DON’T CALL ME SHIRLEY

WilliamsAs has become evident in recent years re what can no longer be said in polite company, once words drift out of the colloquial lexicon, it’s rare for them to be welcomed back. Like ex-lovers or disgraced celebrities, all evidence of them is wilfully erased to the point whereby they only continue to exist within the context of whatever caused them to be blackballed in the first place. Many words which disappear are never seen again in the present tense; and if they happen to unavoidably feature in a work of drama produced before their social exclusion, contemporary witnesses are warned of their presence as a kind of trigger disclaimer. A few words that don’t fall into the ‘rebranded offensive’ category simply fall out of common parlance because they sound so old-fashioned or are too associated with a past no longer relevant. Random words heard routinely during my own childhood such as courting, demob suit, shop steward and goolies spring to mind. Added to that could be housewife – once a valid job title, yet nowadays usually uttered by actual housewives in a rather embarrassed tone of voice that implies it’s a poor substitute for a real career.

I’m sure ‘housewife’ is regarded in some circles as a demeaning insult, though it used to describe an entire – and considerable – demographic; famously, of course, it even inspired a hugely popular radio request show that ran on the BBC Light Programme for 20 years, ‘Housewives’ Choice’. If ‘Woman’s Hour’ was intended to act as an afternoon instruction manual for those whose workplace was the domestic environment, ‘Housewives’ Choice’ soundtracked the morning following the exodus of hubby and the kids; the presenter spun discs chosen by the listeners and established an intimate relationship with the audience, providing something that was as near to an interactive experience as was possible in the pre-internet age. The best illustration of this comes in the wonderful opening sequence of the 1963 movie, ‘Billy Liar’; it brilliantly evokes a vanished Britain with a montage of all houses great and small across the country, accompanied by a burst of ‘Housewives’ Choice’ as a million women hanging out their washing wait to see if their request will be read out on air.

Despite the radical revival of feminist rhetoric during the 1970s, being a housewife remained the majority option for half the population – indeed, ‘The Housewife’ was a much-coveted figure for advertisers and politicians alike. This is particularly notable in party political broadcasts of the period; whenever one of the small number of well-known female MPs appears they tend to address ‘women’s issues’ as ‘housewives’ issues’. When Shirley Williams was, along with Barbara Castle, the most prominent female member of Harold Wilson’s team, she appeared in a February 1974 Election broadcast brandishing a shopping basket, pointing out how various items of foodstuffs had increased in price under Ted Heath’s Government. It was impossible to imagine Tony Benn or Jim Callaghan doing likewise, but Williams became Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection when Labour returned to power, so I guess her supermarket sweep made a kind of sense.

Prior to the General Election victory of February ’74, Shirley Williams had served two years as Shadow Home Secretary, which was an unprecedented promotion for a female MP at the time. It’s a shame her stint took place during the era before the broadcasting of Parliament, for it would be fascinating to see how Williams squared up against an old-school Tory Alpha Male like Reginald Maudling. In office, however, Shirley Williams’ Cabinet position reflected the ‘home economics’ role most female members of the electorate were still familiar with; she’d been Minister for Education and Science in Wilson’s second administration in the late 60s, a period when few Westminster women could expect to ascend the heights later reached by the likes of Priti Patel, Theresa May, Jacqui Smith, Margaret Beckett or – naturally – Margaret Thatcher. So, in her own way, Shirley Williams – or, as she was eventually known, Dame Shirley, the Baroness Williams of Crosby – was something of a trailblazer. Her death at the age of 90 means this here blog is in danger of reverting to an ongoing obituary again, but as a break from Covid-19 or Woke-21, marking the recently-departed can actually come as rather welcome breather for yours truly. Besides, I find any politician from the era Shirley Williams made her mark in interesting, because they were genuinely interesting times.

Shirley Williams’ status as one of the Labour Party’s original glass ceiling-smashers is somewhat overlooked now. If she’s recalled at all in Labour circles, it’s more likely to be with a regretful sigh following the part she played in abandoning the Party to the Left in 1981, alongside Roy Jenkins, David Owen and Bill Rodgers. As one quarter of ‘the Gang of Four’, Williams didn’t so much cross the floor of the House as move into a new conservatory christened the Social Democratic Party, better known by its acronym of SDP. She’d been elected to Parliament at the 1964 General Election as Member for Hitchin after three previous failed attempts, though – as with many MPs of her generation – she was far from being a career politician, even if her eventual destiny almost seems preordained when one considers her background. She came from classic academic, upper middle-class liberal stock.

The product of a highly intellectual household – her father was the philosopher Sir George Catlin and her mother ‘Testament of Youth’ author Vera Brittain – the woman born Shirley Vivian Teresa Brittain Catlin was schooled in old-school Socialism from a young age, though it’s curious that she was initially drawn towards acting. As an evacuee in the USA during WWII, she even screen-tested for the leading role in ‘National Velvet’, losing out to Liz Taylor; she carried on treading the boards as a student, playing Cordelia in a touring production of ‘King Lear’ by the Oxford University Dramatic Society. After graduating from Oxford as a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy, politics and economics, Williams studied further at New York’s Columbia University before following in the Michael Foot-steps by beginning a career as a journalist upon returning home. Barely had she begun, however, before her eagerness to enter politics was evident as she stood at the 1954 Harwich by-election.

Europhile Williams was a key figure on the right of the Labour Party at a time when simmering tensions between both wings of it were masterfully kept in check by Harold Wilson’s expert man (and woman) management. When Wilson resigned in 1976, Jim Callaghan just about held things together, but defeat at the 1979 General Election – when Williams lost her seat – proved to be the writing on the wall for the post-war political consensus, not merely within British politics itself but within the Labour Party. Williams was the first SDP MP elected to Parliament when she won the 1981 Crosby by-election, though she lost the seat at the 1983 General Election and never returned to the Commons thereafter. The breakaway formation of the SDP may have been a short-lived experiment, but it certainly contributed towards Labour’s 18-year exile from government; that said, the SDP’s brand of democratic socialism also undoubtedly proved to be a major influence on New Labour. By the time of the Labour landslide of 1997, Shirley Williams was already a Lib Dem Peer, though she was officially based in the USA as a Harvard professor.

Whether or not Shirley Williams can be spoken of in the same breath as some of her political contemporaries is something open to debate; she lacked the ruthlessness required to be a contender for the first female PM, though her impact on Blair’s generation was indisputable, and I’ve no doubt her high profile at a time when politics was very much a boy’s club helped pave the way for an increase in women entering Parliament. But she’s one more player from an era of giants gone to that great debating chamber in the sky, and her departure yet again shines an unflattering light on the dwarves struggling to stand on those shoulders today.

© The Editor