Suspect hair, clear vision

May 26, 1995

Simon Targett talks to an ex-Cabinet minister who is bright enough to teach at Harvard, Shirley Williams. House of Lords. Peers' entrance. An odd place to meet a professor of elective politics, you might think. Yet Shirley Williams, a life peer since 1993, seems to revel in the rarified atmosphere. It is not the mouthful of a title - Baroness Williams of Crosby - that she likes.

After all, she turned down a dameship and, as she reveals from behind a rather regal-looking desk in a refurbished Lords office: "I haven't changed my cheque book, or anything like that." Nor is it the hobnobbing with hereditary toffs, since her preference is for a second chamber elected regionally and on the basis of proportional representation. It is the fact that, in the cossetted upper chamber, the accent is on argument rather than artifice, issues rather than insults. As she remarked when first addressing the elderly members, if they "walk a little more slowly" than in the House of Commons, they also "think a little more deeply".

That suits Williams very well. An overtly intellectual politician, she has, since 1988, been based at Harvard University, an overtly intellectual institution, where students play chess in the streets while sipping cappuccinos, where even local newsagents stock arcane academic journals alongside the daily newspapers. There, she holds one of a handful of professorships reserved for professionals - another is held by broadcasting bigwig Marvin Kalb, a former head of CBS television.

Located at the prestigious John F. Kennedy School of Government, Williams teaches three postgraduate courses: one, elective politics, focuses on the United States "but draws comparisons with British parliamentary politics"; another, the development of the European Union, covers constitutional and legal mechanisms; and a third, democracy, deals with the challenges and lessons of alternative democratic systems. She also finds time to nip round the world, giving classes in Paris and Brussels and, as she did last year, establishing a Harvard-style institute of politics at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa.

She is plainly proud of her professorship, pointing out that her classes are delivered not to your run-of-the-mill masters students but to high-powered high fliers from the world of politics, "people who are head of government departments", "top guys in the European Commission". Yet there are those, especially in the party political world and even more especially in the Labour Party, who share the Shavian view of success - those who can "do", those who can't "teach" - and regard her professorship as evidence of professional failure, as evidence that she has "taken herself out of politics" as one commentator puts it.

That a Harvard professorship can be deemed a failure is testimony to the extraordinary sense of expectancy that surrounded Williams's early party political endeavours. Born in 1930, she was, she says, "in politics up to my neck from babyhood". Her father, Sir George Catlin, was a Labour candidate in the 1931 election who "used to wheel me to Labour meetings in a pram". Her mother, Vera Brittain, author of Testament of Youth, was an outspoken feminist and pacifist. Early on, Williams struck up a remarkable friendship with the Labour minister Herbert Morrison after, as she quaintly phrases it, "bumping into him in an air raid shelter near Hyde Park" when she was 13. He became her first mentor, often inviting the awestruck teenager for lunch and political chitchat at the Home Office. With such a political childhood, it was only natural that, on her 16th birthday, she joined the Labour Party - "the first day I legally could".

Two years later, she went up to Oxford, reading politics, philosophy and economics at Somerville and making a huge impression on the young battle-hardened male undergraduates who had just returned from the war. Today she has a reputation for not giving two hoots about her appearance - Lady Astor famously told her that "you will never get on in politics, my dear, with that hair". Harvard - where she says "you have to look like a glamorous model of older women's clothes to be taken seriously" - would seem to have cured her of her more dowdy bluestocking habits. Around the Lords, she wears smart skirt suits, even a touch of make-up, and her grey-tinged hair shows no signs of the unkemptness which earned her the nickname "Shetland pony". But in her university days, there was never any question of her style, her fashionability. She was, as Sir Robin Day records, "the most celebrated female undergraduate of her time" and, as another contemporary remembers, she had "most of male Oxford in love with her". A powerful speaker even then, and a chairman of the Oxford Labour Club, she was, says the Tory MP Julian Critchley, "talked of as Britain's first woman prime minister". Margaret Thatcher, another Somerville student and five years older, was never mentioned, let alone mentioned in the same hallowed breath.

Within ten years of first taking her parliamentary seat in 1964, Williams was topping the polls in the Shadow Cabinet elections, and although she never held one of the big offices of state, she was being tipped as a future leader of the Labour Party. And then, of course, 1979 came along, apparently to change everything. She lost her seat, left the Labour Party within two years, co-launched the Social Democratic Party, and briefly held Crosby before being bundled unceremoniously out of the Commons after the Tory landslide victory at the post-Falklands general election in 1983.

This was a turning point, for sure. And, on the face of it at least, it would seem to endorse the view that Williams did not live up to her early promise: she failed to reach high office, therefore she failed fullstop. But to take this view is mistakenly to overlook the fact that Williams's political instincts are, and have always been, more intellectual than pragmatic. For her, political parties matter, but political ideas matter most. As Ben Pimlott, biographer of Harold Wilson and professor of history at London's Birkbeck College, rightly observes: "She was always more effective at the level of ideas than the level of administration."

By becoming a professor, Williams was not choosing to follow a career path fundamentally different to the one she had always followed. For a start, she had long inhabited the two worlds of politics and academia. Her father was a professor and she has married two professors - the Oxford philosopher Bernard Williams (whom she divorced in 1974) and the Harvard political scientist Richard Neustadt (whom she married in 1987).

More than this, she had herself developed a not inconsiderable academic reputation. After Oxford, she completed a postgraduate year at Columbia University, majoring on trade unionism. She followed this with a spell as a journalist on the Daily Mirror and Financial Times before becoming in 1960 the first female general secretary of the Fabian Society - the ideas factory of the labour movement. It was, she recalls, "a time of tremendous intellectual excitement".

Once in the Commons, she was regularly invited to give lectures in the United States. Berkeley, Chicago, Columbia, Harvard, Princeton - you name the campus, she has probably given a lecture there. In the UK too, she became a familiar figure on the memorial lecture circuit. There was the Eleanor Rathbone lecture at Liverpool, the Thomas Baggs lecture at Birmingham, and the Charles Gittins lecture at Swansea. By the early 1980s, she could tell an audience that "as lecturers go, I'm an old hand".

Unusually for a minister, she had written her own political speeches - famously the 13-point speech in 1969 which called for financial reform in higher education - and university lectures, she maintains, are not a substantially different challenge. Back then, her pet subjects were economic policy, education, the future of the welfare state, human rights - and even on one occasion happiness. "Spoken words are my stock in trade," she once said, "sometimes settling heavily over a subject, sometimes taking off like a wheeling flock of starlings." If the subject of her lectures ranged widely, so did her source of quotation - everyone from Auden and Archibald McLeish to Solon and Wordsworth. Oxford, Harvard and the Policy Studies Institute were all sufficiently bowled over to offer her academic fellowships.

Even in her party political heyday, Williams was never far from the world of the academy. Nor was party politics the be-all-and-end-all of her existence, as it is for too many MPs. She was ready to give up her parliamentary seat, if that could have saved her marriage to Bernard Williams. And in 1976, two years after her divorce, she did opt out of the Labour leadership election partly because she believed it impossible to look after both the fortunes of the party and the future of her young daughter Rebecca.

This may suggest political feebleness, a lack of ambition even. But Williams does not understand politics as just a greasy pole which has to be slimed up. It is a set of ideas, a set of principles, which have to be developed, delineated and then defended. And if she has commanded a catalogue of Cabinet briefs in her time - from prices and consumer protection to education - she has been driven by two fundamental beliefs.

On the domestic front, she stands for classlessness, for social cohesion. "Britain has to change socially and ethically," she says. She is perturbed by the plight of the unemployed. Her parents participated in the famous Jarrow march against unemployment and carrying on the family tradition, she has campaigned for action, writing her book A Job To Live and recently speaking out during the Jobseekers Bill. Also, controversially, she favours a redistributive taxation system, and as a former education secretary she sees education as a key to equality of opportunity, remaining proud of her role in extending the comprehensive school system.

Williams is often portrayed as the public school girl who hypocritically expanded the state system, thereby denying thousands of children a similarly privileged education. But she points out that she only attended St Paul's Girls School for two and a half years, and reveals that she "learned my values and my ideals from my Church of England elementary school", one of eight she attended in all. Comprehensive schools, she insists, "are - and remain - the best possible idea for a cohesive society". When her daughter's school, Godolphin and Latymer, opted for independent status in the mid-1970s, she moved her to Camden High School for Girls, a distinguished comprehensive.

On the international front, Williams stands for the creation of supernational institutions. "I'm an international idealist," she explains, "and I believe that the European Union, as well as the Commonwealth, are struggling attempts to find cross-border answers to huge global problems". She dislikes nationalism, once remarking that it is "the territorial imperative which man shares with lower animals", and she thinks the nation state is fast losing its relevance. A long-time supporter of European union in particular - she wrote several Fabian pamphlets on the subject as far back as the mid-1950s - she now thinks the time has come for "the creation of an orderly structure in western Europe which will be an anchor for our continent, next door to those struggling, and in many ways, anarchic structures of the former Soviet Union".

Her uncompromising commitment to these beliefs led to her party political downfall. By the late 1970s, the Labour Party had veered sharply to the left and, significantly, was ready to pull the UK out of Europe. This was the last straw. Europe had always been a non-negotiable issue. In 1971, she voted against a three-line whip in favour of Edward Heath's proposal to take the UK into the EEC, and temporarily sacrificed her Shadow Cabinet post as a result. Three years later, she threatened to resign when Labour toyed with abandoning the EEC.

After much soul-searching - Roy Jenkins and David Owen have revealed that she was the member of the Gang of Four who was most reluctant to leave - Williams abandoned her once-beloved party. For Labour Party apparatchiks, it was an unforgivable act of apostasy. Barbara Castle said that it was the loss of Williams, the darling of the party, "which really hurt", and only last year Tony Blair refused to share a platform with her at a Fabian Society meeting.

The whole episode is evidence that Williams places political principle above political position in the hierarchy of values. As she once told a lecture hall of listeners soon after the founding of the SDP: "The pursuit of fame or esteem or great riches is self-defeating, for in the end such hollow crowns shatter in our hands." This is not to say that she never harboured dreams of political power. Throughout the 1970s, she made compromise after compromise at the Cabinet table, being consistently voted down with Roy Jenkins on legislation proposals for human rights, freedom of information, and decentralisation.

But enough was enough. And she is now part of a party - the Liberal Democrats - which has no reasonable prospect of taking power. It is, however, big on what George Bush dubbed "the vision thing", and since January she has upped her intellectual input. After five years as a full-time professor, she has re-arranged the contract, and from now on will spend six months in the Lords (occasionally popping across to Essex University where she has been given a visiting professorship) and six months in Harvard.

That sounds like a dream set-up for Shirley Williams because, in the final analysis, she is an academic politician rather than a political academic. If ideas are common currency between the professor and the parliamentarian, she says, working patterns and the psychology are wildly different. Politicians make up their minds quickly and then stick to their guns - and that for her is crucial. As she says: "My basic bottom line is that if I'm fighting a real battle of principle, I'd much rather have another politician by me than another academic."

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