Sean Curran talks to former senior Liberal Democrat Baroness Shirley Williams about her life and political career.
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Hello and welcome to Conversations.
Today, my guest is a woman whose
career has spanned not just
party and class divides
but political eras, too.
She started in the Labour movement,
co-founded a successful new party,
the SDP, and eventually became
a leading light in
the Liberal Democrats.
All along, this woman -
once tipped to be Britain's first
woman Prime Minister -
has enjoyed almost universal
personal popularity from all sides
of the political spectrum.
She was born into a family
which challenged the political
status quo and sparkled
with a strong spirit of campaigning
- a spirit she's carried
with her ever since.
Her former SDP colleague,
Bill Rogers, once said,
even if you're walking up a hill
with her, she wants
to be ahead of you.
So let's try and catch up
with Shirley Williams.
Thank you very much.
Let's start at the beginning.
You had, I suppose, what many people
would consider quite a privileged
childhood in what was then Bohemian
Did that affect your view
of the world and your
politics, do you think?
Well I had a combination
because my father had been
a Roman Catholic convert -
largely converted, I think,
probably by listening to a great
deal of what was said by...
One or two of the great
Catholics of the period,
and he took me to church
regularly every Sunday.
What was true about him
was that he knew a huge
amount about it all.
He went back through centuries
with huge knowledge.
That was surprising because he was
a very strong Labour man.
He stood for Parliament two or three
times, never got elected.
But was very keen to
get into Parliament.
He wouldn't have been
very good at it.
It wasn't his sort of thing.
So why do you think he wouldn't
have been good at it?
Because he was very
much an intellectual.
I don't mean clever.
I mean, lots of people can
intellectuals and can be clever.
But what he was was somebody
who loved the more mysterious
aspects of theology.
He was quite sympathetic
towards Anglicans because his own
father had been an Anglican vicar.
So he was really quite well
immolated in discussions
on religion and so forth.
My mother, of course,
came from an Anglican background
but had been extremely critical
of the role of the Anglican Church
during the First World War,
when things were constantly
presented as being for
the sake of the country.
You must put all other
thoughts behind you.
She, of course, out of that
experience, first became
a war nurse, a VAD -
Voluntary Aid Detachment -
nurse, at first mostly
in France, in the war.
She actually served a lot
of the First World War on the front,
not on the back, which was unusual
for a woman.
So between the two of them,
although it could be called
a privileged background in some
ways, they were both
hugely hard working.
My mother had a very disciplined
approach to writing.
She loved writing
but was very strict.
You started writing at 9.30am,
after you'd had breakfast,
and you worked all the way
through until about 7pm at night,
when you had one drink.
A cocktail, as they always
called them in those days,
followed by a bit of family life.
But there's no doubt about it,
she did a good 10 hours a day
of writing, and she was absolutely
devoted to it.
Now, your mother was Vera Brittain
and, of course, she was wrote
a memorial to her fiancee
and her brother in
Testament of Youth.
So by the time you were growing up,
she was a very famous
author, wasn't she?
She was a best-selling author, yes.
And in 1936, when Victor
Gollancz, one of the...
The book was rejected by about half
a dozen well-known publishers,
who sort of couldn't believe that
a woman could write
a book about war, anyway.
It was a very odd idea to them.
And the fact that she probably
wrote, I would argue,
one of the best single books
about the First World War,
along with people who became very
famous also, like Siegfried Sassoon
and so forth.
But she was in that group,
that kind of outstanding authors
of the war who actually
served in it.
Robert Graves was another.
All of that meant that she she
couldn't see herself in the very
conventional terms her own parents
had seen her in, which she was
an attractive young woman
who would marry a fairly well-placed
businessman in Derbyshire,
where they came from.
And therefore, for them,
it was a huge jerk.
Really difficult to actually accept
not only that their daughter
was a military nurse
but that she was going to serve
in another country.
and towards the end of the war,
in the last year, her father
saw that his wife -
her mother, in other words -
was beginning to find it too hard
to cope without the servants,
of all things.
There were not many
servants to be had.
They were back in the
And so she was told,
she was ordered to come home
and look after her mother.
And, of course, my mother
was a person with very strong views
and very strong opinions.
She was outraged by the idea
that she would leave hundreds
of men, most of them dying
in the middle of France, and come
back to look after her mother,
who had nothing wrong with her.
because her mother had
to cope without servants.
The Edwardian era, in many ways,
was very, very class structured.
Very much the case of the middle
classes living with servants,
with people making fires
and all that kind of thing.
So the whole of the change
that we saw in the Second World War,
in the way the country became much
more social democratic, didn't
happen in the First World War.
There was a sort of slow fading out,
but it was a long, long process.
So when you were growing up,
were your parents very hands
on or did they have help
and servants as well?
My parents, because my mother worked
full-time, my parents had one house
keeper who was about 20,
a young woman from Battersea,
across the river.
And they also had occasional members
of her family who came in and helped
planning parties and so on.
We were very close to them.
They were my other parents, really.
They were probably more hands-on
than my mother and father were.
Particularly my mother, because my
father was fond of children.
But he have the view of his time,
which is that you didn't have
much to do with them
in any physical sense.
You wouldn't have dreamt of changing
a nappy or even dressing them.
But what you would do is have
serious conversations with them.
As they grew up you would actually
talk to them about politics, life,
religion, whatever it might be.
But not much before
you were about 10 or 11.
So how often did you see your
parents during the day?
If they were both working.
Hardly at all.
It was a very sort
of arranged routine.
If I got back from school in time,
I would have tea with them.
That was a another sacred
occasion lasting half
an hour at 4pm or 4.30pm.
With crumpets in the winter
and scones in the summer.
But that was the sort of high
moment of childish eating,
and then I would not
stay for dinner.
Dinner was something
that grown-ups had.
We had a high tea at 5pm and then
we were in bed by 7pm.
And the idea of going
to bed at 10pm, 11pm,
which is what my own grandchildren
do, would be unthinkable
in that way.
Also, maybe because it's
worth adding, it's quite
interesting to add it...
The other great feature
of my childhood was that
I was extremely adventurous
and during the war, when my parents'
house was was bombed, it split.
It was a Georgian
house in Cheyne Walk.
Reflecting my mother's
success, I suppose -
it can't have been a cheap
house to buy.
But Cheyne Walk with right
along the river, sitting
in the heart of London,
and it was bombed quite a lot.
And I remember this
The house, it didn't
fall down but it split,
it cracked down the middle.
The other thing we did,
I used to climb all over the house,
picking up shrapnel.
I loved doing that!
When my parents weren't watching.
the house was a Georgian
house, four stories high.
And it had a lot of little terraces
- not terraces, little flat roofs.
And you'd have to go and collect
the shrapnel from the flat roofs,
otherwise it would begin
to burn its way through.
I loved doing that.
I spent quite a lot of time sitting
on the roof as well, of this house,
looking at the Thames below.
Eventually I learnt how to climb
under the bridges across the Thames.
I used to watch the Blitz from those
metal, I suppose supports,
you'd call them, under
Chelsea Bridge and the
Royal Albert Bridge,
which was already shaking a bit,
because it was a very
And I loved doing that.
Did your parents know
you were doing that?
Of course not.
I thoroughly enjoyed the war.
That's an awful thing to say.
I'm talking about being nine or 10.
But I did thoroughly enjoy it,
I did find it very exciting
and I quite often would escape,
long after my parents were asleep,
and walk around and walk over
to the bridges and sit
underneath them and then come back.
Then life got more exciting
after all that because my parents
There is reason social Democrat
because I refused to go to private
school. I was six or seven. I was a
little school called Mrs Spencer's
school. One of those places like
private school, a nice school with
middle-class parents and clean
uniforms. Which I could not stand!
What did you not like? I was
already, I learned from parents to
hate class. I hated class. Around
the corner from where we lived,
there was a big council estate which
is still there, at the end of
Chelsea. That council estate became
the students of a very old Victorian
state school. Church of England
school. It was called... Saint
Peter's church school. Anglican
school. I went there because my
mother's housekeeper, aged 19 or 20,
her parents had sent their children
there. It was a school that appealed
to me so I went there, Alan told my
mother I did not wish her to
introduce herself to them. That was
fine. I always went down the stairs
to the basement. Some of my fellow
students, pupils, primary school,
they always thought I was Amy's.
Because that is where she lived and
I always thought that way so we
didn't have problems about being the
daughter of a famous author. Not
that that ever came up!
Then life got more exciting
after all that because my parents
had a sort of long light of agony.
In which they had learnt
that they were probably
on the Gestapo black list.
I think I'm right in saying
that my parents, both
of them were Christians.
I think they were the only
Christian married couple,
because there were many Jewish
married couples on the
on Gestapo black list.
And I've got the page
which they were on.
The reason I know about
that is because my parents,
my mother's name was Brittain
and my father's name
was Catlin and so inevitably
they were in the same
group as Churchill.
And that meant that all the popular
newspapers had to have that picture
of Churchill's name in that list.
But fortunately, it included
both my parents as well.
And what was key about that was that
my mother was a conscientious
objector after the First World War.
She became a pacifist.
She'd lost every young man
in her family, including her brother
and her fiancee, and she became
and my mother was determined,
she was very determined,
She was right, she wouldn't move.
And so they decided, my parents
decided after a long conversation,
they very high minded people
I should say, that although they
wouldn't leave themselves,
because they would immediately -
my mother in particular -
be accused of fleeing.
The author of Mrs Miniver,
Jan Struther, also fled.
Although hers was also a book
all about the British
in the Second World War.
But my mother was made of sterner
stuff so she wasn't going to flee.
And having decided not to,
my father having decided not to,
either, they decided that it was not
fair of them to keep my brother
and me in Britain to face
the probable killing
of their parents.
People forget now that in 1940,
up until about the summer before
the Battle of Britain,
there was a general belief
that this was going to be...
There was going to be an invasion
and that we might well
have lost that invasion.
They sent you and your brother
to America, didn't they?
They sent us to America.
So it wasn't just an evacuation
out into the country?
No, no, no.
On the other side of the world?
Well, we got a telegram,
I remember, which said,
send us your children.
To, of all places, Minnesota.
And the great thing
about that was that most
all of the other children that
were evacuated to America
were evacuated to either work
colleagues or friends,
who were also very much
sort of New England,
very European-minded and so forth
and so on.
Minnesota was something else again.
I remember when I first got there,
a state which has a very substantial
number of Scandinavian
and German migrants,
I was seen as rather dangerous,
I mean, what was I doing?
Almost like a spy or a reverse spy.
Minnesota was certainly
not very keen.
Were they isolationist?
I mean, it's obviously before
America was in the war.
Minnesota under Hubert Humphrey,
who was the governor of Minnesota,
who was a distinctly liberal-minded
and internationally-minded young
man, famous throughout America.
He was the most distinguished
They weren't isolationist,
what they were, they were sort
of left wing but keeping out of it.
They didn't really want to join
the war, they weren't keen on it.
But they weren't, in any sense,
what one might call Trump-ites.
They weren't right wing Americans.
And how did their attitude change
towards you after Pearl Harbor?
Well, they were always
very sweet to me.
By this time I was 10.
And so I was known as the little
English girl or the little
evacuee or whatever it was.
I was treated in a sort
of idealised way.
Which was very sweet of them.
I went to a nice school and had
lots of friends and we went climbing
along the Mississippi and so forth.
Had a lovely time, actually.
And it was a great place to be.
And I was always treated very well.
But after Pearl Harbor I became
a heroine and therefore I was asked
to actually present a sheaf
of flowers to Lady Halifax.
Lord Halifax, who had been
a well-known appeaser
before the war, had become
ambassador to America.
It's a very distinguished
position to hold.
And his wife, in the best English
style, walked around the country
dishing out flowers to people
and shaking their hands and putting
up the flag and things like that.
She behaved very properly.
And I was therefore specially chosen
to present him with flowers,
which I deeply resented,
because I knew that the Halifaxes
By this time I was very
far gone in politics.
But I was polite.
At least I was polite,
I wasn't particularly friendly,
so I stayed in America...
But that wasn't your only starring
role, potentially, was it?
Because you also were almost
the star of National Velvet.
Yes, that's correct.
The film critics of America in each
region were asked to put forward
the names of people that might have
been the hero in National Velvet.
And I remember they
had to be blonde.
They had to be good at riding.
They had to be around the age of 12.
They had to know how to jump fences.
They had to be sort of a perfect
little model of what one might think
National Velvet is all about.
And I was put forward
by the middle west states.
It was Elizabeth Taylor
who pipped you to the post?
Elizabeth Taylor was
very famous already.
Her mother was in California
with her so she had the exceptional
advantage of having a mother
who is very familiar with the whole
of the Hollywood scene,
and got her daughter to come,
and she was a very pretty,
handsome little girl and a good
rider and all the other things.
So she did pip me to the post.
Did you meet her
during the auditions?
I did meet her but only that.
I shook her hands.
She was already a very good looking
girl, but still a girl,
a child, not yet a grown up.
But a good actress and very
carefully thinking through
all the things she did.
And I had to say, for the rest
of my life, one of the great
pleasures of my life,
I think, thank God I didn't
actually get that role.
So we then got into...
My parents tried to bring me home.
Now, we must talk...
On the way back, there
was an incident, wasn't
there, you were attacked
by a group of sailors?
Yes, that's right.
It was a a Portuguese ship.
Portugal was neutral.
So it was one of the very few
countries whose ships could carry
people from the aggressor nations,
as they were thought of being,
whether it was Germany on the one
side or UK and France on the other.
And that meant that there
was a very, very limited choice.
You couldn't go back
in a military convoy,
that was limited to people
who were actually capable
of being combat soldiers
or sailors when they got back.
My brother went back in a military
convoy and then joined the RAF.
He was older than I was.
But I couldn't have gone
on the military convoy,
they wouldn't have let me go.
So my parents found this ship,
I think through Thomas Cook's,
which went to Lisbon,
it didn't go to Britain.
And we then found a great friend
called Rosemary who's been my friend
from then almost till now.
But she died before me, I'm afraid.
And we then had, we were
surrounded by sailors.
After the Azores, where
we stopped, also by soldiers,
because it was turned
into a troopship, for the last part.
We had a cyclone, which
practically killed us.
At one point, the captain
almost decided to give up,
because the cyclone
was very strong indeed.
And then we had this group
of sailors, I don't know
whether they were military sailors
or not, but anyway, they had decided
to attack us in our cabin.
And we fought like,
we fought like cats to get
out, my friend and I.
We weren't terribly frightened,
just frighteningly angry.
Anyway, we got out,
and then we were running
down the corridors,
and genius struck us both,
my friend Rosemary and me,
and we decided that the one thing
that the Portuguese would not dare
to find us in was a Gents.
So we rushed into a Gents,
locked the door, stayed
there for a very long time,
and then finally, you know,
several hours, and finally left,
and after that we decided
we were too obvious.
Too obvious potential victims.
So what we did was we then kitted
out one of the lifeboats
on the top deck with,
you know, a mixture of tarpaulin
and everything we could find.
And that's where we stayed
for the next three days,
every night, as soon as it got
dark, after dinner.
We climbed up to the top shelf,
got into this lifeboat,
covered it with tarpaulins,
couldn't be seen to be
where we were, kept reasonably warm.
An awful lot of sea decided
to beat us on the top,
but that's where we stayed.
And so we escaped further attention.
That sounds like it was a very
I mean, that's the attempted sexual
assault of a child, isn't it?
That's what we're talking about.
Of course, we weren't
even teenagers yet.
I guess, I think I was nine.
But no, forgive me.
Well, 12 or 13.
Yes, 12, more like 12,
but still, a young 12.
We were blondes, which I suppose
made us rather irresistible.
Did you tell anybody about it?
No, absolutely not.
You know, the central
understanding of a child
who is growing into a teenager,
in those days, particularly,
was that you fought for yourself.
We'd been for three
years on our own.
Well, I don't know about Rosemary,
I had anyway, except for my brother,
and then once he went back
to Britain, I was
entirely on my own.
I was just used to
fighting for myself.
Looking after myself, ever since the
shrapnel days conveyed had been the
same story. When we got back to
Britain, even that was a long story
that I will make it very brief. We
got landed in Lisbon to catch the
plane that was actually the plane
that was shot down with Lesley
Howard on board, and all planes were
stopped, because they were wide open
to being shot at. And that meant
that we, and by we I mean the other
children who were now on the boat,
as well as myself, we all decided,
well, we got bored stiff, rosemary
and I, we were both a sort of
adventurous pair, so we actually ran
away to Lisbon. And what was funny
about Lisbon, we stayed in what I
suppose you would call the baggage
room, and we jumped off when we got
to Lisbon, from being not seen, and
fled into the city, and that turned
out to be full of spies. There were
lots and lots of people. Do remember
there was a famous actor called
Conrad fight, it will always -- who
always wore a monocle, and every
film's idea of what a spider looks
like. When we got to Lisbon, it was
full of Conrads. There was British
ones, German ones, most were
probably German, and we finally got
dumped by the students we had met up
to in Lisbon who had shown a
surround the city, because they got
scared, because there was a very
strong secret police group. So we
knew that sooner or later, our
friends who were very sweet and
bought us food and things, would
probably be in terrible trouble, and
then radio programmes in Portuguese
much we didn't understand, which
said a couple of British have
disappeared, and we don't know what
to do with them. So they explain to
us rather tearfully they would have
to give us up, and then left us on
the front porch of the rather
surprisingly the editor of the voice
of Lisbon newspaper, who turned out
innovatively to be a friend of my
father's, but I didn't know anything
about that, he hasn't told me, and
he had no idea I was in Lisbon
anyway, were supposed to be in
detention in Estoril, the famous
royal capital. Anyway, we got back
from Portugal, to England, and found
it rather exciting, if a little bit
dreary. And within resumed a
different kind of life. I then got
inevitably back to Saint Paul's, and
yielded to my parents finally that I
couldn't go back to the local
elementary school. By this time it
was secondary anyway. So I went to
St Paul's, and then stayed there for
the next few years, very good
school, wonderful academic
challenge. Lots of very nice girls,
lots of brilliant Jewish girls, who
were the children of people who had
been various refugees from Germany.
St Paul's appealed to them because
it had a very strong musical
tradition, including just a holster
and his daughter --
and his daughter -- to Fuller. We
whizzed through school, nothing very
special about that, I decided I
didn't want to do the equivalent
So I left school when I was 17,
I never took A-levels.
and got it so when I got invited
to go to Oxford.
Towards the end of the study
of students there I was outraged.
I came to the conclusion
that this was my mother's
influence so suddenly,
I was called in to see
the principal Dame Janet,
who was a wonderful very far left
wing scientific lady,
and I remember going up and saying.
and I remember going up and saying,
the first thing I said
was I don't want your
nine out of ten would have said
that I don't want you.
But she did.
She said, Come now tell me
why I was so angry.
So I said I am angry
because I cannot bear this use
of an influence or words to it.
You know my politics don't you.
What makes you think I would accept
salary as the reason
of their parents being well now.
So that silenced me. We became great
friends. So I became and had what
they now call a gap year. I worked
as a waitress in Whitley Bay in
Northumberland, because I wanted to
know the North, and I wanted to get
to know what it was like to have no
advantages at all. It was like back
to Christchurch school, really. So I
worked for a while at first there,
and then I worked on a farm. At that
time I did find out a lot about the
north-east of England, I got to know
it well. I remember, because I was
always hungry, there was a very nice
railway marshalling officer who
always gave me sponge cakes to eat,
which was nice. And in Whitley Bay,
all we ever had to eat was chips.
Chips and T.
And have you decided on
a political career at that stage?
Delie I was already long engaged in
it. I joined the Labour Party on my
16th birthday, which is as young as
you are supposed to
became an MP relatively young,
elected in your 30s, 1964. What is
it like being a young woman MP in
the 1960s House of Commons?
part of it was lovely,
part of it was lovely, because
Labour was going strong, and I was
so excited by the National Health
Service and all the things that came
It was a wonderful, wonderful
time to be in politics
because whether we did
or leave it there.
You saw this new society
being built before your eyes.
You were part of it.
It was wonderfully exciting.
Were you ambitious when you
were in the Commons,
were you one of those employees that
arrived thinking as soon
as the opportunity comes.
Not really I don't think, partly
because I had a seat in Hitchin
which had always been Conservative
and I'd spent an awful lot of time
on it, and one of the great things
about that too was that I spent
an awful lot of time in the new town
of Stevenage, which was one
of the biggest parts
of the new constituency
a very big constituency.
And I had the great pleasure
of growing up alongside my town.
So as Stevenage grew
into being a grown-up town, having
been really a very small town
to begin with and then
developed hugely for a quarter
of a million people,
I also had a lot to do with I more
than most employees do
because I was always being involved
in legal changes or structural
changes or whatever that meant.
When I gave my first speech
in the House of Commons
it was actually about international
finance, because I was blowed
if I was to be identified
as a young woman politician.
I got a lot of...
A sort of a mixture
of surprise and patronage
from the Conservatives.
And a bit of mixed feelings
from the trade union members
of the Labour Party,
who saw me as odd, I suppose.
But the difficult one is mostly
to do with elderly Tories
who thought it was odd
to have a young woman anyway.
And I always remember a famous case
and the bells ringing in the house
from when I was running back and,
you know, they were ringing
for a vote and I had no idea
what the vote was about, just
doing a meeting.
So I seized my pair.
You always have somebody of another
party that you pair with a sweet man
And I said to him,
what's the vote about?
Don't bother yourself a bit, I said.
Look, I've got a vote.
So he finally said very reluctantly,
he actually patted me on the head
and said, my dear,
don't bother your pretty
little head about it.
It was the first bill
for legalizing homosexual
relations between adults.
He found the very idea of telling me
appalling! Very sweet man.
appalling! Very sweet man.
talking about things that they would
not expect a young female MP to talk
about. You caught the eye of Harold
Wilson and the leadership of the
Labour Party. Andy Roddick Cabinet
Minister but then a relatively short
space of time. Secretary of State
for prices? Are not quite sure, what
would that we in the equivalent
Harold Wilson is
I've never seen any other politician
of seniority who is completely
unaffected by color,
race, gender, religion.
He was a true academic who chose
people we thought were good.
But he didn't.
He wasn't the least bit influenced
by factors other prime ministers
are clearly affected
by and he was casteless.
He is a wonderful man in many ways
but he is quite difficult
to get close to, he kept himself
rather privately and here
If you look at his record you'll see
that time and again...
He was very open-minded for his
time. Going back quickly to prices.
Basically the whole economic
structure at that time was based
upon prices and incomes policy and
the government position, which
largely because it did not want to
have unemployment... Its
unemployment is the most dangerous
thing it could be associated with
and there was very little
unemployment in those years, rather
like now. It was associated very
much indeed with inflation.
Inflation was running at 18%. As we
came out of the Heath government.
Very high levels. The choice was for
the government 's... Either letting
inflation rise and using
unemployment to stop it or, as
Harold Wilson and Roy Jenkins did,
to actually watch inflation and
control that by prices. I was the
person, the mug who had to make sure
prices were acceptable to the trade
unions. That is to say, prices would
not exceed a level of inflation,
would stay the same as the overall
level. And you would then have to
use every measure you could. The
main measure was called fair prices.
Everything Mark White with prices,
we had signs made in the centres of
cities, what is cheapest place to
buy something... A huge amount of
information to go with price
control. Alongside me was Michael
Foot, in charge of wages. As you can
imagine, this curious hair. In
charge of this whole system of
trying to control the market. So
that it could not just eat up
unemployment as the only thing that
could slow down.
It worked quite
well, actually. He also served with
James Callaghan. You were Erik
Compton entry about Harold Wilson.
Portraying him as a much more
radical figure. And people consider
right now. How did those prime
Jim was a great
traditional Labour Party figure and
he was close to the unions because
they were essentially part of what
it was to be Labour. Very nice thing
about Jim, he was a very good man,
very loving and I remember one of
the things that he did that
impressed me was he always left open
the door of his carriage...
as he went down to his
constituency in south Wales.
So people would come and talk to him
and he would never close it.
And so he would come sit
there waiting and a steady
trail of Welsh voters
would walk up this train,
knowing that they would get
a welcome when they got
to the other end.
He was everybody's grandfather, he
was a good man and I was very fond
of him. I was closer to him than
Harold, I admired Harold but I like
Jim. And he was a man who was really
concerned about families and what
they could contribute in life. Once
he said to me, he said, the day that
he was elected as Prime Minister, I
think Ted Bryn Hughes was the
chairman of the Parliamentary party
and he came in to tell him what had
happened in the election. Of the
Parliamentary party. Very unlike
now. I will add a footnote, very
important, both Harold and Jim, they
were people who deeply believed in
Parliament. They can be critical of
it but there were Labour
parliamentarians. They never took
the view that Parliament must have
the enemy of the Labour Party. It
was undermining the elites. That is
a new view which they did not share
in any way. On the day that Jim was
told he had been elected by a
substantial majority, the first
thing he said was, and I never went
to university... And he never did.
Left school at 15. Never went to any
other form of higher education. But
he so loved the idea that when he
was Prime Minister, before that he
was Chancellor of the Exchequer,
every week or every couple of weeks
he would go up to Nuffield College
and have a seminar there with the
dons who would talk to him about how
to be the Chancellor of the
Exchequer! He loved it. He got his
education when he was already a
Did you consider yourself
to be his successor?
Were you ever thinking,
I might be the leader?
No, no not really.
A lot of other people talked
about you as a potential
leader, didn't they?
Later on, after I'd been
in the Cabinet seven years they did,
that's quite true
and I stood against
Michael Foot but I lost
by about 20 plus.
I didn't lose by a lot
but I did lose.
I didn't think I was
quite good enough.
And that's something
that's changed with women.
Maybe I think, looking back now,
I wasn't as bad as I thought I was.
But my parents had brought me up
to have huge respect
for the leaders of the Labour Party.
They knew a lot of them
and admired them.
They thought that
they were great men.
All men, except for Ellen Wilkinson.
Therefore, although I
was never brought up
that way by my parents,
of all people.
I came to believe in politics that
I just wasn't good enough.
Now if you'd say
who was among women?
I would have said Barbara Castle.
She was probably too left
wing to become easily
the leader of the party
but the extraordinary courage
that she showed in places of strife,
which was would have ended a lot
of the unnecessary strikes
and so forth that happened
in that period of time,
is a very brave thing
for a woman of the left to do.
And she did it, she fought
for it, she stuck with it.
But at the end of the day
even people like Jim
abandoned her because it
went down very badly
with the trade unions.
Do you regret looking back
that you felt perhaps
you weren't good enough?
Not very deeply.
It doesn't upset me.
I managed to build up... I remember
Denis Healey talking about the
hinterland, I build that up,
including politically, because I
have spent a lot of time nowadays
working in other countries. Project
Liberty, about bringing Eastern
Europe into the European Union,
which I have always been a
passionate supporter. Looking
around, I spent time in Russia and
in Europe, almost all those working
on the process of trying to get
these countries within Europe as
democratic countries and I found it
very exciting and challenging. Even
went as far as Moscow, I worked with
Gorbachev's plans for a new
constitution for Russia. I had a
great... Also India and other
places. It became more
1979, you lost your seat.
And that must be
a very difficult time
for you because you suddenly found
yourself outside of parliament.
You'd been a really big figure
in British politics, you've been
a Cabinet Minister and you've
been at the heart of
the Labour government.
And then within 18 months,
two years you were out
of the Labour Party
Was Europe one of the big
things that pushed you?
People don't realise...
There's a play running at
the moment called Limehouse.
In the Donmar theatre.
And what's quite striking
is that almost nobody...
Most people put it down to me
fighting the hard left.
Well, I did fight the hard
left but that wasn't
the reason because the battle
was still going on and it was this
battle about whether
we were fundamentally
a parliamentary party,
whether we wanted to include people
into the Labour Party or among other
things on cross-party positions
like Europe and so forth,
and I was already by this time
a very passionate European.
What I saw in 1979 was first of all
that there would be a hard struggle
and it was because Mrs Thatcher and
Mr Heath were very different people,
I knew Mr Heath very well and we
shared a certain European passion
that Mrs Thatcher did not know she
She wanted the single
market. That famous shot of her in
matchup with all of those flags.
key thing was, she was a passionate,
the begetter of the single market.
She said to the Secretary-General of
the European Community that the one
thing she would accept as a step
forward towards greater integrity
and integration, excuse me, was
precisely that it was going to be
part of the single market. She
always saw things in economic and
commercial terms but having seen
them that way, she became an
enthusiastic champion of the single
market and of course, she had at
your right hand, the great maker,
Lord Coe field, a civil servant, but
one who Mrs Thatcher admired and
often followed and he went out to
build that single market and before
the 70s, before the 1980s right, it
was. I do find it extraordinary that
we are thinking of leaving the stop
it has been extremely useful to us.
So you found the SDP.
We have the Limehouse Declaration,
the Gang of Four.
There's a byelection in Crosby
in Merseyside and you become
the first Member of Parliament to be
elected for the SDP and we've got
a little clip of that moment here.
This is not for us a party,
but a crusade and an attempt to find
a democratic alternative
to what we believe to be the growing
extremism of politics in Britain.
The move in the Labour Party
towards the rejection
of parliamentary democracy.
A move in the Conservative Party
to a level of unemployment that
threatens the very social fabric
of our society.
And we want to thank, finally,
the electors of the Crosby division,
for giving us this opportunity
to again put forward in this country
a new democratic initiative.
That's a moment
of political history.
Of course what a lot of people
who perhaps don't know a lot
about Merseyside may appreciate
is that Crosby in the 1980s wasn't
just a Conservative seat,
it was a rock solid
There's was a 19,000 majority,
I think, Graham Page had,
the MP who died and whose death
triggered the by-election.
Did it seem to you that it was going
to be this impossible task?
But you just had to go
for it because you're
at the beginning of a new party?
Or were you confident
you were going to overturn that?
If you're a new party,
you build yourself up,
by-election by by-election.
The thing you have to be
absolutely clear about is that
if you are a leader of that party,
one of the leaders,
then it's your turn.
The next one that comes up is yours.
As it happened, I was rather lucky
because my father's father had been
a clergyman in Liverpool itself.
Therefore my father was born
in Liverpool and I had a collection,
But I thought it was so exciting
because it was a strange mixture
of very left wing in Waterloo
and parts of old Liverpool
and unspeakably posh golf playing
in the areas that were close
to Birkdale and Southport.
The constituency was made up of
these two totally different things.
The two subjects that
were really intense,
One was the subject of...
Here we go again,
the grammar schools.
Merchant Taylor was
a famous private school.
I was already identified very much
because I'd been Secretary of State
for Education for four years
from 1975 to 1979.
And I was a passionate
So this became a hugely...
As you might imagine.
Yes, because by that time Crosby,
unusually perhaps, had a number
of fee-paying schools,
some of which had been grammar
schools or direct grant schools.
So there was kind of a resentment
towards you, wasn't there?
Because people felt they had
lost their grammar schools.
Because of the head
teachers and so on.
I didn't get rid of the grammar.
Well, I did get rid of the grammar
school but actually it took quite
a long time to get there,
but I was identified and always have
been with the comprehensive school
and I was passionate believer in it.
I remember getting invited
to the really very posh private
schools of Crosby to sort of stand
up to a fairly sharp
set of questions.
But Liverpool and Merseyside at that
time was very clearly back to class
structures because it had very posh
parts of Merseyside
and very poor parts.
With a large gap between the two.
That was what I knew about it.
We fought some other things,
we haven't got time to go into it.
But one thing in particular
in Crosby at that time
that was central was corporal
punishment and capital punishment.
And so I also had huge battles
about capital punishment,
which was still allowed.
And corporal punishment,
mostly seen in schools.
And therefore there were other
issues, not just the issue
of comprehensive schools.
But it was a wonderfully
People might argue with you and pull
your leg, they might call
you all sorts of things.
But it was a place that's
great fun to be in.
Great fun to work in.
And at that point did you think
the SDP was going to become a party
of government and this
was the beginning of a new party
that wasn't just going to influence
politics but you were actually
going to be taking charge?
Probably at some of the time, yes.
Some of the time?
And as we then ran into the sharp
altercations about whether we merged
with the Liberal Party.
And, of course, those
of us, like Bill and I,
who were conscious of the fact
that there was not room for several
parties in the centre left,
and of course that meant that we had
to decide whether we would
or wouldn't join the Liberals.
We both felt the same way.
I dont think David Owen ever did.
But Bill and I did.
We felt as if there's going to be
a serious contention
by parties at the centre left,
then there had to be only one
party and that's why
we merged with the Liberals,
who at that time under David Steel
were very much in the same
part of the country,
so to speak, as one
another as we were.
What about the people
who were still in the Labour Party
who thought of themselves
as being part of that social
democratic centre left tradition?
Well, a lot of them joined.
We actually had a kind of amazing,
huge flow in, rather
like the Labour Party did
when Jeremy Corbyn was elected.
But the difference was that the Gang
of Four were all clearly centre left
and all clearly Parliamentary.
They had all been Members
of Parliament or Cabinet
Ministers or whatever.
So we didn't see ourselves
as sort of an elite group.
We saw ourselves as coming out
of a long tradition,
but with this particular factor,
which I mentioned in that little
bit that you had shown,
of having to be Parliamentary
and we always rejected
the idea of having an elite.
And now it is rather strange to me
to see the Unite union backing a
leader to get rid of Jeremy Corbyn,
because, you know, that's not where
it should be, and we would say no,
the leader has been elected and if
Jeremy Corbyn goes, it is because
the party has decided to elect
somebody else. But what will not do
is to have it organised by one of
the big organisations that support
the Labour Party, I would say the
same about the Conservative Party.
Do you have a feeling of, this is
where I came in, this is where I was
It is a bit like that,
the intensity of political feeling
in the country, the level of things
that have to be either held onto,
like Compper heads of schools in my
view, or they have to be advanced,
like the NHS, are very great.
I think that this was a lovely
country, when it was a social
democratic country, and I think
for a long time, I will say
this in respect of both
John Major and Ted Heath,
that they were both very clearly
Well, here's what John
Major says today.
And he speaks out in
the most powerful terms,
not least about Europe.
So the funny thing about today's
Conservative Party is it's as split
as Labour's party was back in 1981,
between different groups
within the party, all of whom would
see themselves as loyal to that
party, but they can't be,
because it cannot possibly
comprehend such a huge range
of views and call them
all members of the same party.
We've had an interesting
time, to say the least,
this last 20 years.
We've had the New Labour years,
we've had coalition
under David Cameron.
Now we're back to a Conservative
government, though in very
Where does that leave
I mean, you look at what's happened
and you look at what's happened
with the vote to leave
the European Union, the election
of Donald Trump in America,
the rise of populism.
Do social democrats have the answers
to the questions that
people have been asking?
It takes time for it
to sink through.
Let's take two examples.
Donald Trump's already in so much
trouble, not least...
I mean, what's going to be key about
that is what Congress discovers
about the relationships with Russia.
If they're as close as it looks
as though it may be,
then I frankly cannot see
what future Trump has.
It's an extraordinary situation
for the leader of the second biggest
democracy in the world to find
himself arguing for a much closer
relationship with one of the past
enemies of that country,
and no decent relationship
at all with the other - China -
where he made it clear
that he doesn't accept the idea
of a One China policy.
So he's clearly a man who is,
I think, very much at a loss.
And then he looks to the social
media to rescue him.
And of course you can't
have the social media
rescue elected leaders
of great democracies
for a straightforward reason.
Social media are the most easily
hammered, mistreated system
of communication that exists.
So his dependence on Trump's
triumphs, so to speak,
in the area of social media really
raise the whole question of
whether social media and democracy
are a convulation together.
I think we have to make them so.
I think we have to take steps to do
something about that.
But I think the only people likely
to make such steps are people who do
believe basically in equality,
basically in equality
And, in the end, something
which is much fairer in economic
terms than what we have in Britain
today, which is becoming
increasingly and quite rapidly
more and more unequal.
The other big cause you're
talking about the whole way
through is Europe and we had
the European referendum
and people voted to leave.
They also got fed the most amazing
diet of misrepresentation.
I taught for 10 years in Harvard
the story of the European Union.
All right, it's mixed.
I mean, I will readily
say it's mixed.
I don't think Mr Juncker is so easy
to understand in Britain.
I also think that there's a really
serious need for greater democracy.
It's easy to bring about, by the by.
You only have to say that every
commissioner should be
elected, but we don't.
We've never tried to
do that in Britain.
We're to blame, to some
extent, for not having
democratised the union.
It's now possible to do that.
And I think we could change it
really quickly because I think
there's a lot of support in Holland
and Scandinavia and so on for it.
Let me just add one other thing.
Most of my life, I've been involved
in international affairs,
whether it's Russia or India
or whatever it is,
all over the world.
I'm deeply scared now
about what might happen.
I hope I've proved to you I'm
not a scary person.
But when I see, for example,
the fear in the Baltics of a gradual
Russian intrusion, ending up with it
trying to, in effect,
When I see in the Balkans,
the situation of Greece,
because I don't think
that we thought through the European
zone sensibly enough.
And when, finally, I look at what's
happening in, for example,
Japan's fear about what North Korea
might do if it begins to come
within its own sphere.
We talk so much in Europe,
but we don't talk enough
about the rest of the world,
and we are now looking at some
extremely frightening situations.
And I weep for the fact
that the United Kingdom,
which I believe is a country
which has had a remarkable past
as a global country,
with a remarkable sense
of where we're all going,
should now have done what it's done.
And to do that in the teeth
of the attitude of almost
not all, but the great majority
of people under the age of 35,
having been effectively sold down
the galley by elderly people
like me, in their sort
of 60s and 70s and 80s.
Then I have to say that I think,
as my grandson said to me very
forcefully, he said,
Grandma, your generation
has betrayed mine,
and I completely agree with him.
Young people cannot understand
what Europe was all about and would
like to see it more democratic,
would like to see it more open.
But they haven't been listened
to and we have therefore taken
a decision which 48% of people
voted in favour.
But if you break it down into age
groups, overwhelmingly most
of the young voted to stay in Europe
and mostly older to get out.
That says an awful lot
about what's wrong with us.
But doesn't it all combine
to create a crisis for social
democrats like you?
It's a crisis for everybody.
It's a crisis for the people
of Britain because what has stopped
looking as though it's
an international country is not me.
Or David Owen or whatever.
It's effectively, we have
let ourselves be led,
partly by a heavily biased
study and campaign.
We've let ourselves be
led by the interests and purposes
of older people, and interests
is a key word here.
And we've taken very little notice
of the thousands of young people
for whom the future is the future
we've created, we the older
have created for them.
And that most of them,
evidently from the vote,
don't like and don't
want to be part of.
You've talked throughout our
conversation about education
in one form or another.
Is that the legacy you're most
proud of, do you think?
Your time as Education Secretary
and your championing
of comprehensive education?
I'm proud of comprehensive schools,
and although people
who watch won't all agree with this.
Almost all the speeches I make
throughout the country
are followed by people who went
to comprehensive schools
and come up to me and say,
I just want to let you know that
I am the chairman of this business
company, or I am one of the people
who have directed a theatre
or whatever it may be.
There's a lot of feeling among
people who went to comprehensive
schools that they got
the break they needed.
People forget all the time that
when we had grammar schools,
I'm not saying they weren't good,
they were in their way.
But they only served about 10%
of the population and the rest
were sent to secondary modern
schools, where they couldn't even
get a sixth form education.
Luckily now they are coming through.
But if we go back to grammar
schools, the schools may be good
but there would be very
few of them all.
And I think the final
point I want to make
about education is that you have
to educate your population
for the world that's coming.
The world that's coming will be one
that will demand high
high understanding of a numerate
country and all the rest of it.
That's why you have
to have an education that serves
almost all the people,
not even the very carefully
chosen small minority,
which is never going to be enough
for a modern country.
If we could get the young
Shirley Williams, who's just been
for an audition to National Velvet,
and bring her into the studio,
what piece of advice
would you give her?
It all takes longer than you think.
It requires you to learn to not
only speak to people
but to listen to them.
Leadership is participation now.
It used to be command.
No longer so.
And that whether you like it or not,
you live in a global world.
And so what happens in India
or Kenya matters as much
to you and your friends and,
above all, your children
and grandchildren as what you know
about Bournemouth or what you now
thank you very much.