Matthew Parris Matthew Parris

Shirley Williams: a woman apart

Shirley Williams, 1930 - 2021 (photo: Getty)

Shirley Williams, the Liberal Democrat politician, died peacefully at her home this morning, aged 90. In 2009, our columnist Matthew Parris reviewed her autobiography, Climbing the Bookshelves, for the magazine:

Anticipate the demise of Gordon Brown. Imagine Labour’s search for a leader with voter-appeal. Picture a younger Shirley Williams, but with the experience and affection she already commands. Wouldn’t she be a powerful contender? Couldn’t a new Shirley Williams, updated for the 21st century and reinserted into the Labour Party, give the rest a run for their money? Lady Williams’s style of politics has weathered better than that of any of her erstwhile Labour contemporaries. She’s just the sort of thing they need.

Climbing the Bookshelves is the story of the woman who forsook all that, and what made her. The story of what made her is much the more interesting half. This is a better autobiography than many will have expected: sharper, franker, more self-critical, more vulnerable, and oddly more melancholy, for I think she thinks she’s failed.

No one can use the word cowardly of a woman who risked everything on a principled move to found a new force in politics

Millions of us think we know her. We don’t. I’d imagined a comfortable childhood in a wealthy, intelligent setting: radical chic — but it’s all much spikier than that. Her mother, Vera Brittain, was certainly clever and radical, but her campaigning feminism, her furious pacifism, her remoteness as a parent and her intense friendships with other women conspired, with the strange insecurity of her husband (Shirley’s adoring father), to pitch the infant into what became a rather solitary, tomboyish girlhood, independent teens, bold twenties and the life of a pretty angry young woman. She climbed rocks, climbed roofs to see London burning, and scaled the under-girders of Chelsea Bridge. She insisted on going to a state school.

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