'What's it like to be a "National Treasure"? God Awful'
A giant of politics, Baroness Williams is still going strong at 81. In this revealing interview, The Lady talks to her about love, Margaret Thatcher's power dressing, and being the Queen Mum of Westminster...
So, what’s it like being a “national treasure”?’ I ask. Baroness Williams’s face crinkles up – she isn’t partial to the sobriquet. ‘God awful,’ she replies.
‘All that stuff,’ she says, ‘it’s the Queen Mother without the crown.’ That makes us laugh. There are, after all, not so kind nicknames for politicians of note: ‘old buffer’, ‘usual suspect’, ‘the Vulcan’. But perhaps ‘national treasure’ is too benign for Baroness Williams.
‘It just means I’m over 80,’ she explains. ‘Michael Foot became a “national treasure”. I don’t think it matters what your politics are, you just have to be old, but it’s not helpful.
‘It puts you on a shelf, a sort of statue, and I think of myself as being dusted and occasionally brushed, and birds flying overhead and doing things on me.’
We’re sitting in her office, across the road from the House of Lords. I’m deep in one of her armchairs, and she is looking down on me from a swivel office chair, wearing shapeless dark trousers and comfortable shoes, with her hair arranged, not with care, in grey tufts.
She is 81 and smaller than I remember, but her energy is undiminished. For many years, she was simply Shirley Williams. Elected Labour MP in 1964, she rose swiftly through the opposition ranks, sat in cabinet under Harold Wilson and James Callaghan and left the Labour Party in 1981 to form a new political party – the SDP – with fellow Gang of Four members Bill Rodgers, David Owen and Roy Jenkins.
In 1993 she was created a life peer and, from 2001 to 2004, led the Liberal Democrats in the upper chamber. At one time she was touted as the leader of her party and possibly a prime minister. I ask her about this and she dismisses the idea with a wave of her hand. But does she have any regrets, I persist, because she did after all stand against Michael Foot to be Labour’s deputy leader.
‘No,’ she says firmly, but I can see she’s kicking the question around in her head. ‘Well, not regrets, but I wish I’d paid a little more attention to my appearance. I feel that I should have realised it was going to cost me more politically than I thought. A reasonably small effort might have made a difference.’
She tells me that she has a memory of being seven years old and thinking that there were far more things to do than she would ever have time for, and that she just found clothes and make-up rather low on her list of priorities.
But her mother, the writer and feminist Vera Brittain, was very fond of clothes and make-up. She was always well turned out, Shirley Williams says, always ‘impeccably dressed’. She mentions Lady Thatcher, too, as having a gift for self-presentation.
‘Even now she looks exceedingly smart. Not a hair out of place. She was a highly perceptive woman, she could tell that in the Conservative Party you had to be well turned out. She went a long way to beat down prejudice against women by the fact she was always impeccably lovely.’
I ask her about the current Home Secretary, Theresa May. ‘She goes in for – not just well turned out, but almost glamorous. That wouldn’t work for me; wrong party.’
Indeed, when her father, the political scientist George Catlin, bought her silk shirts from France to encourage her to smarten up, she didn’t wear them. ‘I didn’t want to wear silk. He kept trying, but it just wasn’t my life.’
Perhaps, by not bothering with her appearance, she was being stubborn, rebelling even. ‘Yes, I am sure.’ She continues, nodding agreement. ‘I think it was that adolescent thing: who the hell is going to tell me what I’m going to wear? Luckily, I was in the Labour Party.’
She goes on to reflect that if she had taken a little more care she may have made her political path a little easier. ‘For one thing, you get taken more seriously,’ she says. ‘It’s easy to dumb down someone who looks scatty. I was, in the end, taken seriously, but it was the outcome of an intellectual exercise, not just on appearance.’
Baroness Williams is candid and open. It’s not always this way with politicians, and it’s a little disarming. She talks in bullet-bursts, anticipating the end of my question – often we overlap. Her father, she says, implanted in her head an ‘excessive’ respect for leading figures in the political world, whether men or women (he was a serious feminist), although when she was young, men, almost exclusively, dominated the political arena.
‘My father really made me think that to lead in politics you had to be an extraordinarily remarkable person.’ In fact, the reason she shied away from running for party leadership was, in part, because she didn’t think she was good enough. ‘It’s as simple as that. Men are much more confident in themselves than women are, even now.
‘I’m not sure how much I wanted to be prime minister. I’ve been in politics long enough to know that intellect isn’t the major thing, but it’s character, to use that famous oldfashioned phrase.’ And does she think our political leaders have character now? ‘Not really. They’re competent. The best people don’t go into politics any more.’
We are interrupted by a couple of knocks on her door. She shouts: ‘I know, I know.’ Her assistant reminds her that she is already running late for her next meeting.
It was her second husband, the Harvard Professor Richard Neustadt, who helped to improve her punctuality – and her wardrobe, she laughs.
He loved browsing (she loathes it) and would, at a leisurely pace, visit clothes shops and select appropriate outfits for his wife, which she would pick up later. ‘He was a very civilised American, and he had a good eye.’
When he died nearly eight years ago, Shirley Williams says it was hard not having someone to turn to. She pauses, glances out of the window – the only moment during our conversation that her eyes stray from mine. She misses him, but says missing and dependence are two different things. ‘Some women never cease to be dependent. I have learnt to live as an independent person again,’ she smiles.
‘In my life, I spent 15 years married and then 15 years independent, then 15 married again. It’s turned out quite neatly, like a sandwich.’
We fall into a silence and drift in our own thoughts for a moment.
But then, ‘Damn it!’ she bursts out, ‘I went to America when I was nine on my own – with my brother.’ By which she means she is hardwired to be independent, to be self-reliant. She has the emotional equipment to do it.
There are so many more things I meant to ask: I’ll have to skip questions on the intricacies of her campaign to amend the Health And Social Care Bill, which has taken up so much of her time recently.
Nick Clegg supported her at first, and then said that they had done enough. She didn’t agree and went on campaigning, although she is sanguine about this.
‘He has to live in the coalition,’ she says.
‘You think he should compromise?’
‘Well, no, not too much.’
But many accused her of compromising on the Bill and she found herself in the midst of a Twitter maelstrom, which she says was like an ‘acid bath’.
Since then, she has spent less time in the public eye and more with her family. So what will she be doing now? She is relaxed and sits back on her chair, folding her hands in her lap.
She wants to think more, but adds, with no discernible trace of bitterness, that many people consider people in their 80s don’t have any thoughts worth listening to.
‘When a woman in her 80s speaks, people tune out.’
I protest, but she presses her point. ‘You have to be very careful about that and it’s not about a lack of energy.’
She really has to get to her next meeting before she misses it entirely. As I pack my bag, I notice how many books and folders and papers are scattered around her office, before she says:
‘I have to think more, read more and speak less. And then wait to pass away.’
It is an extraordinary end to the interview – but then Shirley Williams always did speak her mind.
Daily tip from the lady archive
“HEAVEN forbid that we should go back to the days when beauty was under suspicion and plain girls were assumed to have angelic natures.”The Lady. With Prejudice. 28th April 1938