Shirley Williams Didn’t Want To Be Education Secretary

One of the growing realisations as I am reading these Ed Sec biographies is how many people don’t actually want the job. Some, like George Tomlinson, were absolutely delighted with it. Others, like Quintin Hogg and Shirley Williams were not.

Given that Williams served as a Junior Minister in Education throughout the 60s I was convinced she would be thrilled when finally given the opportunity to be Ed Sec of State. Personal circumstance, however, meant she was not. This is how she explains her appointment:

“I was in New York when the telephone rand in my hotel room. It was the Prime Minister. He mentioned Education and Science. I was reluctant. Rebecca (Williams’ daughter) was at a voluntary-aided school in a part of London which at that time was still selective. The Inner London Education Authority, pursuing the policy of introducing comprehensive schools, had decided that voluntary-aided schools would have to choose between going independent and becoming comprehensive, a choice much resented by the parents at her school. At one or two meetings I had attended to support the choice of going comprehensive. I had encountered their anger. A few parents had sworn and spat at me. This was not something entirely new in my experience, but I was worried for my daughter.

I told Jim (Callaghan) it would be difficult. He was getting understandably irritated. ‘You’re very hard to please,’ he said. I knew I couldn’t expect him to leaf his way through every possible Cabinet post, like someone trying to sell a suit, so I agreed to do it.”

Reluctant to take the role it is interesting that Williams is often forgotten in this role. When talking with people about Ed Secs she rarely gets mentioned. In fact, people are often surprised she ever held the role. Given her period in office was not short – at 967 days she is 5 months above average – the fact she has been erased from so many people’s memory is even more odd.

I am therefore starting to wonder if a politician’s initial feelings about the role of Ed Sec then influences whether or not they do it well. The ones who were thrilled seem also to be the ones who went on to achieve the most whereas those who were lacklustre about their appointment at the outset seem only to have treated the role in a perfunctory manner.

Are there any exceptions to this rule?

2 comments
  1. “When talking with people about Ed Secs she rarely gets mentioned. In fact, people are often surprised she ever held the role.”

    Are you sure about this?

    • Am I sure that when I have talked with people about this project she is the most high profile person who gets forgotten? Yes. When mentioned there’s regularly a “oooh yes, yes, hmmmm, vaguely remember she did that” conversation. Surprised me too, that’s why I mentioned it.

      I’d put it down to the fact that it’s pre-80s (people tend to be very good at remembering Keith Joseph onwards) but people always know that Crosland and Butler did the role and they were a long time before.

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