Shirley Williams: Views from the peer

Shirley Williams is one of our best-loved politicians and has lived in Hertfordshire for more than 40 years. She talks to Pat Parker about her life, her political struggles, and her love for the Hertfordshire countryside

AT 79, Baroness Williams of Crosby - or Shirley Williams as she is better known - is one of a dwindling number of politicians who inspire not only respect, but affection from the British public. Warm, principled and down-to-earth, the former education secretary who quit Labour to co-found the SDP before becoming a Liberal Democrat peer, has lived in Hertfordshire for more than 40 years.In 1964 she became Labour MP for Hitchin, and three years later moved into a beautiful cottage in Furneux Pelham, near Buntingford, on the edge of what was then her constituency. Although she lost her seat - by then renamed Hertford and Stevenage - in 1979, she continued to live at Furneux Pelham, although she has now given the cottage to her daughter Rebecca and her architect husband, Chris. 'I'm just down the road in Little Hadham,' she tells me. 'They've got a couple of little boys and they needed the room, so it would have been selfish to stay there.''It's very pretty countryside. I think the county's been very well-planned'Shirley now lives in a flat in Hadham Hall - a Jacobean mansion which was converted into a state boarding school in the 1950s. It has wonderful grounds and, says Shirley, a strong community spirit. 'We have a Guy Fawkes party, and working parties cleaning the grounds. There are mainly youngish people living there - families with children and pets. I'd hate to be in a retirement community. If you're not in touch with the younger generation, it's deadly.'Baroness Williams remains both politically engaged and physically active. When I spoke to her, she was planning a trip to Cape Cod, where she enjoys kayaking. At home in Hertfordshire, she is a keen walker. 'I do a lot of walking. I know all the footpaths round about, and I've done a lot of bicycling and some horseriding locally. It's very pretty countryside. I think the county's been very well-planned, as they've tried to funnel the big expansions into a certain number of places, including Bishop's Stortford, which has grown enormously since I've lived here.'Shirley Vivien Teresa Brittain Catlin was born in 1930 into a home steeped in progressive politics. Her mother was the writer, feminist and pacifist Vera Brittain, whose memoir Testament of Youth recounted her experience as a nurse in the First World War. Her father was the political scientist Sir George Catlin. 'My father always wanted to be an MP but never made it. Just as well - he wouldn't have been a good MP. He was a very good academic.'Intellectual luminaries such as TS Eliot were frequent visitors to their London home. 'Conversation around the dinner table was never about everyday things like the garden - it was always politics,' remembers Shirley. 'When I was about four, I apparently said to my parents, "You're not the least interested in what I say unless it's about Hitler"!'Her mother, having lost loved ones in the First World War, was always understandably anxious about her children's safety. Her father, however, encouraged her to be bold and confident. 'My new autobiography is called Climbing the Bookshelves, because my father had bookshelves in his study going right up to the ceiling. My mother would say I mustn't climb them because I might fall, whereas my father used to say, "Go on, you can do it"!''I wouldn't call it a was more of a gathering storm, and I had seen the clouds in the sky long before'Despite suspecting (rightly) that she and her husband were on the Gestapo blacklist, Vera decided to stay in London during the war, working as an ARP warden. Nine-year-old Shirley and her brother John, however, were evacuated to America to stay with an admirer of her mother's writing. Crossing the Atlantic was in itself dangerous. 'One of the ships before us was torpedoed, and so was one which came afterwards. So we were very lucky.'She loved her time in America, and it fostered an affection for the country which endures to this day. Her second husband (her first marriage, to Professor Bernard Williams, was dissolved in 1974) was the Harvard professor Richard Neustadt, who died in 2003. For several years in the 1990s, Shirley lectured at Harvard as a professor in politics.As a child, Shirley attended eight schools in all, but saw each change as an adventure. She went on to study at Oxford and Columbia universities, and worked in the 1950s as a journalist. But, having joined the Labour Party at 16, her real ambition was to become an MP.After finally being elected to Hitchin in 1964, she went on to work as a minister in both the Wilson and Callaghan governments, and was appointed education secretary in 1976, helping push forward Labour's policy of creating comprehensive schools. 'When I first went to the department, 15 per cent of schools were comprehensives. By the time I left in 1979, 85 per cent were. Their growth was so rapid because most local authorities were in favour, including the Conservative shires.'She remains a passionate defender of comprehensives, despite surveys showing social mobility is no better than in the 1970s. 'Social mobility is as it is because of one rarely-mentioned fact - class sizes in independent schools are half what they are in state schools.'During her 15 years as a Hertfordshire MP - the boundaries of her Hitchin seat were changed in 1974 to include Hertford - she was heavily involved in the development of Stevenage New Town. 'I think when my constituency changed, Hertford rather resented being shoved in with Stevenage. It saw Stevenage as an octopus with tentacles stretching out into the countryside, but I think Stevenage was a fantastic success. I often say to people, go and visit Stevenage, a well-planned town with lots of green spaces, and places for youngsters to play sport, and then look at Borehamwood, with its ribbon development and very few parks. It's like day and night to me.'However, Stevenage voters played a pivotal role in Shirley's defeat in 1979, because of the Tories' pledge to allow council house owners to buy their homes at huge discounts. 'The New Towns had the best-quality council housing, so it was a gift to them, really. I remember one constituent saying to me, "Mrs Williams, you're a good MP, but you're not worth �5,000" - which was the discount he was being offered.'By then, however, Shirley was becoming increasingly disenchanted with the growing influence of the Bennite Left within the party. 'I wouldn't call it a coup, because that group had been around a long time. It was more of a gathering storm, and I had seen the clouds in the sky long before.'She was dismayed by the moderates' failure to fight back against the Left and eventually, after a great deal of soul-searching, she joined David Owen, Roy Jenkins and Bill Rodgers to form the 'Gang of Four' who quit Labour to form the Social Democratic Party - which they hoped would eventually replace Labour and 'break the mould of British politics'. It was a heart-wrenching decision.'It was like a divorce, and it occasionally caused a breach with personal friends. I didn't want to go. But we'd staggered on from one conference to the next, hoping the next one would turn the tide, but there was never any fight back from the moderates. It was a long retreat.'In 1981, Shirley became the first elected SDP MP, winning the Liverpool seat of Crosby in a by-election. But she lost her seat in the 1983 election - due in no small part to boundary changes which robbed her of one of her safest wards. She remains bitter about this and suspicious of the reasons for the boundary changes. 'They were changed dramatically - and five years later changed back almost to what they were.'Shirley's days as an MP were over. The early optimism of the SDP crumbled, and her relationship with leader David Owen deteriorated. She eventually voted for merger with the Liberals, while he refused, leading an anti-merger rump of SDP dissidents into obscurity. As Baroness Williams of Crosby, Shirley became a life peer in 1993, and served as Liberal Democrat leader in the Lords from 2001 to 2004. Two years ago, she accepted Gordon Brown's invitation to become a government advisor on nuclear proliferation, provided she remained independent. She is actually rather generous in her assessment of the Prime Minister.'He is much better than he's given credit for. He's lousy at communication - not much good at picking up the vibe, compared with Tony Blair, who was utterly brilliant - but there's no doubt he's an extremely heavyweight figure.'Although the Lib Dems remain the third force in British politics, she is upbeat about the party's progress. 'Our great difficulty is that people think we can't be elected. But once we make a breakthrough in one seat, we tend to win neighbouring constituencies. So it's not the breaking, but the cracking of the mould.'When she co-founded the SDP, many Labourites felt she should have stayed and fought for the soul of the party, but she adamantly rejects such criticism. 'I don't accept that at all. I had been there for ten years fighting. The great section of the party who were moderate didn't mobilise. My influence within the party was waning, not growing. I've no regrets at all.'And, with her reputation for honesty and fair-mindedness, does she think she, like her father, was temperamentally better suited to academia than the cut-and-thrust of politics? She replies without hesitation. 'No. I'm a political activist, not really an intellectual academic at all. I enjoy the world of political struggle far too much!'