Thursday, November 02, 2023

Shirley Williams: a Liberal lion and trailblazer?

Shirley Williams was the subject of a fringe meeting organised by the Liberal Democrat History Group at the party's spring conference this year. You can watch the proceedings in the video above

What comes over is that it was Williams's personal qualities as much as her political beliefs that attracted people to her, and that a certain diffidence held her back in her political career. I think being a woman in politics in her era is enough to explain the latter point.

I was a little surprised by the fringe meeting's title - 'Shirley Williams: Liberal Lion and Trailblazer' - because throughout her time in her first party, Williams was seen as a mainstream Labour figure. She received considerable trade union support in internal elections, for instance.

It was her intellectual opposition to Trotskyism that led her to leave Labour: she wasn't prepared to mouth  clich├ęs about 'a broad church' or tolerate the compromises necessary to thrive under Michael Foot's leadership. That made her a lion, but not in itself a Liberal, still less a trailblazing one.

A puzzle late in her career is why she staked so much of her political capital on getting the Lib Dems to support Andrew Lansley's changes to the National Health Service. They were not in the Coalition agreement, went against everything David Cameron had said about health before the 2010 election and few people even in the Conservative Party had any idea what Lansley was trying to achieve.

When I started editing Lord Bonkers' diaries the old boy said of Shirley Williams: "Surely she must be the most popular politician ever to be defeated at three consecutive general elections?"

But I would never be that brutal, because I remember just how difficult it was to get elected as a Liberal or SDP parliamentary candidate in the Alliance years.

1 comment:

David Raw said...

As a former Lib Dem Cabinet Member for Social Care, I happen to agree with Professor Roy Robertson of Edinburgh University wrote :

"Andre Lansley's Health and Social Care Act 2012 was not the first but was maybe the most disastrous attempt of any Conservative government to decentralise and to allow local individual enterprise and autonomy. Other examples of this dogma include Kenneth Clarke’s discredited fundholding schemes and the wholesale sell-off of the NHS real estate, resulting in the ongoing burden of public-private partnerships".