, very powerful. I was exempted by being a "national treasure". I say that in quotation marks. The second thing was this very intense sense of a plague on all your houses, a 'we don't want any of you in government'. The Liberal Democrats were not so morally accused as the two [bigger] parties, but there was a sense that you're all up to it, you're evil. Therefore, when the electorate voted in fairly substantial numbers, it was an improvement on earlier elections, not a drop. What you got was this very strong feeling that we're going to give you another chance. We're going to stick to the mainstream parties. There wasn't a huge upsurge for UKIP or the Greens. What they wanted was, I think, the parties to work together. I don't think they worried explicitly about which parties they wanted to work together but they wanted to see politicians working together.

Do you think one of the reasons the coalition has worked so far is because of the relationships between the different personalities and that they're all learning together at the same pace?
That's a perfectly fair point. Most of the Conservative ministers have not been there before. What I don't really know is quite where Iain Duncan Smith and Frank Field fit in. Clearly there is quite a lot of innovative thinking going on about welfare. What I can't really see is what the positive incentives are to people who for example live on disability benefit and so forth. I think in ministerial terms, the Department for Work and Pensions has the strongest team of the whole government. It is a strong department. The problems are more likely to arise either in the Home Office, which at the moment doesn't seem to be doing too badly, or defence. Liam Fox has got his wheels off the rails once or twice already. There is a big issue with Trident. That one is hard to walk away from, having to make a decision one way or another. You can delay the decision. Personally I'm strongly in favour of delaying it, having been involved in all the nuclear proliferation stuff for a year and a half. This seems a very bad time to make a decision of like-for-like because you are going to have 40 years of sitting on top of a deterrent which may prove to be totally pointless. It is a lot of money to be totally pointless.

The Lib Dem former leader of Liverpool City Council thinks that the coalition will result in the obliteration of the Liberal Democrats at the next election.

A lot depends on how the thing plays out. If the coalition is directly associated with the economic crisis and how that is dealt with - and if it's dealt with in a way that although painful, most people accept as fair - then it'll go the other way. The Liberal Democrats will be seen as serious people who have the experience of government. Our problem is always being seen as ineffective or unlikely to win or so improbable that you wouldn't vote for us - that is largely got over by having come into a coalition because we'll be able to say 'here are half a dozen people with considerable experience of government as Liberal Democrats'.

How do you judge David Cameron?
I only know him as a member of the public. I've never even met him. I don't know him at all. He hasn't asked to see me either. I would say he is a good deal more impressive than I thought he was. I thought that he was a lightweight charmer, a kind of Cecil Parkinson type - able to charm the birds off the trees but with not that much to offer. I don't think that now. He has been quite brave. On a number of things he has taken a strong line. I have to agree with my dear friend Nick Clegg that he is actually an impressive fellow. They seem to get along like a house on fire.

Do you enjoy doing Question Time?
Mostly I do. I've had a couple of experiences that I didn't enjoy at all. I can tell you from personal experience that if you have both Hitchens brothers on, it is devastating. They don't like each other at all. I went into the green room and there was a Hitchens at each end of the room and they had no conversation, and no reason to have to pretend to have one. Once the programme began, they began ripping each other to bits then they turned on me. It was like living with several fox hunts simultaneously. Very unpleasant.

Do you think women who go into politics have it easy compared to when you started out?
No, not really. In some ways they have it harder. They don't have it harder in the sense of running into a tremendous amount of patronage from men, which I certainly did. I had a permanent secretary who wouldn't speak to me about things at all. He was the permanent secretary during the seamen's strike when my minister was in hospital. It was rather difficult. I ran into a huge amount of patronising. I also ran into people who thought a woman minister was waiting for their charms to become obvious to her, particularly when I was prices minister. They all fancied themselves as people who could get me to agree that an increase in profits was badly needed for investment purposes. The way they thought they could do that was by taking me out to expensive lunches. They got that completely wrong. But it was in some ways easier because we were seen as exceptional. Just being a woman was being remarkable. You didn't need to be much of a woman to get started. We had quite a lot of solidarity amongst ourselves, feeling that we were a minority so had to work together. I would say that the absolutely devastating business was Blair's babes. I always remember when I saw that photograph, being reminded of those Italian paintings when you had God's face surrounded by cherubs with lovely pink wings and pretty rosy bodies. The Blair picture with all the women around him, with identical haircuts and suits ineluctably reminded me of Renaissance gods. They were background, they weren't foreground. If I go back to when I was very young, you had women like Lady Astor who had staff, so the domestic burden wasn't there. They had nannies and all the rest of it. Most current women politicians are terribly distracted by having two jobs to do. They don't find it easy to balance them. Normally they're married and have children whereas they used to be single or widows. So in that sense, I see more women I know struggling with the two lives as they try to keep them both up in the air. There are some remarkable women coming up. There are some very good ones in the new crop. I think the Blair crop was foreshortened by being seen as background upholstery or decoration.

Would you like to have been prime minister?
No, not really. I never thought I was good enough. First of all, my father brought me up to be excessively admiring of the great men of politics. Rather like you might feel about Mr Gladstone. You are a fairly tall tree but he was a pine that was twice your size. I was brought up, particularly by my father, to see people like Cripps and Bevan and so on as remarkably great men, not in terms of them being rich or aristocratic but in terms of them holding political office. I was slightly overawed by political men, both men and women actually, but obviously many more were men. Secondly, I always thought of myself as not quite good enough. That is very characteristic of women. Almost all the women I know underestimate themselves and all the men overestimate themselves. Is it a case of not being good or ruthless enough? Not actually wanting to be involved in what Harold Wilson engaged in. [Laughs] Poor Harold! He wasn't really ruthless. He was manipulative.

Everyone always says about you "she's so nice".
It's rather damning.

I think it's a good thing.
It's also damning. I might say I've survived in politics for a long time, and held some fairly important offices, and don't like to be too horrible about it. I think men swallow the Alan Sugar picture of leadership. I won't bore you by going into too much philosophy but for the first time we may be seeing a different kind of leadership emerge, mostly from women but not entirely from women. This leadership is much more consensual, much more reasonable and much less tribal. It's not emerging very much in Britain, though. Cameron may turn out to be
an example.

I read your book and I remember thinking at the time that you haven't used it to settle scores, which is what many use their memoirs for.
I don't think I have many scores to settle. Well, not many... Not now. I'm not inhuman. I'm certainly not God. I've had some scores to settle where people have leaked to the press. I got one or two really difficult bits in my life, Grunwick, which lead me to have endless libel cases and so on. I had a very difficult time with The Sun when they announced I had never taken up - what was the phrase? - a single challenge to beat the left. I did think that was a bit hard. I've had my fair share of libel cases and all the rest of it. Maybe I am mellowing in old age.

Shirley Williams will be signing copies of MAKING THE DIFFERENCE: ESSAYS IN HONOUR OF SHIRLEY WILLIAMS at the LibDem Image stand at the LibDem Conference on Monday at noon.

Coming soon: Interviews with Iain Duncan Smith, Peter Mandelson & John Major.


Nich Starling said...

I've met Shirley a number of times, and sat next to her at a Lib Dem dinner in North Norfolk a few years ago. She is utterly charming and very interesting to talk to. I wrote a few essays at university about the SDP and also about revisionism in the Labour party so got to chat to her about these things and she was generous in the amount of time she would give to discuss these things.

Anonymous said...

I never liked her. I do remember her during those days of Lib-Lab pact and later in SDP. She is hyped at times, a mediocre politician like the rotund Hattersley.

Unknown said...

excuse me but G brown was never rector of Glasgow university. We had more sense

Unsworth said...

She's badly misunderstood the thinking of the electorate, in that yes, there was rage over expenses which affected all parties, but the General Election vote was against Labour - as so often happens. The people were simply pig sick of lies, smoke and mirrors, and sheer incompetence.

Further, Brown is/was not an economic genius and voters rumbled him. Brown was constantly behind the curve in his time at the Treasury - and that has done immense damage to us all. Frankly I doubt Blair would have won a fourth term.

Tom Greeves said...

"excuse me but G brown was never rector of Glasgow university. We had more sense"

Indeed, quite the howler. Although not her biggest education howler. That would be condemning several generations to a wholly inadequate schooling. Thanks for nothing, Shirl.

Healthy Sceptic said...

Interesting that she makes no reference to the coalition's health policy. But if you read the piece she churned out for the Guardian over the weekend that was the issue she predicted would split the coalition apart.

Does this woman have a coherent view? Or is she just making it up as she goes along?

neil craig said...

I was at a public lecture where Williams was lecturing on integrity in politics. In the questions at the end I asked how this commitment to integrity was consistent with LibDem support not only of illegal wars against Yugolsavia but of the subsequent genocide, ethnic cleansing, child sexual enslavement & dissections of living people carried out by our police there/

She agreed that our forces had indeed been responsible for such obscenities but justified it on the grounds that "Milosevic did it too".

When asked to provide some evidence for that slur she claimed to have personally seen Milosevic doing so when she visited Belgrade in 1995. Since this was 300 miles & 3 years separated from anything anybody else has claimed, & she has point blank refused to present any other evidence it means she must possess both X-Ray & trans-time vision.

The only other alternative is that she is a wholly corrupt, lying, genocidal Nazi, lacking even as much humanity as the guards at uschwitz (had they refused to participate in genocide they would have been sent to the Russian front).

Neither the LibDem party as a whole, nor any individual member has been willing to dissociate themselves from either racial genocide or William's lies, nor, of course, have any even attempted to explain her claims.

It is, of course, wholly impossible for any party which possesses any slightest shred of human decency promote to atrocities including worse than racial genocide, or to promote such obvious & obscene racist lies as a cover. Fortunately for the LibDems they possess no slightest trace of such decency.

Simon Lewis said...

Amazing. She would have been PM if she and her traitrous friends like David Owen had fought within the Labour party. How she can support what this govt is doing is beyond me.