Tough but not hard

24 November 2009

An independent thinker, Shirley Williams reveals her faith mainly between the lines, says Richard Harries

Climbing the Bookshelves: The autobiography of Shirley Williams
Shirley Williams
Virago £20
Church Times Bookshop £18

The daughter of the famous pacifist and author Vera Brittain, she was, in fact, more strongly influenced when she was young by her academic father, George Catlin. Brought up in a privileged but unusual home, she spent time in the United States as an evacuee. Then, after Oxford, she became MP for Hitchin in 1964.

The examples she gives of male chauvinism at that time are startling; but Mrs Thatcher showed herself supportive. When Shirley Williams was a minister and received some tough questioning, Margaret Thatcher, ironing a dress in the ladies’ room, said to her: “You did well. After all, we can’t let them get the better of us.”

She was married first to the philosopher Bernard Williams. Then, after that was an-nulled, she married the American academic Richard Neustadt, who gave her the loving sup­port that, until their marriage, had been pro­vided by friends and constituents, of whom she is warmly appreciative.

Was she right to leave the Labour Party? What if Denis Healey had been willing to stand as an alternative leader? “It didn’t happen. I still don’t know why. No one could accuse him of being fainthearted or cowardly.”

It will be the formation of the SDP, and then the Liberal Democrats, which will be of par­ticular interest to many. In 1981, when she won Crosby with a majority of 5289, overturning one of 19,727 for the Conservative candidate at the previous election, a whole new political world seemed about to open up. But it never quite happened. The British first-past-the-post system finally thwarted it, as it did David Owen; for his refusal to consider a merger of the parties made sense only if proportional representation was introduced sooner rather than later. This was not likely to happen; so “David’s position was irrational.”


Later, wooed by Peter Mandelson to rejoin New Labour, she declined, because by that time she was feeling at home with the Lib Dems.

Shirley Williams is a serious Roman Catho­lic, but is reticent about bringing her faith into this book. It slips in between the lines, as it were, as when she remarks of Tony Crosland’s custom of always watching Match of the Day on television: “Tony, as regular in his Saturday habits as I was in attending mass on Sundays.”

More is revealed when she expresses her ad­miration for Archbishop Romero and other radical South American Catholics; and when she says: “I was also a Christian Socialist be­cause Christ loved the poor, lived among them, and spoke the gospel to them.”

This is a book that gives a vivid insider’s view of post-Second World War politics, and at the same discloses a personality at once inde­pendent, tough-minded, and lovable.

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is Gresham Professor of Divinity and an Honorary Professor of Theology at King’s College, London.

Buy this book at Church Times bookshop.

Buy this book at Church Times bookshop.

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