You’re only interested in Hitler, not me

Susan Pedersen

  • BuyShirley Williams: The Biography by Mark Peel
    Biteback, 461 pp, £25.00, September 2013, ISBN 978 1 84954 604 1

Mark Peel organises his serviceable authorised biography of Shirley Williams around an ostensible conundrum. Why didn’t Williams achieve more politically? Why did the polarising, hectoring Margaret Thatcher, rather than the consensus-seeking, appealing Williams, become Britain’s first woman prime minister?

This is a common question. Among left-leaning right-thinking Britons of a certain age, Williams is the embodiment of lost hopes and lost opportunities, a living reminder of a more harmonious Britain that might have been, if … If what? If the times had been less polarising, the parties less bloody-minded, the principal herself more adept? Facing up to that question in her 2009 autobiography, Climbing the Bookshelves, Williams concluded that she lacked not only the ruthlessness needed to make it to the top but also the boundless self-confidence and (for much of her career) the supportive spouse that a woman in a man’s world needs. Peel agrees, but he also rather gently notes her limitations – difficulty prioritising, lack of political nous – as a minister and as a party politician.

That suggests we are asking the wrong question. Williams was always unlikely to end up as leader of the Labour Party, let alone prime minister. Social democrats were being mowed down by a resurgent neoliberal right throughout the Western world in the 1980s, but aside from that probably insurmountable obstacle, Williams is right to say that she lacked the necessary drive and ruthlessness. The real question is not why Shirley Williams didn’t become prime minister. It is: given that Shirley Williams was not going to become prime minister, what is it about her, and about us, that makes us ask this question? Why does she play the role she does in the British political imaginary?

The answer can’t be found in her ministerial career. True, she had the disadvantages (as well as the advantages) of being a woman in a party of men. Found to be good at winning marginal seats, she was never given a safe one, and although she was quickly understood to be an asset and brought into government – a friendly skirted figure in a phalanx of dark suits – she was given positions thought appropriate to the female and second-rate. With the possible exception of Northern Ireland, it is hard to imagine a worse job than minister for higher education during the campus unrest of the late 1960s or minister for prices in the mid-1970s with inflation in double digits. Williams’s performance in these roles was adequate but uninspired. Her civil servants liked her but thought her more a manager than a leader. Tony Crosland, her chief at education during the first Wilson government, was frustrated by her tendency to get mired in detail.

Contrast this with the record of Barbara Castle, Labour’s top woman at a string of second-rank ministries a few years earlier. Like Williams, Castle never held the great offices of state, but she wrung headlines and achievements from the most thankless of posts: seat belts and the breathalyser (as minister of transport), the Equal Pay Act (as minister for employment), and increased child benefit and wage-indexed pensions (as minister for health and social services). Even her failures were brave and prescient: the union leaders who eviscerated In Place of Strife, her attempt to build a statutory framework for British industrial relations, must have regretted their victory after living through Thatcher’s vindictive version of that agenda in the 1980s. We don’t ask why Castle didn’t become Britain’s first female prime minister, but we should: she racked up a string of achievements that made the lives of countless men, women and children (especially women and children) better.

Yet Castle rests in public memory (if at all) as a class warrior, the abrasive, too stylish Red Queen, while the personable, sartorially challenged Williams is thought of as reasonable, classless and comfortably middle of the road. This, again, isn’t quite right. Williams isn’t a liberal or a centrist but a social democrat, and her serious Catholicism has put her at odds with the permissive politics of both Labour and the Liberal Democrats. She opposed the landmark bills legalising abortion and making divorce easier; she doesn’t support gay marriage or the right of gay couples to adopt. At the same time, she has been a vocal defender of social welfare programmes, criticising today’s politicians and her church for paying more attention to policing individual behaviour than defending collective social rights.

I’d guess that most of Williams’s admirers overlook rather than share her family values, and many probably don’t share her social radicalism either. Leaving aside the Great Betrayal of founding the SDP, Williams was most sharply criticised for two acts: for visiting the picket lines to support striking workers at the Grunwick film processing plant in 1977, and for closing as many grammar schools as she could as minister for education. Both these criticisms are strange, since they fault her for acting on her beliefs, for putting her money where her mouth is. The Grunwick workers (mostly low-paid Asian women) had a valid grievance: should Williams have kept her distance from them, on the offchance that the strike might (as it did) turn violent or the Conservatives might (as they did) exploit her gesture? Similarly, Labour’s war on the grammar schools may have been politically naive (why end selectivity in the state sector while leaving the private sector untouched?), but it accorded with Williams’s deepest convictions. ‘I have never understood or accepted that some people, through the accident of birth, should be so much richer, have so much greater opportunities and better access to education, healthcare and good housing than others,’ she wrote, inelegantly but sincerely, in her autobiography. People who love her in spite of her stance on grammar schools rather than because of it, are in love with a particular vision of her, and not with her politics. So if her popularity wasn’t based on her political achievements or her political convictions, on what was it based?

Max Weber would have had an answer to that question: charisma. When we think of charisma in politics, we usually think of Hitler or Stalin, bending mesmerised millions to their evil purposes. But charisma need not work that way. Weber himself thought of it largely in religious terms – as a gift of grace, one that all the great ‘religious virtuosi’ possessed. Jesus promising to bear and absolve the sins of the world epitomised the type. Charisma is the ability to project yourself so that perfect strangers feel you speak for them, and feel honoured to leave their fate in your hands. Marcia Falkender, Harold Wilson’s much feared secretary, believed that Williams had a gift that ‘few male and even female politicians possess’: ‘an ability to project an idealised version of herself, a myth in which all those around her believe gladly and whole-heartedly’. This is as good a definition of charisma as any I’ve seen, and it offers, finally, the beginning of an answer to our question.

While Williams may not have been an exceptional minister and was far too principled to be a good strategist (as the Grunwick episode showed), everyone agrees that she was and remains a brilliant natural performer. Whether speaking to a crowded hall or to a single voter on a doorstep or to her fellow pundits in a television studio, she is in her element. It is not just that she is fluent, vivid and engaging: she speaks in a way that erases distance, transforming audience and speaker into a common ‘we’. It didn’t surprise me to read that she spent a summer playing Cordelia before American audiences in a student touring production or that, as a child, she came second to Elizabeth Taylor for the lead role in National Velvet. When that gift for performance is combined with profound democratic convictions – with the belief, which she surely has, that she speaks for a common good above the interests of party or class – the impact can be powerful. People like and trust her even if they don’t like or trust her party. Complete strangers call her ‘Shirley’ on sight.

Of course, the gift of charisma can be burdensome, especially since the gift has to be exercised, the magic performed, over and over and over. From the 1960s until the late 1980s, Williams did an enormous amount of public speaking. Wilson and Callaghan both kept her close (and in the camera’s eye) during elections, well aware of Labour’s need to appeal across class lines and especially to women; later, the SDP used her to make important speeches and fight important fights. She found that role exhausting as well as exciting. David Owen contends and Williams concedes that she let her new party down and damaged her own career by not fighting Warrington – which Roy Jenkins narrowly lost and Williams could certainly have won – in a by-election in spring 1981, when the SDP was riding high, and she had to be persuaded to fight Crosby a few months later. But once she agreed, she was remarkable: stumping door to door, she struck voters as ‘that rare thing, the human being in politics’, as one journalist put it, delivering this solid Tory seat into the SDP’s hands. Even when the stakes were lower she would answer the call. Sometimes to the frustration of her family and her civil servants, she would do meeting after meeting and speech after speech.

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Peel calls this ‘love of the limelight’, but there is surely more to it than that. A man I once met, a major donor to the Democratic Party, told me of being invited to have dinner with Bill Clinton at the White House, where he and his wife also stayed the night. He was amazingly taken with Clinton, astounded by his warmth and intellect, and flattered by his willingness to talk policy far into the night. There is no denying the charm, but what he and so many other late-night confidants were slow to realise was that Clinton probably needed their rapt attention more than they needed his.

Williams lacks Clinton’s political genius, but she has, I think, the same neediness as well as the same charisma. At university, her mother complained, Williams had ‘about three hundred’ friends, all of whom thought that ‘he or she is the only one,’ but who collectively wore her out. She ‘wants to be liked by everyone, even those she dislikes’, her first husband, Bernard Williams, used to say, and Williams herself once wrote that she would probably have fewer needy friends ‘if in some bizarre way I didn’t need them to need me’. But this was a rare moment of self-reflection. Usually the people just called, and she flew to their side.

At some cost. Bernard and Shirley Williams’s marriage didn’t fall apart because of her political career. Both were busy, he strayed, and their partnership was corroded by those cultural acids that ate through many marriages in the 1960s. But Bernard didn’t appreciate coming home from a trip to find the house dark and cold because Williams hadn’t remembered to pay the bills (which he evidently thought her job), and their daughter’s relatively normal childhood owed something not only to both parents’ efforts but also – as Williams admits – to the loving support of Hilary and Helge Rubinstein, with whom she and Bernard shared a house when both couples’ children were small. ‘I should have thought more deeply about the changes in Bernard over these years,’ Williams concluded long after the fact. In 1970 Bernard left; it took Shirley ten years to get an annulment.

She lived through the 1970s largely on her own. She had eclipsed Castle as Labour’s most prominent woman, but she had no one at home to praise her or, as Labour’s fratricidal wars began, help her find her way. Across the aisle was Mrs Thatcher, a woman without much interest in courting the public but with the most supportive possible spouse. In her autobiography Williams is conspicuously nice about Thatcher, recalling that after her first ministerial question time she went into the Lady Members’ room to find Thatcher ironing a dress and was congratulated on her performance: ‘After all,’ the Ironing Lady told Williams, ‘we can’t let them [men] get the better of us.’ In public, however, Thatcher made it clear that they were not on the same side. If you look online, you can still find her excoriating dressing-down of Williams for her visit to the Grunwick plant.

Behind a particular kind of adult we usually find a particular kind of child. Peel, although comprehensive and fair-minded in his discussion of Williams’s public life, is relatively circumspect about the private. This reserve is unfortunate, because her life raises questions for anyone interested in the ways women navigate the shoals and treacheries of political life. In Climbing the Bookshelves Williams was slightly more forthright, but her revelations were constrained by her evident desire not to offend as well as by an odd lack of curiosity about her own psychological make-up. She tells us plenty about her upbringing and ideals, though – so, at the risk of offending her, let me connect the threads.

Williams is the famous, over-achieving daughter of a famous, over-achieving mother, which places her in a tiny subset even among women-who-achieve. The first thing anyone who writes a biography of a famous woman (even of a famous feminist) usually discovers is how many such women modelled themselves on, and were supported by, their fathers. Castle and Thatcher both fit that mould, and in a sense Williams does too: her father, the political scientist and Labour intellectual George Edward Gordon Catlin (called Gordon), loved and admired his gifted daughter and cheered her every achievement. Yet, unlike Castle and Thatcher, who both adored their domineering fathers and thought their mothers doormats (a beloved doormat in Castle’s case, a despised doormat in Thatcher’s), Williams understood even as a child that her father was not the person who counted. That would be her mother: Vera Brittain.

Brittain became a household name on both sides of the Atlantic in 1933, three years after Williams’s birth, with the publication of her war memoir, Testament of Youth. As the millions who have read that moving if overwrought epic know, Brittain was absorbed in the half-tedious half-thrilling rituals of ‘provincial young ladyhood’ when the First World War broke out, catching her and her entire generation in its maw. It would claim the lives of her fiancé, her only brother and her two closest male friends; it would drive her to spend years as a nurse in France and Malta. Afterwards, Brittain dedicated her life to combating the values she felt had caused the war. She completed her degree at Somerville, where she met her great friend, the novelist Winifred Holtby; the two then shared a London flat and worked to establish themselves in literary and progressive circles. They supported the Labour Party, the League of Nations Union and the feminist Six Point Group; they published their first novels; they wrote for Margaret Rhondda’s weekly, Time and Tide. In 1925 Vera married Catlin, an Oxford graduate who had been appointed professor of political science at Cornell, but one semester’s residence as a faculty wife in upstate New York was enough for her, and in any case she had married him with the stipulation that her career had equal claim. She returned to London, re-establishing a household with Holtby. Catlin joined them – and his children, John (born 1927) and Shirley (born 1930) – whenever he could.

There is much to admire about Brittain’s insistence on her right to live in a new way: to have children but also a career; to marry but live where and with whom she liked. The wildfire success of Testament of Youth made it easier, for she was suddenly wealthy, able to pay for their Chelsea townhouse’s staff of five. But if her resolve made this arrangement work, she also made sure it worked for her: in her life, as in every one of her three volumes of memoir, Vera Brittain is the hero of the tale. Winifred Holtby, while much the better writer, understood her dear friend’s demons and didn’t mind her touchiness; until her early death from Bright’s disease in 1935, her generous and cheerful spirit brightened the house. It must have been hard to be Catlin, though, the second-best husband, the Ivy League professor whose career never really counted. And it wasn’t always easy to be Brittain’s child.

In her autobiography Williams recalls her mother’s ambition, formidable work ethic and limited time for her daughter. ‘As a child, I realised that her deepest commitment was to writing, then to my brother, and only after them, to me.’ She swiftly learned that ‘only death, war or a serious accident’ justified interrupting her mother in her study, and remains abidingly grateful for the love that she found (like so many ostensibly privileged children) below stairs, from the family of the housekeeper, Amy Burnett. As a young child she complained of parental inattention – ‘You’re only interested in Hitler, not me,’ she told her parents at five – but Burnett was happy to have Shirley around and to take her to mass every Sunday. She adjusted. ‘Mummy is very busy,’ the seven-year-old Shirley told her father when he complained of lack of letters. ‘You must not expect too much of Mummy.’

More upsettingly, Brittain seems to have seen attention paid to her daughter as a threat: letters show her deftly shifting the focus from what would be best for Shirley to what Vera is owed. Only desperate pleading won Shirley six months at the local primary school and a brief reprieve from boarding school (an experience Williams sees as a source of her socialism), and while Brittain clearly agonised over the decision to send both children to the United States for safety in 1940 when Shirley was ten, her comment that they were ‘just getting nice and interesting’ suggests more than a little ambivalence about their younger selves. Small wonder that Shirley showed an enormous need to be liked and developed a chameleon-like ability to fit in: she would use the servants’ entrance when she came home from the primary school, so that her working-class friends would think she was the housekeeper’s girl. (Interestingly, the attraction of what might be called social cross-dressing lasted. When a Home Office junior minister Williams once spent 24 hours in Holloway Prison disguised as a prostitute in order to see what conditions there were really like. Horrified by the filthy toilets, she made ‘getting decent toilets into the prisons’ one of her ‘minor causes’.)

The children spent three years in America, and by all accounts Shirley thrived, but reports of her achievements won very modest praise. When the family friend with whom the children lived mentioned her brightness, Brittain suggested that Shirley be reminded that her mother ‘wrote five novels before the age of 11’; when the headmistress reported that Shirley was doing exceptionally well despite being a year younger than the other children in her class, Vera replied that she should know that ‘her mother at the same age was three years younger than her classmates and managed somehow or other to be near the top of the form.’ Shirley’s popularity worried Brittain, who urged her daughter to spend more time on her studies. The two children also had to thwart a plan by their mother to separate them and ship Shirley off to boarding school in Texas.

By the time Williams returned to London in 1943 she was a precocious and independent teenager, no longer willing to fit into her parents’ plans. She had been schooled in self-reliance, and some of those lessons had been harrowing. Travelling back to Europe by ship, she and another 13-year-old girl narrowly escaped being gang-raped by Portuguese sailors (an incident she mentions but Peel doesn’t). Although left with a not unreasonable terror of strange men, Shirley told her parents nothing. Instead, ‘sick with fear’, she would slip out of the family home in the middle of the night to tramp with her dog through the dark streets, facing down her demons. It is completely impossible to imagine Thatcher, or even Castle, doing anything of this kind.

Through that odd adolescence, Williams remained very close to her father. As she confessed in her autobiography, however, it took her some years to learn to love her mother, ‘and then it was to love her as an adult, a beloved friend, rather than as a child loves its mother.’ Much to her credit, she came to understand the horrors that had made her mother so prickly, and supported her loyally through her illness. She never became that unlovely being, the fifty-year-old still complaining that their parents never understood them. But that, I assume, was partly because she was forced so early to find approbation elsewhere, and her strength within.

It’s possible to push the biographer’s search for connection and pattern too far but this isn’t Peel’s problem. Instead, his book is too reticent about patterns that stare one in the face. Williams was born in the purple of London’s left-wing intelligentsia, to parents who considered themselves exceptional and expected their children to be exceptional as well. And at one level, Williams fulfilled their every wish. She is the daughter of a Somerville graduate and herself a Somerville graduate, the daughter of a Cornell professor who spent some years as a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, the daughter of Labour intellectuals who has been for decades one of the most intelligent and principled voices on the left.

But Williams has been oddly ambivalent about that inheritance. As an adolescent, she irritated her mother with her lectures on (as Brittain put it) ‘the wickedness of being “rich” [and] the virtue of being poor, mediocre and obscure’; Shirley, Brittain concluded, would probably have preferred to have Amy Burnett for a mother. And there is something in this. Williams didn’t have to muck out barns as a farmhand, clean rooms as a chambermaid, or work in a factory, but these were the jobs she chose as a young woman. It’s not quite clear why the cultivated circles around Roy Jenkins (the son of a miner) made her feel ‘pedestrian and clumping’, or why – her academic career and her marriages to an eminent philosopher and an eminent political scientist (the American Richard Neustadt) notwithstanding – she insists strenuously that academics are not her tribe. But these are her values, and she has stuck to them.

Of course, that compulsion to slip the traces of privilege doesn’t necessarily make you a good party woman, as her supporters and colleagues came to realise. If you see your job as representing ‘the people’ – not that portion of the people who elected you and certainly not just those who share your political faith – then party loyalty can be a very contingent thing. Williams’s decision to break with Labour was clearly difficult and painful, but it isn’t surprising that the infighting and doctrinal squabbles she experienced on the party’s National Executive in the 1970s repelled her. Never particularly interested in political ideology and ambivalent about power, she has always preferred to see politics as public service. The task of the politician, she once told a Catholic political conference, is ‘to learn to love the citizens and serve’. This is not really the position of someone likely to become prime minister.