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The Prime Minister women needed Unlike Thatcher, the late Shirley Williams would have fought for genuine equality


April 13, 2021   5 mins

We’re republishing Jenni’s appreciation of Baroness Shirley Williams following the news of the politician’s death. 

In spring of 2013, when I was asked to chair a discussion at the Women of the World conference at the South Bank, I was told I could choose any guest I like, as well as the subject matter. As I was 63 at the time, I said I wanted to speak with women who had served as role models to me, and who would have interesting things to pass on to what would be an audience consisting of a lot of young women.

Baroness Mary Warnock, the great philosopher, agreed to attend, as did the woman I’ve admired more than any in my life: Baroness Shirley Williams. Mary was 89 and Shirley 83, and they were the cleverest, wittiest, most articulate and thoughtful women I knew.

At one point in the conversation we discussed a topic that has continued to rage — the sexual harassment of women. Mary explained how she’d had a tutor at Oxford who was known for being rather too “hands on”. She endured his attentions without complaint as he was such a brilliant teacher. Anyone else who “had a go” was simply told to “Fuck Off”. It’s what she recommended to the young audience.

Shirley remembered a frequent offender in the House of Commons when she was first an MP in the mid-sixties. She wouldn’t name the junior minister who chased her around the filing cabinets, but told me he so annoyed the six young women with whom she’d formed friendships in parliament that they made a plan. They would all wear punishing stiletto heels and manoeuvre themselves into position in front of him during divisions. Then, one by one, they would step back onto his foot. The next day they saw him hobbling into the tea room. Collective action had fixed things.

I have interviewed a number of leading politicians in my lifetime, and I have never looked forward to those encounters as much as I did when I knew it was Shirley Williams who would be sitting in front of me. I once described her as “having the word integrity stamped through her like a stick of Blackpool rock”. I could have added charm, warmth, humour, honour, humanity, knowledge and wisdom to her list of qualities.

She always acknowledged the influence of her father, the political philosopher, George Catlin, on her confidence in pursuing her own political career. In the 1930s it was unusual to find a man who would treat his daughter in the same way as her brother. Usually, she said, fathers would hand round cigars at the birth of a boy and share commiserations if they had a girl.

From her mother, the novelist, Vera Brittain, she learned her pacifism and never to be afraid of expressing controversial views. Vera, the author of Testament of Youth (1933), had written a pamphlet criticising the British government’s blanket bombing of German cities during the Second World War, causing the deaths of thousands of German civilians.

It went down very badly in Britain, but rather well in post-war Germany, leading to Shirley being invited to Dresden in 2014 to celebrate the naming of a canal after Brittain. Shirley was proud that her mother had instilled in her a passion for peace and humanity; her feminism was also rooted in the influence of her mother and Vera’s long lasting and very close friendship with her fellow writer, Winifred Holtby.

It was not easy in the Fifties and early Sixties for a bright young woman to get herself elected to parliament. When, after university and a Fulbright scholarship in America, Shirley needed to find a job, she worked for two years on the Daily Mirror. She hated tabloid journalism but used the opportunity to learn about poverty and deprivation as she chased stories. At around the time she was first adopted as a parliamentary candidate for the Labour Party, in 1952, she was sacked from the Mirror. She remembered the editor telling her: “You weren’t very good, but you were cheap.”

Her years campaigning for a seat in the Commons were equally instructive about working-class life in post-war Britain. She recalled front doors being opened for a young, slightly tousled woman by the lady of the house who would simply shout back to the husband sitting by the smoky coal fire, “Who is it we vote for?”

Before she finally made it into Parliament in 1964, as the MP for Hitchin in Hertfordshire, she married Bernard Williams, suffered three miscarriages and finally gave birth to her daughter, Rebecca, in 1961. Then came that nightmare so many clever, ambitious women have faced. How do you combine a demanding job, the care of a child and the demands of a husband who wanted dinner on the table, interesting conversation, a social life and had no interest in what she described to me as “the less attractive sides of being a parent”?

What kept her going as her marriage began to fall apart? It was, she told me, “the most hard of hard boards”, but she had determined that she would “pay back society for the privilege of her birth”. She was, she said, a boringly consistent moderate politician who wanted to help individuals improve the quality of their lives, break down the barriers between European states that had seen the devastation of two world wars and fight for social justice at every level of society. She also wanted to be in a “front seat at the theatre of the world.”

Her divorce in 1967 broke her heart. Her Catholic faith has run through so many of her moral decisions. The only time we had a real difference of opinion was on the question of legalising abortion. She had supported the change in the law, knowing how much damage had been done to women by backstreet abortionists, but was never comfortable with it being “treated too casually”. The Church’s rules on contraception, though, she found indefensible. Women’s rights mattered to her even when she had to struggle with her faith.

Throughout her long political life, as she rose through cabinet posts including Education, and then as shadow Home Secretary, she was unyielding in her determination to do good and make life more fair for everyone. She has no regrets about her determination to introduce comprehensive education. Under the grammar/secondary modern system she maintained, only one in five children had the chance to achieve the highest standards in education. She vowed that there should be no more “wasted children”.

Nor does she regret leaving the Labour party as it moved further and further to the Left, becoming one of the Gang of Four, leading the Social Democratic Party in the eighties, merging with the Liberals and leading the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords until 2004, only retiring from it in 2014.

In the closing chapter of her autobiography, Climbing the Bookshelves (2009), she writes: “Like many women of my generation and the one before mine, I thought of myself as not quite good enough for the very highest positions in politics.” On that she was profoundly wrong, and I doubt it was a lack of confidence shared by the woman who did become our first female Prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.

As far as I know the two women never got on, and I do remember Shirley expressing her disappointment at how little Thatcher did to support other women. Thatcher was dismissive of the need for providing child care and never appointed an elected woman to her cabinet. Janet Young, leader of the House of Lords, was her only female appointment. Shirley was tipped as a possible Prime Minister in the mid-70s, but of course lost her seat in 1979, as Thatcher won the top job. Women would, I’m sure, have fared better with Shirley in the lead.

I remember Shirley telling me that she hated the way Thatcher was proud to be known as “the only man in the cabinet”, but greatly admired the way the PM handled her menopause. “Mrs Thatcher, presumably, at one stage or another, went through the menopause. There was not a single indication that she did. Since that time no-one has ever said women can’t be tough enough to be politicians.”

Shirley Williams would, I’m convinced, have been every bit as tough and would have brought talented women into cabinet, providing a more equal balance for the corridors of power. She was also a warm, compassionate, honest, decent democratic socialist, trying to hammer out a compromise between capitalism and social justice. She would have been a wise and wonderful Prime Minister.


Dame Jenni Murray is a writer and broadcaster.

whjm

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James Rowlands
James Rowlands
3 years ago

Margaret Thatcher is remembered because her policies were successful. First adopted by Reagan and later by Deng Xaioping, Thatcherism became the vehicle to lift millions out of poverty, in the case if China hundreds of millions.
Thatcher was into true equality. Not a zero sum paper game like we increasingly see now, but true equality of giving everyone, black, white, male, female the tools and opportunities to succeed, unrestricted by government dictates and oppressive taxation.
Thatcher was a far better outcome for women than Williams because she realised that the only equality worth having is the equality of the freedom to make your own decisions. Our new obsession with gender quotas and such like, really don’t compare.

Last edited 3 years ago by James Rowlands
SUSAN GRAHAM
SUSAN GRAHAM
3 years ago
Reply to  James Rowlands

Shirley Williams version of equality for all was – with regard to education – dumbing down to the lowest common denominator. Abolishing grammar schools was the greatest disservice to generations of children in history. I was fortunate to attend a grammar school in the 60s but the same privilege was not open to my children, or subsequent generations. The result apparent for all to see and her legacy has been to leave a disaster – not inflicted on her own children of course who were educated privately. Shirley’s brand of equality ?

James Rowlands
James Rowlands
3 years ago
Reply to  SUSAN GRAHAM

There seems to be two types of leftist equality. “Good enough for you but not for me”, the Williams and many other feminst version that you allude to. The second is, everyone equally miserably poor/exposed to violence. Thatcher showed the world how to remove the second option. The feminists in the West however, don’t seem to realise that they will create for the majority, a follow on generation of men and women, “equally” dirt poor. Creating the very conditions again, that generations of men and women have strived together to escape.

Ian Gribbin
Ian Gribbin
3 years ago
Reply to  SUSAN GRAHAM

Dead right Susan – the left hates the idea that we are not blank slates. Intelligence is 78% in inherited. Please see note above for the latest empirical study by Robert Plomin.

Chris Mochan
Chris Mochan
3 years ago

I won’t forget her cowardice on the question of Salman Rushdie’s knighthood on Question Time. Utterly exposed her moral emptiness. Incredibly, at one point she said the cost of the Rushdie’s police protection from religious psychopaths should deny him the award.(Incidentally the current PM also shirked his duty to defend freedom of speech on the same show by waffling about how Rushdie should be denied he knighthood on ‘literary grounds’.) Fortunately, Christopher Hitchens was also there and accurately described Williams as ‘contemptible’.
She was also instrumental in getting rid of the grammar school system and replacing it with the comprehensive disaster which was inflicted on me and my contemporaries. All while her own children went to the finest schools, naturally. You can’t be too careful with your own kids.

andrew24
andrew24
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Mochan

I wonder which schools Ms. Murray’s children attended? I presume she has children, her being the ‘complete woman’.

Colin Reeves
Colin Reeves
3 years ago
Reply to  andrew24

She herself attended Barnsley Girls’ High School – a grammar school – according to Wikipedia. No doubt she approves of Williams’ pulling up the ladder after she had climbed it. On the plus side, Dame Jenni Murray has been accused of “transphobia.”

Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Mochan

The Reason we have Public schools is because they are stuffed with mps Children Lib-Lab-Cons

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
3 years ago
Reply to  Robin Lambert

As far as I can tell, foreigners and the officers of the armed services also feature as parents, these days.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Shirley Williams destroyed the grammar school system that was doing so much to achieve some form of equality. An awful woman. I am sick of these articles about so-and-so being the PM we should have had. I have read hundreds of them over the years. Who next? Diane Abbot? Lembit Opik? Stan Bowles? Jeremy Thorpe’s dog? (Was it Thorpe’s dog or did Thorpe arrange for someone to kill Norman Scott’s dog? Anything is possible with these people).

Last edited 3 years ago by Fraser Bailey
Mike Boosh
Mike Boosh
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

TBF, lembit opik would at least offer entertainment value, we’d have a cheeky girl in no. 10 and we’d be safe from asteroids.

Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago
Reply to  Mike Boosh

Opik had a few Girlfriends then he Was very wealthy despite face smashed in parachute accident..he was a bird fancier…Lib-dims are Not Liberal or democratic unfortunately..So I’m voting iNDEPENDENT May 6 2021

Johnny Sutherland
Johnny Sutherland
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Can we have Diane Abbot as FM for Scotland please.

Niobe Hunter
Niobe Hunter
3 years ago

Please send a car to pick her up

Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago

”You’re a Riot” At least thats what Abbot is predicting on Black unemployment,Nothing about poor White teenagers being unemployed

Mel Shaw
Mel Shaw
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Stan Bowles (the footballer) would have been fun. Still in the bookies smoking a fag five minutes before PMQs.

Martin Price
Martin Price
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I was one of the first of my generation to enjoy the new Comprehensive education. I feel no gratitude to Mrs Williams.

andrew24
andrew24
3 years ago
Reply to  Martin Price

Yes, but the good thing, as far as the likes of Ms Murray are concerned is that, now, everyone is poorly educated, which is fair, (apparently.)

L Paw
L Paw
3 years ago
Reply to  andrew24

Sadly, so very true Andrew. The thing that 100% backs up this assertion is that periodically we get loud calls from the Left for the abolition of private/independent schools. The teaching unions and all the left know that the superior results achieved by many of the independent sector show what a disaster comprehensive ‘education’ is.

Jonathan Marshall
Jonathan Marshall
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Scott’s dog it was that died (Rinka).

andrew24
andrew24
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Take a deep breath and pause, (I had to,) and remember, this is written by the insufferable Jenni (wouldn’t it have to be spelled that way?) Murray.
You’re absolutely right regarding the destruction of our education system, but the party of the Politics of Envy can’t abide success.

Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Well Said My brothers went to grammar School, and my sister from ‘Ordinary’backgrounds .I went to ”Intermediate School” unfortunately it Was turned into Secondary Modern,i was Glad to leave at 15.. Williams ,with Woy Jenkins,bill Rodgers hollowed Labour into pro-EU non-Working class party..

kathleen carr
kathleen carr
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Oddly as you linked their names Williams and Jeremy Thorpe were sent to America for the war to ‘save’ them as they were considered to be children who were going to be important .Yes I passed my 11+ and went to a state grammar (different from the fee paying grammars) which when it went comp lost all its teachers , so we all did badly in our exams and ended up working in shops and cafes-probably right don’t want the upper working/lower middle class getting too uppity.I took my degree as a mature student-so had a loan to pay off as did many of other ‘old girls’ I knew.

mark taha
mark taha
3 years ago
Reply to  kathleen carr

Awful shock when she got back – from a relaxed American school to the neurotic St Paul’s!

M Spahn
M Spahn
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I believe Aileen Wuornos would get some votes from the Unherd staff, provided she could be naturalized of course.

Malcolm dunn
Malcolm dunn
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Stan Bowles would have been good. The scorer of the greatest goal I have ever seen. I imagine Stan would have been a fairly libertarian PM.

Derek M
Derek M
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Stan Bowles gets my vote

Mark Preston
Mark Preston
3 years ago

Nice piece of hagiography there. HOWEVER, the assertion that Williams would have been wonderful if she’d have been PM is just idle speculation. I expect better quality journalism than this and better quality journalists. UnHerd is beginning to get a bit too much like The Guardian.

Jonathan Ellman
Jonathan Ellman
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Preston

Absolutely. We deserve better from Unherd, especially those of us who paid for membership. This is a really shoddy piece with no criticism of Williams. However saintly she may have been, she must have had flaws. But Murray hasn’t the critical skills to write a balanced piece.

Andre Lower
Andre Lower
3 years ago

Jonathan, welcome to the ranks of those that thought “Hold on, now I am expected to pay for the so-called-journalism of the likes of Sarah Ditum?”
I am glad I chose to pass.

Last edited 3 years ago by Andre Lower
Colin Reeves
Colin Reeves
3 years ago
Reply to  Andre Lower

Ditto. Freddie, are you listening?

Mark Preston
Mark Preston
3 years ago

It’s not that Murray hasn’t the critical skills it’s simply that she’s ideologically incapable.

Paul N
Paul N
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Preston

As I recall, Yasmin Alibhai Brown has condemned the inaction over the Rochdale child abuse rings, and described it as a gift to the far right – and she comes across as measured, and not at all filled with hatred of Britain. Rachel Shabi, as an Arab-Israeli Jew, has an interesting perspective on antisemitism outside of Israel and discrimination within.
I’m sure both of them would have interesting and thoughtful contributions to make to debate on UnHerd. Or do you think that only people you perceive as allies can do that?
After all, it’s part of UnHerd’s mission to push back against the herd mentality” in the hope “you find something that makes you think again“.

Aidan Trimble
Aidan Trimble
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul N

I’d rather the concern from Alibhai-Brown was for the victims of abuse rather than it being a ‘gift for the far right’, but her priorities do not remotely surprise me.

Paul N
Paul N
3 years ago
Reply to  Aidan Trimble

It is perfectly possible to be concerned for both – as I believe YAB was. In fact, that’s what I said: she condemned it, and described it as a gift to extremists.
Presumably you don’t have any issue with UnHerd’s mission to â€œpush back against the herd mentality” in the hope “you find something that makes you think again“.

David McKee
David McKee
3 years ago

Now there is an interesting debating-point. Did Margaret Thatcher discriminate against women (and if so, who)? And would Shirley Williams have discriminated against men?
That, you see, is the problem with passages like, “Shirley Williams would, I’m convinced, have been every bit as tough and would have brought talented women into cabinet, providing a more equal balance for the corridors of power.” It sounds lovely, doesn’t it? All warm and cosy. There is no hint that there might have been losers with “a more equal balance.” Nor is there any hint that there might be a downside to such an identitarian approach, which sees people, first and foremost, as representatives of their gender, their social class, their ethnicity; then, and only then, are they seen as individuals.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago
Reply to  David McKee

today, it’s called diversity and inclusion which one must admit sounds far more pleasant than anti-white and anti-male, but far less accurate.

Elise Davies
Elise Davies
3 years ago
Reply to  David McKee

“Shirley Williams would, I’m convinced, have been every bit as tough and would have brought talented women into cabinet, providing a more equal balance for the corridors of power.”
Jenni’s convinced. And that’s all you need to know. Evidence? That’s exactly what a member of the Patriarchy would require!

Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago
Reply to  Elise Davies

I think Westminster has 45% Women MPs far better than even 20 years ago?

J D
J D
3 years ago
Reply to  Robin Lambert

The Labour Party now has a majority of female MPs. I wonder if they are going to introduce male only shortlists like they did to address the previous imbalance on ideological grounds.

Mark Preston
Mark Preston
3 years ago
Reply to  Elise Davies

Jenni isn’t keen on evidence – why else do you think she and other feminists keep banging on about the non existence gender pay ‘gap’?

Claire D
Claire D
3 years ago

Shirley Williams was politically ambitious, perhaps a good administrator and diplomat, but that’s as far as it goes. She was partly responsible for getting rid of the grammar school system at the same time as moving into the right catchment area and sending her daughter to one.
Does political ambition + administration and diplomatic skills + hypocrisy = PM material ?
I don’t think so.

Mike Boosh
Mike Boosh
3 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

TBF, the last several incumbents have had those attributes, minus the admin skills and diplomacy.

Claire D
Claire D
3 years ago
Reply to  Mike Boosh

Therefore to be a leader you need something else entirely, don’t you think ?
Whatever it is SW did’nt have it.

ammonia6
ammonia6
3 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

Yes, more technocrat than leader

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
3 years ago

Unlike Thatcher, Shirley Williams would have fought for identity

Fixed the subheading for you.
Thatcher was bigger than that however, focussing on leading and statecraft and as such is one of the most respected world leaders of her era, regardless of her popularity. She fought for equality by virtue of not focussing on petty distinctions.

Last edited 3 years ago by A Spetzari
Andrew D
Andrew D
3 years ago

‘Usually, she said, fathers would hand round cigars at the birth of a boy and share commiserations if they had a girl’.
Really? Really??

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew D

It’s cited as evidence to prove a certain attitude of mind, but I’ve never known anything remotely like this expressed, so I’m sure it’s invented.

Samuel Gee
Samuel Gee
3 years ago

Huge mistake here. I am no fan of Thatcher btw. But we have a woman who joined a party which at the time was thought not to be that accommodating for selection for people of Thatcher’s class and definitely not for women. But she stuck it. Worked it. Didn’t ask for favours which she was never going to get anyway. Made it to the top and stayed there despite the opposition from the grandees who could not stand her. She went down in history as a very significant world leader. That did a huge amount for women. She climbed up the ladder and smashed a glass ceiling. Showing that it could be done.
Contrast this with Williams. Born into considerably more privilege she Joined a party and when she did not get her own way and found advancement difficult she pulled up stumps and huffed off to be a big fish in a considerably smaller pond.
So, not only did Williams not blaze a trail for other women to follow, even if not explicitly stating that as a purpose, she left the only vehicle to power she would have needed to do anything at all.

mark taha
mark taha
3 years ago
Reply to  Samuel Gee

She was a consensus politician who’d have fitted into any government from 1945-79.

Eleanor Barlow
Eleanor Barlow
3 years ago

It’s much more likely that Williams got rid of the grammar schools because she and her fellow middle class members couldn’t stomach the reality of the ‘oiks’ passing the 11+ whilst their own dumb kids couldn’t.

Last edited 3 years ago by Eleanor Barlow
Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Eleanor Barlow

Yes, that’s the truth.

Eleanor Barlow
Eleanor Barlow
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I was one of the ‘oiks’ that passed the 11+. I doubt I would have done half so well if I’d had to attend a crappy comprehensive.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
3 years ago
Reply to  Eleanor Barlow

I went to a Grammar School in the 1980s. The thing that struck me most was the way all my working class mates left or were kicked out when they were 16. They were of no interest to the school.

Andrew D
Andrew D
3 years ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

I went to one too, and was one of those who left at 16 (in my case to go to the local tech, then onto university). Grammar schools appeared then to accept that 25% of pupils would leave with few or no O-levels, and concentrated on getting reasonable grades for the middle 50%, and high grades (and preparation for Oxbridge entry) for the top 25%. In my experience people didn’t leave or get kicked out because they were working class, but because (like me) they hadn’t flourished in an academic hot house and had become lazy or trouble-makers or both.
PS Anagram of Shirley Williams: ‘I whirl aimlessly’

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

I don’t really know what point you’re trying to make. If they left as the age of 16 it would have been because they weren’t trying or they weren’t clever enough to go into the sixth form. I’m sure the school wanted them to get good grades and would have helped those who want to be helped.
For that it’s worth, I went to a bog standard comp in the middle of nowhere in the 1970s/80s. In terms of my parents’ income I would probably have qualified as ‘working class’, along with half the school. I earned A level grades that would have got me into more or less any university into the country (my teachers wanted me to try for Oxbridge) but I wanted nothing to do with all that.
So, again, it’s all about your attitude and aptitude. Nothing to do with the school per se.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Attitude, definitely. They had the aptitude but the school wasn’t interested in investing in them. They were written off for attitude because the school could afford to write them off and achieve its quota of successful uni applicants from those pre selected as suitably middle class by the 11 plus.

Andrew D
Andrew D
3 years ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

So how did your working class mates get into grammar school in the first place? Were they middle class at 11 but somehow dropped down the social scale over the following five years, justifying a further cull at 16?

L Paw
L Paw
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew D

By the ‘fantasy route’ I expect, which seems to run through much of socialist thinking. Kids change a lot over the 5 years in secondary education. It’s much more likely that some kids found that academic study wasn’t for them and went off to tertiary college at 16 to do something more practical. That, however doesn’t fit the divided society and victimhood agenda so often dreamt up by the left.

Niobe Hunter
Niobe Hunter
3 years ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

What does attitude mean? Not doing your homework, being disruptive in class, attacking other pupils ?
I know that this behaviour is tolerated , even encouraged in some schools and among the currently highest rated in the victim hierarchy, but I think in the seventies there was still a vague concept that you went to school to learn stuff, and if you didn’t want to, or stopped other pupils from doing so, you might be happier outside the system.

Paul N
Paul N
3 years ago
Reply to  Niobe Hunter

Seriously, can you name the schools which encourage disruption in class and attacks on pupils? Have you been to the police about this?
I find your remarkable charge rather hard to believe. But be specific by all means. Let’s not ignore more allegations of abuse.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul N

A friend who was teacher in a Londoon comprehensive was punched by a pupil was not expelled. There used to be reform schools where teachers were selected and trained ro deal with violent pupils.
Some children get violent when they realises they are not brigth enough to cope with the lessons, hence the needed for streaming in each subject. Children have massive difference in abilitities Maths and Languages. Someone who was grade 6 CSE would be so far behind someone who had the potential to win a scholarship to read maths at Cambridge /Imperial that no mixed ability or even school could cope.

Paul N
Paul N
3 years ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

There is quite a difference between “not expelling” someone for certain behaviour, and actually encouraging that behaviour. But is not expelling that one kid really what Niobe meant by…

“being disruptive in class, attacking other pupils… is tolerated , even encouraged in some schools”

That said, we clearly do have problems with discipline in some schools. I’m just not sure about the “encouraging attacks” accusation.

Last edited 3 years ago by Paul N
Eleanor Barlow
Eleanor Barlow
3 years ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

I was lucky enough to attend a girls grammar school during the 1960s. Roughly half the class were from a working class background. We were all treated the same by the teachers, I never noticed any favouritism towards the middle class kids. They wanted us all to go to university if we got as far as the 6th form. Getting a job straight after O’ or A levels was strongly discouraged.

D Ward
D Ward
3 years ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

I went to one too in the 80s. My friends had to leave to go to work to help support their families.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago

Does there ever come a point when the aggrieved take yes for an answer? It’s not the 60s anymore and it hasn’t been a for a long time. The battles waged by the early feminists have large been won. Same for the civil rights pioneers, same for the gay rights activists. Yet, each group pretends that we live in a dystopian universe where nothing has changed.
Maybe Thatcher succeeded where others failed because being a woman was simply a fact of her existence, not its defining attribute. Maybe she saw her role as that of Prime Minister, not as crusader or activist. Capitalism has done more to create opportunities for women and other minorities than any other means of organizing an economy. But like everything else, it is populated by human beings and as such, there will be some problems.
The never-ending pearl clutching is tedium at a weapons-grade level. Any progress – and it’s not hard to show evidence of that progress – is hand waved with the pabulum of “there remains work to do.” To do toward what? If perfection is the goal, then disappointment is the only possible outcome. But with activism, there is no goal beyond a perpetuation of the cause. Because the cause provides a livelihood, a perception of relevance, political power, and so forth. Accepting victory would mean giving all of that up.

Paul N
Paul N
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Are you saying that now women are allowed to vote, and no longer sacked when they get married, and even given put on the same payscales as their male colleagues, there are no longer any conceivable areas of unfairness left?

Richard Lyon
Richard Lyon
3 years ago

The highest paid executive in the country is a woman, as is the Queen, head of the largest police force, the Scottish Premier and recent England and Northern Ireland Premiers. 35,000 more women than men go to university. Women in their 20’s earn more than men in their 20’s. Women receive more investment in healthcare research than men, and live longer. Crown Prosecution Service allocates resource and focussing on ending violence against women; consequently, 30% of homicide victims are women, and that fell 16% last year while male homicide victims rose 20%
Can you say a little more about this inequality you claim is not genuine?

Last edited 3 years ago by Richard Lyon
ammonia6
ammonia6
3 years ago
Reply to  Richard Lyon

The majority of doctors in training, in medical schools, are women.

Mike Boosh
Mike Boosh
3 years ago

Perhaps, but people voted for Thatcher. If we’d had a feminist pacifist running the country in the 80s, the falkland islanders would now be speaking spanish.

L Paw
L Paw
3 years ago

Shirley Williams absolutely typified the attitude of Labour politicians while championing the abolition of Grammar schools in the ’70’s, when it came to educating her own daughter, moved house to be in the catchment area for a good London Grammar school. Thus doing what millions of ordinary families were denied by Comprehensive ‘education’, the opportunity to benefit from better schooling.
So typical that Jenni Murray would fawn all over Williams, being of the same socialist ilk, determined that they know better how to spend others money and run peoples lives for them.

Peter James
Peter James
3 years ago

Does anybody else remember Shirley Williams joining a violent picket line (at Grunwick), bent on intimidating law abiding citizens from going to work? We should be grateful that this dreadful woman has been, rightly, consigned to the dustbin of history.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago
Reply to  Peter James

Precisely, and God in his infinite mercy has kept her alive to enjoy her well deserved vilification.
She and and Crosland were perhaps the two most despicable socialist shriekers of their generation.

Last edited 3 years ago by Charles Stanhope
George Bruce
George Bruce
3 years ago

I am afraid the Shirley Williams six women on stilletos things fails the believability test with me.
And as for this – could such a brilliant teacher be replaced by so potentially useful?

She endured his attentions without complaint as he was such a brilliant teacher. Anyone else who “had a go” was simply told to “F
 Off”. 

John Lewis
John Lewis
3 years ago

The comments to date show little agreement with Jenni’s portrayal.

Thank heavens she never achieved higher office where the damage she actually indicted on the country could have been multiplied tenfold.

Richard Stanier
Richard Stanier
3 years ago

Exactly, Ive just paid a sub and I get this?

Steve Hall
Steve Hall
3 years ago

I replied that if they get rid of the tedious Beeb/Graun hacks and commission more writers like Roussinos and Crawford I’ll subscribe….

Robert Pay
Robert Pay
3 years ago

Thank goodness we don’t have to worry about women being held back anymore, or those in public life being only drawn from the upper classes, like Shirley Williams. This is a chapter we can close thanks to all those involved in removing unnatural barriers to advancement, including the late baroness. It is great that identity politics is becoming seen for the disgraceful retrograde canard that gets in the way of socio-economic issues that are a cause for concern.

Last edited 3 years ago by Robert Pay
Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
3 years ago

Another Williams, Walter E Williams offered a definition of social justice. I wonder what Shirley would say. He said:” I keep what I earn, and you keep what you earn. Do you disagree? Well then tell me how much of what I earn belongs to you – and why?”

William Harvey
William Harvey
3 years ago

What difference does being female make in regard to being a PM? None. Its irrelevant. Ideally you want the right human for the job, regardless of gender race, height or any other immutable characteristic. Maybe Jenni ( terrible spelling) should now write an article on how Teresa May was a feminist PM ..rather than a hopeless one.

jamessykes3011
jamessykes3011
3 years ago

Why is it Shirley Williams is referred to by her full name, or “Shirley”, but for Margaret Thatcher , it’s “Thatcher”, is it a leftist BBC thing.

Last edited 3 years ago by jamessykes3011
Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
3 years ago
Reply to  jamessykes3011

It’s a class thing. In left circles to call someone by their surname is deprecatory. It is the reverse in the middle-classes, even for girls (at my school I was known by friends and teachers alike by my surname. Forenames would have been regarded as presumptious and over-familiar). Ditto in my first office. In that case, if you were called ‘Mr. X’, you knew you were for the carpet.

Adrian Maxwell
Adrian Maxwell
3 years ago

Dame Jenni gives her game away by referring to Shirley and Janet and then, referring to the one woman who achieved what they could not, as Thatcher.

blatnick39
blatnick39
3 years ago

Women would, I’m sure, have fared better with Shirley in the lead.” There’s no way to know that. However, we can say that Britain did better because of Ms. Thatcher. And freedom for more people did better because of her policies, her strength, and her ability to call a thing what it is. Focusing on the freedoms of a collective segment of your society as opposed to the freedom of all individuals within your society is the curse of many of todays so-called ‘leaders’. Here in the US our leadership has taken to government approved racism against certain groups, as a way to remedy ills to other groups. Lost in their pronouncements are the ideas of individual rights and liberty. I find this author’s point small minded and selfish, but not uncommon in today’s intellectual discussions.

Samuel Burke
Samuel Burke
3 years ago

I’m also a big fan of Shirley’s but this reads to me a bit like a premature obituary. Additionally, in point of fact, Shirley voted against David Steel’s abortion bill at Second and Third Reading so the claim that she supported a change in the law doesn’t sound right to me.

Peter Branagan
Peter Branagan
3 years ago

More whinging and whining from the malignant wimmins movement.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
3 years ago
Reply to  Peter Branagan

You do know you’ve just whinged and whined?

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
3 years ago

She was, she said, a boringly consistent moderate politician who wanted to help individuals improve the quality of their lives

Is that why she closed down the direct grant schools?

Jeremy Poynton
Jeremy Poynton
3 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Labour have always HATED the idea of giving working class kids a leg up. I went to Oxford in 1969, at least three of my contemporaries studying Eng. Lit. & Lang. were working class Gramm school educated kids who got Oxford places, thanks to the Grammar school system.

G Harris
G Harris
3 years ago

To all those complaining that they don’t come on to Unherd to read stuff like this and those who’ve paid for membership feeling like they’ve got even more right to complain, please remember one can’t continually complain about ‘other people’ being stuck in echo chambers whilst simultaneously moaning about the fact that this sort of thing isn’t what you come to Unherd for.

You can see at the very beginning who the well-known author is and you’ve probably got your own preformed opinions on the subject matter, so why the tsunami of confected disappointment?

Nobody made you read it after all.

John Standing
John Standing
3 years ago

What is equality, exactly? Women and men are complimentary in their profound difference. There is no human sameness at any level. It is a lie that cost 90 million lives in the 20th century. When is it finally going to lose its power over over the poor soul much given to social critique?

Last edited 3 years ago by John Standing
andrew24
andrew24
3 years ago
Reply to  John Standing

Where do you stand on transexuals?

Jeremy Poynton
Jeremy Poynton
3 years ago

A good woman, but sorry, “equality” hmmm – the French learned way back that the price of equality is less liberty.

Phil Mac
Phil Mac
3 years ago

Shirley Williams was limited and had no vision, just expediency, and no competence to back it up. She was epically shown up by Hitchens on QT over Salman Rushdie.
No surprise that someone who made a career out of whining and rise to host a show specifically designed to exclude half of the population would think her useful.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
3 years ago

From Wiki: “While in office between 1976 and 1979, Williams advocated the comprehensive school system and the abolition of grammar schools. As her daughter Rebecca approached secondary school age, Williams moved into the catchment area of the state-subsidised Godolphin and Latymer School (which later became private in preference to becoming a comprehensive), allowing her daughter to gain a place there.”
Equality for thee but not for me. Shirley herself was educated privately.

J D
J D
3 years ago

Just what I thought. I like the fact that Unherd presents me with alternative viewpoints, but Murray is just a clichĂ©-spouting BBC feminist clone – who I seem to recall has been quite misandrous on occasions.

Bryan Dale
Bryan Dale
3 years ago

Women and minorities gain the most from a strong economy. That’s why no leftist politician can ever be said to be good for women. They lose the most when the economy lies in ruins. We shall soon have confirmation of this with the disastrous leftist Johnson government.

ammonia6
ammonia6
3 years ago

I was an original member of the SDP all those years ago.
The central tenet of this piece is incredible.
Shirls was not as good as she thought.
It was Woy and David that made the running.

Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago
Reply to  ammonia6

SDP in 1981 was fanatically Pro EU,NO moral compass (”Permissive Society”)championed by Woy &his Claret chumps…Even Lord Owen had enough after 1987 he voiced the opinion david Steel biggest Ego in Britain,arrogant to the point of farce..SDP with William clauston now,is Pro-uk anti big government , Anti_EU, Pro-manufacturing,Fair tax etc…

Geoff Cox
Geoff Cox
3 years ago

“She endured his attentions without complaint as he was such a brilliant teacher. Anyone else who “had a go” was simply told to “F
 Off”. It’s what she recommended to the young audience”.
Mary Warnock there showing how sexual harassment is defined by who is doing it. If you are an alpha male, pretty much anything is acceptable – indeed it may even be encouraged.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
3 years ago

So according to Mary Warnock, women should let themselves be groped if the man is brilliant enough?

alex bachel
alex bachel
3 years ago

I remember the discussion about Salman Rushdie and her mealy-mouthed comments. Luckily she was dismantled by Christopher Hitchens and she protested ineffectually. I don’t think anyone else on that panel would have had the strength that Hitchens displayed. I also agree with other commenters about the end of grammar schools. It has been proven that the introduction of comprehensives has resulted in less working class children getting into the top universities.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

This story was first posted last week, at which point myself and many others promptly shot down the nonsense that Jenni Murray writes about Shirley Williams. It is refreshing to see that others have continued to point out Williams’ hypocrisy regarding the education of her own child, and her clear hatred for the children of the working classes. In that sense she was an early model for everything that Labour has become. Above all, this demonstrates that, as is so often the case, the people reading the articles know a lot more about the subject than the people writing them.

Gordon Mackay
Gordon Mackay
3 years ago

“Women would, I’m sure, have fared better with Shirley in the lead.”

Sexism? Positive discrimination? Bitterness? Which women? Fared how much better? Better in which way? Why should a female PM be the deciding factor? Who cares when people still spout lazy, outdated claptrap.

David Guest
David Guest
3 years ago

Williams’s malign impact on grammar schools and schooling is enough to debunk the title of this piece. Yes, D&I of all dimensions is needed, but nothing beats working ideas. That’s why Maggie will be remembered and celebrated for generations to come, and Williams will be part of the answer to a pub quiz question about the SDP Gang of Four.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
3 years ago

Dreadful and false article. Running it twice makes it twice as contemptible

Graeme Laws
Graeme Laws
3 years ago

Jenni Murray is entitled to her opinion. And I am entitled to mine. If Shirley Williams really did think that she was not good enough for the top job, she got something right. Margaret Thatcher, whom Murray apparently loathed, was a true premier league politician. Williams was league one on a good day.

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
3 years ago

Yet again the joining of the words ‘poverty’ and ‘deprivation’. If one is alleging deprivation, we need to know who has deprived whom of what. ‘Deprivation’ carries overtones of deliberate actions. It is not just a synoym for ‘poor’.

Paul N
Paul N
3 years ago

Come on. It’s hardly pushing back against the herd mentality if it fails to challenge the bits we agree with. Having our beliefs challenged, and questioning them, and thinking them through is a good thing.

Ian Gribbin
Ian Gribbin
3 years ago

Williams – like so many social liberals – delude themselves that social engineering is possible – when the science has shown us for decades that biological differences make it impossible.

Goofy utopians like Jenni will never get it. Professor Robert Plomin’s much overlooked book – Blueprint – written after 50 years of work – shows conclusively that DNA makes up nearly 80% of your “success” in society.
if you add all other factors together – parenting, education etc – then DNA outweighs them by 5:1.

It’s futile and foolish to go so far with the “egalitarianism” when we are not all born equal. The left and liberals still refuse to learn and face the hard facts as always.

Derek M
Derek M
3 years ago

She would have been a wise and wonderful Prime Minister.” Wish-fulfillment fantasy devoid of any evidence posing as analysis. I guess it’s no surprise that it was written by an ex-Woman’s Hour presenter then

Andrew Wood
Andrew Wood
3 years ago

Were it not for Shirley Williams I would have had the chance of a decent education. At 64 years old I’m still angry about it and have spent my adult life educating myself. With an IQ of 174 I was allocated to the ex secondary mod school in my area and given exemplary skills in woodwork and metalwork.

Lee Johnson
Lee Johnson
3 years ago

Thank you Jenni Murray, you have spoken volumes

Last edited 3 years ago by Lee Johnson
Robin Banks
Robin Banks
3 years ago
Reply to  Lee Johnson

Volumes of what? – Rubbish?