Climbing the Bookshelves: The Autobiography
by Shirley Williams 432pp, Virago, £20
Few politicians are loved or even liked.Shirley Williams was and is an exception. The warmth of her mellifluous voice can unfreeze the frostiest public meeting. Rumpled, unbrushed and late, she brings intensity and informality into any room. Likability, affability, apparent normality, sounding as if they mean what they say – this is political gold dust.
Politics is littered with might-have-beens, victims of the multiple accidents and upsets that set unlikely winners on the throne and trip up an army of better prospects. In the late 1970s and 80s, Williams was seen as the mirror image of Margaret Thatcher, women being always set against one another. Thatcher once watched Williams as a minister under fire at the dispatch box. Afterwards, in the Lady Members Room, ironing a dress, she (Thatcher of course, Williams never looked ironed) said: “You did well. After all, we can’t let them get the better of us.”
Williams’s mother, the writer Vera Brittain, was remote and busy, so encouragement came from her father, the university lecturer and failed Labour candidate George Catlin. Winifred Holtby – beloved Auntie Winifred – great chronicler of Yorkshire municipal life, lived with them during Williams’s Chelsea and New Forest childhood. The two Catlin children were shipped away for the war years to Minnesota, a long separation during which she thrived against the odds.
Returning in time for the Attlee election, while still at school she plunged into the Labour League of Youth and was sent as a representative to the first postwar conference with German SPD youth. At Oxford she fell in love with Peter Parker (later to run British Rail), playing Cordelia to his Lear on an American tour directed by Tony Richardson. Her Oxford Labour life coincided with those of Tony Benn, Tony Crosland and Bill Rodgers, the war having mixed generations. Then came a Fulbright year in America and a brief, disastrous stint at the Daily Mirror.
After fighting a no-hope seat in 1954, she married Bernard Williams, the philosopher, whom she describes as “in perpetual intellectual motion, like a dragonfly hovering above a sea of ideas”. But “he was not easygoing. Nor was he faithful.” They had a child but divorced in 1970, which meant she lost government and husband in one bad year. “I took my husband for granted”, she writes, but – recalling how she dashed home for her daughter’s supper and bedtime, then back to the Commons for late votes, as one of just 29 women MPs – adds: “There is no satisfactory solution until men share domestic burdens.”
In 1981 came the great rift when she, David Owen, Roy Jenkins, Bill Rodgers and others finally broke with a Labour party staggering under Michael Foot’s leadership and in thrall to Militant. “For me leaving the Labour party was like pulling my own teeth one by one.” What if they hadn’t left? In Labour circles the old debate still rages. She gives a crisp reminder of the destruction the now cuddly Benn wrought on Labour back then. When she won the Crosby byelection, upsetting a huge Tory majority, the new SDP went over 50% in national polls, but the bubble burst with Thatcher’s Falklands recovery.
Her descriptions of those tempestuous times are characteristically honest: this is not the usual self-serving, self-justifiying version of events. What you get is what you might expect – a straight narrative, few secrets, no bitching but clear-eyed political analysis. “Like many women of my generation, I thought of myself as not quite good enough for the very highest positions in politics,” she writes at the end with some ruefulness. Compared with whom? But she is by nature not much given to self-revelation or introspection: mysteries remain, such as her barely explained Catholicism.
A rare and wonderful read – a must fpr those who ask you waht you want for Christmas.