Shirley Williams: a politician with a golden voice and deep sincerity

Polly Toynbee
·3 min read
<span>Photograph: PA Archive/PA</span>
Photograph: PA Archive/PA

Her warmth filled a hall. She was one of the few politicians loved during their political lifetime, a national treasure well before she retired. She had that talent for speaking human which should not be so rare in politics. A star of stage at Oxford, she once considered an acting career and she could indeed have challenged Judi Dench to a mellifluous voice contest. But with that golden voice came a sincerity that echoed from deep within, instantly recognised by her audiences.

As Labour education minister in the late 1970s, Shirley Williams was celebrated on her side and vilified by the right for pushing forward the new comprehensive system, though in fact it was her successor in that department, Margaret Thatcher, who swept away many more grammar schools. Championing an end to dividing children into sheep and goats at the age of 11, with no more casting rejects into secondary moderns, went to the heart of her social justice politics.

Related: Shirley Williams, Lib Dem peer and SDP founder, dies aged 90

Lady Williams was Labour through and through. In the great schism that followed Michael Foot’s election as party leader, the emotional wrench of the 1981 split by the “gang of four” from Labour to form the Social Democratic party (SDP) was by far the hardest for her. She agonised until the very last moment but her decision to jump was the one that made the new party a plausible popular endeavour, and she was the great recruiter. Arguments followed as to whether the SDP should still call itself “socialist”. Roy Jenkins said no, while Shirley for a time couldn’t relinquish the word almost as deeply embedded as her Catholicism.

With her extraordinary victory in a byelection in Crosby, 30 years a Tory seat, she made it seem possible the SDP would indeed “break the mould” of British politics. The party soared over 50% in national polls, and its national committee began to play fantasy cabinets. She herself never burned with the ambition that caused the bitter rivalry between Jenkins and David Owen. She sat above them as party president, attempting to keep the peace.

Why not her? She was clearly the most popular with the public, the greatest room-shaking speaker of her generation who had long been predicted to be Britain’s first female prime minister. But some inner reticence held her back. That lack of cut-throat ambition may be why people warmed to her. Perhaps her innate indecisiveness held her back: she hated the binary yes/no choices leaders are forced to make – and she was always late for everything.

When the SDP fell to earth in 1983, less than 2% behind Labour but, due to Britain’s unjust electoral system, winning only six seats, the party soldiered on until failure again in 1987, when it split acrimoniously. She joined Jenkins to merge into the Liberal Democrats, while a few refusers stayed with Owen’s SDP rump. Soon after she left for academe, taking up a professorship at Harvard and marrying again.

All the failed gang of four were a loss to British politics, but she stood out in the public imagination. It’s easy to forget how lonely it was back then to be a rare woman at the top of politics. Her clothes drew much commentary – and in truth she was exceptionally badly dressed with no vanity, compared with the elegance of Barbara Castle and Thatcher. But she couldn’t care less, and that endeared her to many women too.

Returning as Lib Dem leader in the Lords, her contemplative style of thinking on her feet, free-thinking and free of party “lines to take”, earned her 58 appearances on Question Time. But she had travelled a long way politically when it came to backing a coalition with Conservatives, unthinkable in her early career.