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

THE SHITEHOUSE DECLARATION

As tribute acts go, I’ve probably seen worse, though it’s hard to think where off the top of my head. Let’s compare: Roy Jenkins – twice Home Secretary, once Chancellor of the Exchequer, a man on whose watch homosexuality was decriminalised, abortion was legalised, capital punishment was abolished and archaic divorce laws were reformed; Chuka Umunna – Shadow Business Secretary…and…er…well, that’s it. And yet, at the press conference held to announce the resignation of seven Labour MPs this morning, Umunna did his best to remix the speech Jenkins made at the launch of the SDP in 1981 so that it could become a defining signpost along his own path of vainglory.

When a mere four ‘moderate’ MPs staged a similar split from a Labour party that had been seized by the hard left thirty-eight years ago, the quartet consisted of the aforementioned Jenkins as well as a former Foreign Secretary (David Owen), a former Education Secretary (Shirley Williams), and a former Transport Secretary (Bill Rodgers). Rodgers was perhaps the only member of the quartet whose public service didn’t quite resonate with the heavyweight cache of his partners, though seeing today’s events on TV made me think of legendary US rock critic Lester Bang’s response to the question, ‘Are Slade the new Beatles?’ – to which he had replied, ‘Sure; they’re all Ringo.’ What we witnessed today was seven Ringos who hadn’t even formulated the concept of an actual political party, merely a ‘group’. The Gang of Seven, perhaps.

Various reasons were served-up as motives for the split, varying from individual to individual. The case of Luciana Berger (Liverpool Wavertree) seemed the most understandable, subject as she has been over the past five years to unpleasant anti-Semitic abuse that the leadership of the Labour Party appears either incapable – or unwilling – to get an effective grip on. Her resignation was perhaps the most anticipated and probably would have happened with or without the simultaneous walk-out of six fellow Labour MPs. But while dissatisfaction with the direction of the party has been brewing amongst those who graduated from the Blair academy ever since Corbyn took control in 2015, the shadow of Brexit hangs over the whole affair like the ‘I’d give it ten minutes if I were you’ post-toilet warning of an unwelcome houseguest.

Three or four Tory MPs are currently facing threats of de-selection thanks to their Brexit stance and it’s not beyond the realm of possibility to picture them joining their ideological cohorts who have just exited Labour; and, somewhat predictably, the Mr Barrowclough of British politics, Vince ‘I sold the Royal Mail’ Cable has offered the hand of friendship to the ‘Independent Group’, echoing as they seem to do his own perspective on Brexit. Whether or not this means all three strands will coalesce into a new third party remains to be seen, but – a bit like Jacob Rees-Mogg’s melodramatic misfire re Theresa May’s leadership last year – the timing of this decision could well prove to be somewhat ill.

One of the criticisms levelled at Jenkins & co in 1981 was that they should have remained in the Labour Party and engaged in a battle that could have seen them eventually wrestle control from Foot and Benn; their exit was viewed in some quarters as a cowardly cop-out, being all-too aware that the structure of the British political system meant their Social Democratic experiment was destined to ensure a further two Election successes for Mrs Thatcher. The last time a third party was able to command more than 100 seats in Parliament was way back in 1923, and since then the role of a third party has essentially been to prop up the winners, most notably in 2010. At the moment, this Independent Group haven’t even got to the stage where they can call themselves a party, which makes their little collective more reminiscent of an even older Parliamentary model, one that stretches all the way back to the eighteenth century, when Whigs and Tories were ideological groupings at Westminster rather than organised political parties as we would recognise them today.

It’s hard not to be cynical towards the motives of Umunna in particular. He quickly threw his hat in the ring following Ed Miliband’s resignation as Labour leader after the 2015 General Election defeat and withdrew it just as quickly, suggesting he lacked the bottle to push himself forward as a potential Prime Minister when he belatedly realised the level of scrutiny he’d be subjected to. Since his hissy-fit departure from the frontbench in the wake of Corbyn’s 2015 election as Labour leader, his evident irritation with being shoved to the margins of Labour has rankled with his ego, something that’s been on constant display during his regular television appearances over the last couple of years. He’s also had to stand back and watch his own elitist outlook take battering after battering across the Continent, yet his denial over precisely how out of touch he is with the prevailing European trend echoes his guru Tony’s equally deluded sermons on the subject of Brexit. The world has moved on, but these people simply will not accept they are now standing on the wrong side of history.

Along with his kindred spirit in the blue half of the Commons, Anna Soubry, Chuka Umunna has been prominent in doing his utmost to block Brexit progress, emerging as one of the leading cheerleaders of the ‘You plebs didn’t understand what you were voting for’ mindset. In Chuka’s world, the Third Way approach that worked in the 90s is still relevant, whereas most of the electorate see it as meaningless an approach to today’s problems as the Gold Standard or any other archaic political foundation stone upon which to build a system of governance. Few are arguing that a satisfactory successor has taken hold of this century; so far, there seem to be a series of competing ideologies, all of which are fighting to make themselves heard without any emerging as a distinct frontrunner. Such a climate is commonplace in the prelude to war, though that’s hardly a comforting thought.

All seven members of the Independent Group have fairly secure majorities from the last General Election, so it’s no wonder they’re reluctant to call on their constituents to endorse their walk-out via a series of potentially fascinating by-elections. Many hail from Leave constituencies, which (considering their shared stance on Brexit) is no doubt another factor in hesitating to put it to the people – unless it’s a second Referendum, of course; that’s different. Oh, well. We’ll see what happens in the days and weeks to come. At least if they’ve achieved anything, they’ve prompted me back into action; and that’s an achievement in itself.

© The Editor

FOUR LEFT FEET

SDPIn retrospect, it was inevitably destined to fail in its original incarnation; it was a fragile four-way partnership from the beginning. Like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young recording one landmark LP before internal conflict ceased to inspire creativity, competing egos scuppered any chances of long-term success. But hopes were certainly high in some quarters 35 years ago today, when Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers issued the Limehouse Declaration, a media event that confirmed the Gang of Four’s split from Labour and the formation of a new centre-left political party, the SDP. Who can forget that logo – a post-punk graphic classic? Using the same font ‘Melody Maker’ was then employing as its masthead, it made an instant impact at a time when political parties weren’t branded as they are today. In its own small way, that logo said as much about the desire to break with British political tradition as the party’s policies. For a brief moment in 1981, some saw the birth of the Social Democratic Party as the light at the end of the gloomy tunnel the nation had been travelling through for far too long.

From the mid-70s onwards, there had been a series of defections from the Labour party – whether the likes of Dick Taverne and Eddie Milne standing against Labour candidates as independents, having been threatened with de-selection by their local branches as they were infiltrated by Trotskyites, or the likes of Christopher Mayhew and Lord Chalfont joining the Liberal cause – something that suggested Harold Wilson’s largely successful role at playing the pacifist parent keeping his warring offspring on the Left and the Right from engaging in ideological fisticuffs was not entirely effective. It was evident that trouble was brewing beneath the united front, and even the election of moderate Jim Callaghan as Wilson’s successor couldn’t prevent growing dissatisfaction from other moderates within the party over the increasing influence of the far Left. As the Tories took the country to the Right in the wake of the 1979 General Election, the appointment of Michael Foot as Labour leader was the last straw for the Gang of Four.

Despite the shaky start Margaret Thatcher made as Prime Minister – there were even rumours of a coup at one stage in 1981 – the Labour party was already regarded as unelectable; its move towards the far Left in the wake of the 1979 General Election defeat had been a disaster for Labour in popularity polls, with only its most loyal, diehard supporters sticking by Michael Foot, a principled and passionate politician, yes, but one utterly unsuitable for the task of leading the country. The public had blamed the industrial chaos of the late 70s on the more militant tendencies of the Left, and a Labour party still in thrall to the unions, led by a wild-haired eccentric who resembled a mad professor from a Children’s Film Foundation movie, was never going to be elected to office. The calamitous drubbing Labour received at the 1983 General Election had been forewarned by a quartet of Labour moderates stranded by the party’s lurch leftwards.

Jenkins, the avuncular old-timer, Owen, the suave matinée idol for the housewives, Williams, the bossy headmistress, and Rodgers, the Ringo of the band, were all former Labour Ministers who had become disillusioned with their party’s self-destructive policies and felt there was an unoccupied middle ground within British politics at a time when Labour and Conservative were positioned at ideologically-opposed extremes. Some still argue they bottled the challenge of wrestling control of Labour from Foot and Benn in a civil war they perhaps knew they could never win. But the formation of the Social Democratic Party, coming when Thatcher’s popularity was at her lowest ebb and Michael Foot was Public Enemy Number One in the eyes of the right-wing tabloid press, was generally well-received as breath of fresh air.

There were plenty floating voters around in 1981 whose faith in Labour and the Tories was waning after the two had swapped places over the past decade without any discernible improvement in the country’s fortunes, and they welcomed something different. Twenty-eight Labour MPs and one Tory eventually joined the SDP, and a series of by-election victories leading up to the 1983 General Election suggested the new party was a force to be reckoned with, achieving an opinion poll rating of 50% at one stage in 1981.

The arrival of the SDP had also been welcomed by several senior members of the Liberal Party, including their leader, David Steel; it was felt by many Liberals that the two parties were far more ideologically matched than the Liberals had been with Labour during the short-lived Lib-Lab Pact of 1977/78. Perhaps a partnership between the SDP and the Liberal party was inevitable, and the two entered into a mutually-beneficent union at the end of 1981 as the SDP-Liberal Alliance. Although their instant popularity received a knockback when Thatcher’s standing rose considerably in the wake of the Falklands War of 1982, at the 1983 General Election, the party polled 25% of the national vote – though the ‘first past the post’ British electoral system only resulted in 23 Alliance MPs being elected. They fared worse at the 1987 General Election, by which stage the party’s honeymoon period was long gone and Mrs Thatcher was at the peak of her powers.

A complete union between the SDP and the Liberals had long been mooted, but disputes over who should lead them, and growing ideological differences, continued to plague the two parties as the initial promise of the SDP appeared to have floundered in the eyes of voters. Splits within the SDP were compounded when they and the Liberals officially combined as the Liberal Democrats in 1988, a new party that drew most of its numbers from the SDP, yet was led by a former Liberal, Paddy Ashdown. SDP members who opposed the union, most prominently David Owen, staggered on before eventually disappearing from the mainstream political map in the late 1990s, whereas the Lib Dems gradually became the most significant third party in British politics for more than a generation, peaking with a tally of 62 seats at the 2005 General Election under Charles Kennedy.

Some have reduced the SDP to a footnote in British political history, buy there’s no doubt that the SDP proved to the ailing Labour party that it was possible to move towards the middle ground as the warring extremes of Left and Right began to turn many potential voters away from politics by the mid-80s. Labour’s own ideological shift started in earnest during the aftermath of the humiliating ’83 Election hammering, with the appointment of Neil Kinnock as party leader, the first step on the long and winding road to New Labour and power. 35 years on, with the Lib Dems reduced to eight measly MPs (even less than the Liberals had in 1981) and Labour again led by an old-school Socialist with his head in the clouds, could history repeat itself? If so, any breakaway from Labour would require the presence of figures with a little more clout than Chukka Umunna, Liz Kendall or Tristram Hunt. But there aren’t any.

© The Editor