Shirley Williams on the high point of her political career

For many years Adrian Slade has interviewed prominent Liberal Democrats. To mark his recent decision to make his archive of the interview recordings available to researchers and other interested parties, Lib Dem Voice is running a selection of his write-ups of interviews from over the years. The latest is with Shirley Williams, from 2002 when she was Liberal Democrat leader in the House of Lords.

Perhaps it is not surprising that Shirley Williams picks election day in October 1964 as the high point of her long political career. That was when, after three tries, she not only became a Labour MP (for Hitchin/Stevenage) but started immediately on her ministerial path. “It was always difficult for a woman but finally all these people had voted for me. I felt euphoric,” she says.

Within days she was a PPS, to Health Minister Kenneth Robinson, and within two years a junior minister – at Labour and then at Education & Science, under Anthony Crosland. In ’69 she became Minister of State for Northern Ireland. When Labour returned to power in ’74, she was put in the cabinet with “the dreaded job” of Prices and Consumer Protection, in ’76 becoming the radical Secretary of State for Education that so many people remember.

In ’79 she lost her seat. Two years later she left the Labour Party and jointly founded the SDP with the other members of the Gang of Four.

You are remembered as a pretty radical Secretary of State for Education in 1976-79. What do you think were your greatest achievements?

“Two, I think. I managed to obtain the first really substantial increase in the science budget and that enabled us to finance a whole range of initiatives in the life sciences. I had to argue the budget increase all the way through Cabinet to get it, which was unusual in those days, but it did make a difference.

“And the other, where the bigger battles were, was comprehensive schools. I have never in any way regretted them and I still believe strongly in them. The problem was that in many places they were heavily skimmed because people kept grammar schools in place beside them and they became like secondary modern schools, but in counties like Cambridge, Hertfordshire, Northumberland and Lancashire, where they were allowed to work as intended, they did remarkably well. Irrespective of the Conservatives’ subsequent re-definition of universities, I have always felt strongly that a major reason for the huge increase in the numbers in higher education was due to the comprehensive schools producing a large number of A-level students going on to university, who previously would have fallen at the first fence with the 11-plus.”

Was there anything you would have done differently?

I would have pushed harder for a lower percentage of national core curriculum. We had a Green Paper proposing around 60%, which I think was right, but it never became a White Paper. Going up to nearly 95% was a mistake.  A national curriculum should be no more than two thirds. It left almost no discretion to schools.

“The other one was the Brown Paper I produced for universities in ’69, which suggested that we tunnel through the fall in population by opening up a whole range of part time degrees for older people and so forth. The government was good about that – among other things we had already launched the Open University, but the people who were very unenthusiastic were the older universities, who were not very well disposed to bother with part timers and more mature people.. in a  word they were very conservative. I had a colossal fight with them and told them that, if they didn’t adopt this kind of programme, they would find themselves starved and end up with a steady decline in standards. And I think that is what has happened.. Our older universities used to be among the best in the world. I don’t think they are now.”

Turning to your later switch of parties, what had knitted together a Gang of Four, containing such very different political animals?

“Mutual respect, but principally two other things. Our commitment to liberal values, particularly what Roy had done at the Home Office – civil liberties, rights for pensioners, racial and gender discrimination. On these things we all had a pretty good record. And, of course, Europe. One of the reasons we all left the Labour party was because of a motion proposing that the `UK should get out’.”

Contrary to some reports, David Steel was not a significant factor in prompting the launch of the SDP, according to Shirley, “although afterwards”, she adds, “our respect for David as a politician was very important”.

How did she see the Liberal Party of 1980?

“An important source of ideas but not a party that seriously wanted power. The ethos seemed profoundly oppositionist, with a desire to maintain political purity. But that quickly changed as the party gained more and more council seats and councils. Between ’82 and ‘85 I saw on the ground a whole generation of younger Liberals taking control and successfully getting to grips with issues, and this changed their political perceptions. David Owen, who was locked into Parliament, never saw that transformation like I did.”

Had she foreseen an Alliance from the outset?

“Yes” she says, “although I know some SDP and Liberal members were strongly opposed. There was not room for two parties in the middle ground. I believe ours was a genuine alliance of principle, and the public quite liked the idea, but there is no doubt that the media difficulty of having two leaders was the main reason we never quite broke through. There were very few discrepancies but every one was pounced on.”

After the ’87 election was merger inevitable?

“Yes, and actually right. There was a tremendous fellow feeling at the grass roots where activists had campaigned so well together. But obviously both parties felt left out of the local selection processes and that could not go on.”

You and I were involved in those tortuous negotiations.

“Yes. We were the obstetricians.”

Did we get it about right?

“There were things we could have done better, but I think so. A lot of the pain came from the split in the SDP which the media, quite wrongly, thought would work in David Owen’s favour.”

Have the Liberal Democrats achieved as much as they should have done?

“Nearly but not quite, but we have been very lucky with our leaders. Paddy held the party together during a very difficult time and then the two election results, particularly 2001, laid to rest the notion that we were a short term phenomenon.”

Had she favoured Paddy Ashdown’s approaches to the Labour Party?

“No. I supported the Joint Consultative committee but I saw no value in a coalition and a couple of ministerial posts. We would have had no voice. It would have castrated us. We were lucky that Blair’s majority saved us.”

Today Shirley believes that the party’s constitution is too complicated and restricts response to issues. She also berates the party for its lack of energy in selecting women and ethnic minority candidates, and she has challenging personal views as to how this should be done.

She is happier about the House of Lords “where at last we are members of a joint committee on Lords reform, and where we count because we hold the balance and have genuine debate and decision-making”. Her enthusiasms are undimmed and she remains an icon to many.

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