Friday, April 20, 2012

A life in politics

Climbing the Bookshelves, Shirley Williams

I can't remember where I came across mention of this book, but when I realized Shirley Williams is Vera Brittain and George Caitlin's daughter, I immediately went looking for a copy.  Over the past two years, I have read all three of Vera Brittain's "Testaments" (Youth, Friendship and Experience) as well as England's Hour, her 1941 book about the Battle of Britain.  I admit, I thought of this book primarily in terms of Vera Brittain.  From the first pages, though, I found Shirley Williams interesting and engaging in her own right.  Now Baroness Williams of Crosby, she has spent much of her life in politics and in public service, with a particular focus on social justice issues.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I'm not giving it back to interlibrary loan and the Grinnell College Libraries until I get my own copy.

Born in 1930, Shirley Williams spent her first years in the unusual family unit described in her mother's books, comprising her parents, her brother John, the household staff Amy and Charles Burnett, and her mother's closest friend Winifred Holtby.  John uncannily resembled their uncle Edward Brittain, Vera's dearly-beloved only sibling, killed in the Great War, and she doted on him.  The young Shirley in turn shared a special bond with her father, George Caitlin, an intellectual who longed to play an active role in politics but was completely unsuited for its rough-and-tumble reality.  The bookshelves of the title were his, which he encouraged her to climb, unbeknownst to her mother.
"My father gave me the single greatest gift with which a child can be endowed, self-confidence . . . That I was a girl was irrelevant to his ambitions for me. I could be anything I wanted to be. His feminism was not an intellectual construct. Quite simply, he saw no reason to think that women were lesser beings than men. Until I was sixteen or so, it never occurred to me that this was a rare attitude for a man born in the nineteenth century to take."
Caitlin also passed on to his daughter his Catholic faith, shared by the Burnetts, who took her to church with them and who also provided much of the warmth and human contact of her childhood.  I wondered if her commitment to social justice issues was shaped at all by her Catholic faith.  She does note that she became aware of and disturbed by inequality as a young child.  She was particularly struck by one family of children attending her elementary school, who had to take turns coming to school, because they had only two pairs of boots shared among them all.

When the Second World War broke out, her parents made the difficult decision to send the children to friends in the United States, not because of the bombing but because they feared arrest if the Nazis invaded England.  John and Shirley spent four years of the war in Minnesota, in a Midwest strongly isolationist until the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Both children would return to England in 1943.  After taking a degree at Oxford Shirley came back to America in 1952, as a Fulbright scholar studying at Columbia University.  She would return to the United States again in the 1970s, as a Fellow and later professor in he John F. Kennedy Institute of Politics at Harvard University.   Her American experiences are interesting in themselves, and they also give her something of an insider's perspective.

Williams gave up the last few months of her Fulbright to return to England to stand as a parliamentary candidate.  She lost that election, but in 1964 won a seat representing a district in Hertfordshire, as a Labour candidate.  Most of the book focuses on her career in the Labour Party, in Parliament, and as a minister in successive Labour governments.  As she discovered in 1964, Parliament was very much an "old boys' club," and changes were slow in coming.  Gender equality and women's rights would be important issues for her, both in and out of government.  In 1981, she joined other prominent Labor politicians in forming the new Social Democratic Party, which later merged with the Liberal Party to form today's Liberal Democrats.  Williams was raised to the peerage in 1993.  In her later years, she has focused on nuclear non-proliferation and on international cooperation, particularly in crises like the break-up of the former Yugoslavia.

As an American, I don't feel that I could fully appreciate (or understand) Williams' analysis of British politics.  Many of the politicians she mentions were unfamiliar to me.  I did resort to google for some terms, like "quango" and "shadow cabinet."   Much of her work as a minister involved education, and though I briefly attended school in England in the early 1980s, I sometimes found her analysis there difficult to follow as well.  Her observations on American society and politics, on the other hand, are both pertinent and interesting.  I found her discussion of the state of modern both depressing and inspiring.
"Several things attracted me to politics when I was young  . . .  I wanted to make the world a better place . . . Dedication, idealism, enthusiasm, excitement; these are not words most people today associate with politics. The loss of trust in politicians has been as dramatic as the more recent loss of trust in bankers . . . "
It is good to be reminded that there are still those striving to make their community, their country, their world a better place - Shirley Williams among them.


  1. I'd never realised Shirley Williams is Vera Brittain's daughter! Williams is one of those people who I always see referenced in other books but who I know very little about. I love political memoirs so will definitely be on the lookout for this!

  2. I haven't read any other political memoirs - just biographies of politicans (mostly 19th century at that), which are of course very different things.

  3. Amy and Charles are my paternal grandparents so I have always been in awe of Shirley Williams!

  4. How cool! thanks for stopping by!


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!