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Shirley Williams

Shirley Willliams

I’ve finally finished Williams’ autobiography (though apparently she has a new one coming out, so I may have wasted my time). What came across throughout was her fearlessness in dealing with new situations and a spirited love for all things political. Though she spent a fair amount of time in education, both as a Junior Minister and Secretary of State, those are not the pages that really sing. Hence, in the quotes below, education is barely mentioned. These were, however, the parts that stood at to me as revealing the most “Williams” moments of the whole book.

1. On coming from a political family – “What I did understand was that no one would pay me any attention unless I engaged in political conversation too. ‘You’re only interested in Hitler, not me,’ I informed them at the age of five. I confused the Reichstag fire in February 1933 with that of the Crystal Palace in November 1936; they all became one great big conflagration in my mind.”

2. On the lesson of attending a local primary school – “One family in my class took turns to come to school. I asked one of them why. Between them, they had only two pairs of boots and the children had to share them. I asked my mother why I had four pairs of shoes and two sandals while they only had half of one.”

3. On schooling in the US – “The absence of accent as a defining feature enabled Americans to present themselves as whatever they wanted to be.”

4. After being asked to the high school prom by the much-desired quarterback-jock – “I was furious. Dancing was a sissy occupation, and who wanted to waste a whole evening on some pink-faced boy? I refused, to the consternation of my school, whose counsellors concluded that I must be emotionally troubled because I was far away from home. I wasn’t.”

5. On working in Accra: “I wrote the submission to the Monckton Commission on the Central African economy for the leaders. I tried to explain to Dr Hastings Banda, an authoritarian with all the confidence of the old-fashioned general practitioner he had long been. As far as he was concerned the submission might have been written in some utterly strange language, but since it was written by a young woman it didn’t really matter anyhow.”

6. On her appearance – “My father, ever keen to advance my career, had once introduced me to the first ever woman MP to take her seat, the wealthy and acerbic Nancy Astor. ‘She wants to be an MP,’ my father said. The great lady looked at me with distaste. ‘Not with that hair!’ she declared. She had already perceived what was to be a negative factor in my political career.”

7. Describing Tony Crosland’s Saturday night “brain trust” meetings – “On Saturday nights, the regular time for the brains trust, we would firmly be told that there would be a break in proceedings, when Tony, as regular in his Saturday habits as I was in attending Mass on Sundays, would watch Match of the Day, a glass of whisky in his hand, slippers on his feet, sometimes wearing his old Para beret and jacket to help him feel utterly relaxed. Before and after this sacrosanct time, we would discuss comprehensive schools, tertiary and sixth-form colleges, how to integrate the state system and the public schools…abolition of the eleven-plus examination, under which less than a quarter of the nation’s children were selected for a grammar school education, was our guiding star”

8. On being Prisons Minister – “Some prison officers thought that the appointment of a woman minister to this forbidding job was absurd. In one or two of the prisons I visited, it was made clear that no toilet facilities could be found for me.”

9. On reflection – “I was born at a time of political and economic misery…Eighty years later, from where I am now, it looks as if history might be repeating itself.”

10. Reflections on political careering – “Being an MP is like being a member of an extended family. You learn to love your family in all its knobbliness, perversity, courage and complexity. You learn respect and build trust. That is why every poll shows that people think more highly of their own MP than of politicians as a whole. You belong to them.”

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?

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