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.”

Reading Shirley Williams’ autobiography I was struck by the sensitive way she talked about the breakdown of her first marriage. Originally married to the philosopher Bernard Williams their relationship ended after a gradual drifting apart culminated in Bernard having an affair with Patricia Skinner (wife of historian Quentin Skinner). Williams is sensitive in her writing and at pains to describe the difficulties without ascribing blame.

Likewise, I haven’t read all of David Blunkett’s enormous autobiography yet, but the description of his marital breakdown in the introduction to the book is also written with striking sincerity and respect.

This got me thinking about the relationships of Education Secretaries and whether they might have influence on people’s careers and the decisions they make in office. A wonderful book, “One Nation Under Sex” details how the romantic relationships of American politicians significantly impacted domestic and international policies. In follow-up research I found that the most commonly referred to ‘pioneers of American education’ also had romantic relationships which shaped their ideas about schooling and politics.

Moving forward I shall therefore be keeping an account of relationships and considering how partners may, or may not, influence policies – even if indirectly.

In the meantime, the stats on marriages are as follows:

0 Ellen Wilkinson 0
Florence Horsbrugh 0
Edward Boyle 0
Estelle Morris 0
1 Rab Butler 1
Richard Law 1
George Tomlinson 1
Michael Stewart 1
Patrick Gordon Walker 1
Edward Short 1
Margaret Thatcher 1
Reg Prentice 1
Fred Mulley 1
Mark Carlisle 1
Kenneth Baker 1
John MacGregor 1
Kenneth Clarke 1
John Patten 1
Gillian Shephard 1
Charles Clarke 1
Ruth Kelly 1
Alan Johnson 1
Edward Balls 1
Michael Gove 1
2 David Eccles 2
Anthony Crosland 2
Shirley Williams 2
Keith Joseph 2
David Blunkett 2
3 Quintin Hogg 3

The only person I don’t have is Geoffrey Lloyd. Can’t find any mention of his relationships (or lack of them).

With mutterings about Cabinet reshuffles I was interested to see Rachel Reeves mentioned as a potential Shadow Education Secretary (though word on the street is that this is now unlikely). Reeves is great, but she’s still quite young. If she became Shadow Sec, and Labour won in 2015, and she remained in post – she would be the youngest ever Edu Sec.

That is not necessarily a problem. Both Rab Butler & Edward Boyle were in their 30s when they took the role and are regularly named as being among ‘the greats’. However, Ruth Kelly’s disasterous turn at the helm has since made people nervous of youth.

Fun Facts!

Mean age on entry – 50 

There is also most no difference between the parties. Labour average age on entry is 50.5, Conservative is 49.5.

The youngest EduSec is Ruth Kelly, who started age 36

The oldest was Keith Joseph, who began when he was 63

Age on Entry

Ruth Kelly 36
Rab Butler 38
Edward Boyle 39
Edward Balls 40
Michael Gove 42
Richard Law 44
Margaret Thatcher 44
Anthony Crosland 46
Shirley Williams 46
John Patten 46
Estelle Morris 48
Quintin Hogg 49
Mark Carlisle 49
David Blunkett 49
David Eccles 50
Reg Prentice 50
Kenneth Clarke 50
Kenneth Baker 51
John MacGregor 52
Charles Clarke 52
Ellen Wilkinson 54
Gillian Shephard 54
Geoffrey Lloyd 55
Edward Short 55
Alan Johnson 55
George Tomlinso 56
Fred Mulley 56
Michael Stewart 57
Patrick Gordon Walker 60
Florence Horsbrugh 62
Keith Joseph 63

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?

Shirley Willliams

Being away from home this week I’ve started on Shirley Williams’ biography because it’s the only one I have paperback (and so is easy to carry). Luckily, it’s brilliant.

During a several hour flight delay the story of her early life carried me away from a dull airport gate and into her riproaring childhood. From the outset Williams was adventurer, flinging herself into mischief whenever possible, and remaining unflummoxed even in the face of her evacuation to Minnesota when aged only 9 (accompanied solely by her 12 year old brother). Williams enjoyed the free-spirited nature of school life that she found in the US – no uniforms, and a feeling that a child’s social life was important.

Returning to England in 1943, she found school here quite different. She does talk somewhat positively of St. Paul’s Girls School, at least about its teaching:

“Academically, St. Paul’s was outstanding. It encouraged its pupils to engage in discussion with the teachers and with one another, not a common phenomenon in girls’ schools sixty years ago. The emphasis was on academic and artistic excellence. The school yielded nothing to conventional views about the limited capacity of girls to master science and mathematics.”

The strict discipline, however, was too much for Williams:

I dreamed up ways of breaking school rules and shocking my teachers, not least to impress schoolfellows. I was good at climbing, so I shinned up the lead pipes that clung to the side of the science block to the third story. I recall staring into the window of the chemistry class, only to confront the appalled expression of the chemistry teacher. I must have seemed as much nightmare as reality.”

On another occasion she crept on the school stage and began grimacing behind the head who was making a speech, much amusing the other pupils.

So far Williams is the first Ed Sec whose biography talks of flagrant rule-breaking. Even those not enthusiastic about school (e.g. Hogg) at least felt order was important. I am excited to see whether  this has an impact on her later dealings at the DfE.

I’m currently finishing Quintin Hogg’s “The Door Wherein I Went” which started off horribly but actually got quite good. He’s funny. Much funnier than expected.

But my mind got a little distracted yesterday when a copy of Edward Short’s “I Knew My Place” arrived. Disappointingly, the blurb says the book is only about the first ten years of his life. Not particularly useful when you’re trying to assess someone’s time in political office.

Unperturbed I flicked open the book and glanced at the first thing I saw, which just so happened to be this:

“About ten years later I was cycling to Appleby and I saw cycling up a  hill about a hundred yards ahead of me, Eddie Robson, a boy of my own  age from New Hall farm, with whom I was friendly. A huge, laden lorry pulling an equally laden trailer passed me. When it reached Eddie it had been slowed down to a crawl by the steep gradient and, no doubt wanting to save himself a lot of pedalling over the remaining mile and a half into Appleby, he got hold of a tarpaulin rope but, tragically as it turned out, on the near side of the trailer. The last I saw of him alive was when he disappeared over the brow of the hill with the lorry gathering speed.

A few minutes later I breasted the hill myself and found him lying in an enormous pool of blood, his head and the upper part of his body pulverized by the wheel which had passed over him. The unfortunate driver was quite unaware of what had happened and I was alone with the mangled body of my friend. Cars were few and far between in those days. The nearest house was only a quarter of a mile away but I could not leave him though I was sure he was dead. Scarcely knowing what I was doing, my heart going sixty to the dozen, I extricated his body from the grotesquely twisted bicycle. Some dreadful contortion one of the hand grips had penetrated his mouth and was visible through his cheek.

I straightened his body as gently as I could, loosened his shirt and tried, without hope, to find a faint heart beat. But there was nothing -only death, silence, destruction, blood. I sat on the grass verge holding his hand – in retrospect a silly thing to do.”

It was fifteen minutes before a car helped Short and took the body of Eddie down to the village. About fifteen minutes after that Short was violently sick and then he cried and cried. He wrote:

“The world on that fine morning looked very grey – not the soft diffused grey of the sky or the fells but a harsh, oppressive great, and I felt that at the heart of it all was a great well of unassuagable sorrow into which I peered that morning.”
%d bloggers like this: