I have just learned that Shirley Williams, Baroness Williams of Crosby, has died at the age of 90. In the last week we have lost Cheryl Gillan, Peter Ainsworth and Ian Gibson from the ranks of politicians or ex-politicians. And now Shirley. I do hope her death is not eclipsed in the news by the ongoing aftermath of the death of the Duke of Edinburgh. Shirley was a top ranking politician and a truly wonderful human being and deserves more.

I first met her in 1977. In fact, she was the first politician I ever saw in real life. At the time she was serving in Jim Callaghan's cabinet and she came to my school in Saffron Walden to give a speech. The school hall was full. I do not remember anything she said, but I do remember shyly shaking hands with her afterwards. Sadly I can't remember what was said.

It was 20 years before I met her again. She and her husband, Richard Neustadt, were regular visitors to Politico's Bookstore and she was always up for a bit of political chit-chat. She knew my politics but just loved to talk about current events and what was happening. Over the next fifteen years we met quite often, and I interviewed her a number of times. She was always generous with her time, which is why she no doubt acquired a reputation for always being late! The thing I loved about her was that she always tried to answer a question, and didn't mind being blunt.

People both liked and respected Shirley. There was a genuineness about her. She was an intellectual, but had the common touch. She could make great speeches and could be an inspiration. She was an encourager. I know Norman Lamb would not have fought North Norfolk for the third time had she not persuaded him to. She may have played second fiddle to Barbara Castle in being First Lady of the Labour Party, but in the Liberal Democrats there was no doubt about who was Queen. She was deserved revered and idolised.

When she was one of the four ex Labour cabinet ministers behind the Limehouse Declaration, later to be dubbed the 'Gang of Four', it was Shirley who gave the Social Democrats a human face. I've often wondered if they might truly have broken the mould of British politics had she been their leader rather than Roy Jenkins. In many ways she wasn't suited to a leadership position, given how disorganised she could be, but it would have been interesting to observe, nonetheless.

The best tribute I can pay to Shirley is to reprint the long-read interview I did with her in 2010 (I think) for Total Politics magazine. I hope you enjoy it.

Shirley will always be in my heart. Her politics were very different to mine, but I know a political giant when I see one. She had all the right political instincts and wanted to do the right thing. I shall miss her very much.


Iain: Do you enjoy Question Time?

Shirley: Mostly I do. I’ve had a couple of experiences that I didn’t enjoy at all. I think almost entirely with the Hitchens brothers. I can tell you from personal experience that if you have both Hitchens, it is devastating! One thing, they don’t like each other at all. I went into the green room and there was a Hitchens at each end of the green room and they had no conversation, and no reason to have to pretend to have one. Once the programme began, they began by ripping each other to bits then they turned on me. It was like living with several fox hunts simultaneously, very unpleasant.

You have just turned 80. Is that a real milestone in your mind?

My friends and acquaintances have been really sweet in insisting I recognise it. I’ve had four birthday parties. Everyone loves celebrating someone else’s 80th birthday. The actual person who has the birthday isn’t so sure. I’ve noticed several of my friends are very keen indeed on my 80th birthday. Whether it means I won’t be there that much longer or they genuinely love parties, I’m not sure. Certainly they seem to be enthused about it.

I’m reading Peter Mandelson’s book at the moment. Reading that, tgether with Alastair Campbell's you wonder how that government survived so long.

First of all they are extraordinarily gifted people. So in a way, other people would put up with a lot more from them than they would in most cases. In most cases you have to bang people’s heads together and say “what the bloody hell do you think you are doing?” When Peter Mandelson became a peer and answered a question in the Lords, I was terribly impressed and I sent him a note saying ‘I know when I can see a class act’. Not that Peter Mandelson is someone I feel terribly close to. But I was just impressed by the sheer professionalism of the man. I think you could say the same about Tony Blair, an extraordinarily professional performance. Possibly less so Gordon. Gordon had more solidity than the others. I think he was a man of huge intellectual power. You wouldn’t send a note to Gordon saying ‘this is a class act’; it would be an odd thing to do. I think that was one element of it. The second element of it was that in the key periods Alastair Campbell was quite good at balancing it out to some extent. I think he coped with some of the confrontations quite well. In a funny way I think that Gordon was slightly haunted by a feeling of having been cheated – which everyone talks about. He was also haunted by a very powerful non-conformist conscience which nobody talks about because nobody remembers what it is.  It was something very real, very strong. And that nonconformist conscience partly affected him when he felt that he had not conducted his policies according to what a powerful nonconformist preacher would expect. The second bit was when he thought he behaved badly towards people. He could behave very badly towards people but I didn’t think he did it without cost.

So you think he recognised that he had behaved badly?

I think he did to some extent. I think he felt, retrospectively, rather bad about it. 

In the Campbell book, Blair comes out the worst, very weak and unable to make the confrontations that he should have made...

I don’t think is the right word. First of all he was a man who hated confrontation. Don’t forget for a lot of his life, his father was very ill. If you are a child, whose parents are ill, you spend a lot of time being told not to shout and don’t kick a football around the house and that sort of thing. You develop a great adversity to being engaged in conflicts and rows. In his relationship with his colleagues and with Cherie, you always see him playing a conciliatory figure.  I think it has a fair amount to do with his childhood, actually.

 If you had been in Blair’s situation, I can’t imagine you would have done the same thing. You would have knocked their heads together surely?

I think I would have gone and had it out with them, yes.

      Wasn’t that part of Blair’s lack of overwhelming success in his political career that he didn’t? There was always this running sore of Gordon in the background. It was the same the other way around with Gordon.

      First of all I think there was the fact that Gordon felt he had been cheated. It doesn’t really matter if they did or didn’t have that famous dinner. Gordon had laid down this solid step-by-step ascent up the stairs of the Labour structure. Not only going through all the motions you go through, student politics, youth politics, Scottish politics, parliamentary politics, ministerial politics etc – starting very young and being very predictable. We’ve got Blair still running around being a pop star at the point at which Gordon has already become rector of Glasgow University. There must have been a deep sense

There was a sense of entitlement from Gordon. He was prepared to not push that entitlement while John Smith was alive. Gordon deferred to him, although I think John Smith wasn’t that much older than him. When it came to Tony, parachuting in from nowhere much, in Gordon’s view, I think Gordon must have felt both revulsion and anger, so I think he clearly felt cheated. It was feeling cheated more than being overtaken that really rankled with him. I think, Gordon is a difficult man by any standards, but also in some ways a very impressive man. I always felt with Tony he was brilliant. He was a brilliant communicator, a brilliant actor. I always thought he was more actor than politician. Incredible, he could play Coriolanus at the drop of a hat, or Henry V part 2. A lot of him was like that, he was chameleon like in a way. He could slightly change his colour as he went around, according to what the scene was.  He also, I think, became very seduced by two things. The first thing was being seduced by America to an extraordinary extent. Having spent a lot of my life in America, I like a lot of things about America and I find lots of things very attractive, but I’m not seduced. I can see what’s wrong too. I’m always interested by the way in which one British politician or another is just swept off their stupid feet.  Geoff Hoon is another one.

Do you think Gordon Brown was undone by his own ambition?

      No, not by his ambition, by his bitterness. The ambition was, in a way, defused by the extreme difficulty in becoming Prime Minister and the fact that it had ceased to be enjoyable. I think the ambition had been defused in the long years between. I think it was two things really. I think one was a slight feeling of déjà vu, “I mean here I am, all the things that I’ve wanted to have either been done or can’t be done”. It was like getting the fag end of an administration. Already the Labour administration had become relatively unpopular. Secondly he had inherited what was beginning to be quite a split party. Not split over him but split between Old labour and New labour, with quite a lot of restlessness about New Labour.

Gordon’s great opportunity came in the economic crisis because he was suddenly able to project himself as being a world statesman and onto the stage of the G20. He was one f the people who had a solution and a solution that with a lot of hard work he had won the G20 over to. All of that buoyed him up. I think the real disappointment came shortly after that when we first of all learned that we had a new crisis over the deficit and so forth, and even the global response couldn’t get us completely out of that. Then you have a fairly sharp decline. A lot of the Labour Party didn’t really understand what he had done as it was quite technical stuff. Perhaps more significantly by that time a lot of the media had just got it in for him. They never liked him, they didn’t like liked the fact that he didn’t have press conferences and he didn’t schmooze them as Tony did. They really had it in for him. They decided he was going to be an ogre. I don’t think he had a clue how to handle that. 

I think we underestimate his status in other countries. They really did respect him, didn’t they?

      With ICND, I spent the last year and a half travelling extensively around the world. Not all the time but probably a third of my time has been going to Cairo, Tokyo, Santiago and god knows where not. It gave me the opportunity, in most places, to talk to some of the leading figures. The ICND is a very small commission, only 15 people altogether. I was very impressed by the number of people who said to me “I cannot say how grateful I am to your Prime Minister, he has been immensely helpful to me, and he has given me support all the way along the line”, particularly from developing countries. An example was Michelle Bachelet, President of Chile, who said he had been wonderfully supportive and had assisted her with economic ideas and so forth. I talked to the Indonesians who felt he had been very helpful, a couple of African leaders. His standing in the world is such that it makes the assessment of him in the UK look bizarre, to say the least of it.

By this time, Tony had, if not left the stage, had done himself so much damage in Iraq that most of these third world leaders were not going to be particularly nice about him. Some may say he was a charming man but there was no substantial serious appreciation of him. He had thrown that away by the Iraq thing. Gordon was untouched by Iraq, really, and you remember he said almost nothing during the period. He was thought to be supportive because he couldn’t say he wasn’t. He did have this astonishing following which came mostly from his economic capacity but mostly from his evidently very honourable commitment to economic development. He always ring-fenced that, put it first and cared about it. It was a funny mixture of socialism and imperialism. I think therefore I would say that Gordon was badly underestimated in the country, seriously underestimated. I think that is quite souring. If you know people love you somewhere else and in your own country you’re treated as a joke, an ogre, a bad tempered-bear or whatever it was that our friend the cartoonist did. 

It’s not unusual as Thatcher had a higher reputation outside this country than she did here, as did Gorbachev in Russia.

      Perfectly true. Slight difference is Mrs T was vastly admired in those countries that went her away. She wasn’t much admired in Europe, very little really. Eastern Europe, hugely, non EU Europe hugely.  EU Europe, hardly all. 

Was there any time in the New Labour years when you thought “Actually I could go back now”?

      Never. I was asked more than once, by people like Peter Mandelson. The reason was quite straight forward. It was actually to do with the liberal core about civil liberties. They were bad about civil liberties; there was no doubt about that. I was outraged by how they dealt with terrorism for example. I was outraged by how they pressed on and on for further detention without trial. I was pretty outraged by the unquestioning willingness to see the prison population go up and up and up, without asking whether it was a sensible way to deal with a falling crime rate. I know some people would say it was a falling crime rate because they were all locked up. It doesn’t work in America where they are all locked up as well. When it came to almost all the Home office stuff it was terribly disappointing. No i couldn’t have gone back. I could have gone back on social welfare grounds and also on constitutional grounds. On constitutional grounds it was terribly disappointing as when Tony smiled kindly on people like the Maclennan committee... when you actually look at what happened once the Liberal Democrats stopped being a potential party of government, which brought us devolution, human rights etc, by 1999/2001, it had almost all gone. Almost all enthusiasm for constitutional change had simply left. Parliament was increasingly being treated as a rubber stamp, MPs were increasingly treated with contempt. There was no attempt to try and avoid select committees simply being imposed on MPs by the whips. Labour simply treated Parliament as a sort of machine. Mrs Thatcher began that way but Labour took it further and at no point really seriously... individuals like Anthony Wright were brilliant but the government, no.

How did Mandelson try to tempt you? 

       He just rang me at lunch. A nice lunch.

(laughs) A way to a woman’s heart?

      I think he thought the time had come to try. I think I was just a trophy wife.

This was in the early days?

      Yes quite early on. Must have been 2002 I think, when Tony had been re-elected. About then.

Let’s talk about the coalition. I can imagine you weren’t enthusiastic...

      I began by thinking we should try for a Labour coalition. I realised after a while that a) they didn’t even want it and b) they were clearly quite contemptuous of the whole idea.

Which they deny!

      But they were though. Also the attention had shifted over who was going to be a new leader. Once Gordon was going to go, a lot of the energy of the Milibands and so on went over to who will be following, not ‘let’s have a coalition’. I think a lot of them were scared that if you were seen to be cosying up to the Liberal Democrats then they would burn their boats with the unions and the left wing. So it wasn’t a very attractive suggestion from their point of view. I’m satisfied they didn’t want it. Then I thought ‘how about a minority Conservative government’ with what they call a support and supply, which is probably what I’d have gone for myself. But reflecting back I’m not sure I was right. What is true is, I didn’t like the idea of a coalition with the Conservatives and I still find elements of it very hard to live with.

Isn’t that endemic in any coalition? Particularly with the junior partner in any coalition. There will always be parts that are difficult to stomach with whichever party it would be.

      There are some things from my point of view that are peculiarly difficult. Education is one of them. Probably education and then, luckily the Conservatives as you know have avoided a great conflict over the EU. Those two are the most neuralgic for me. I wouldn’t have left the Labour Party in order to join a party that was going to do the same thing all over again.

I think in the end, two things persuaded me.  For the whole month of April, I travelled from the top to bottom of England, Newcastle to Penzance and Lands End. I didn’t just do meetings, I spoke to thousands of people on the streets and pavements and because I’ve been a lot on television, particularly Questoin Time and Any Questions. Probably about one person in ten knows who I am. I’d get scores of people coming up and talking to me. What I got from them was a very strong sense of outrage about MPs expenses, disproportionate outrage really because the level of anger was even greater than the level of misbehaviour. Some of these were a shock to the core, some things were, you know, almost ludicrously exaggerated like the issue of the rocking chair and things like that, or the dolphin or whatever. It was very silly of the MP but not wicked, just very silly. There were wicked things like the switching around of one’s house to get capital gains, etc. I was quite surprised by the fury of the public which was very very powerful. I got exempted by being a “national treasure”. I say that in quotation marks. But because I was a “national treasure”, they were all the angrier not with me but with what was happening. That was the first thing; the second thing was this very intense sense of a “plague on all your houses “, a “we don’t want any of you in government”. The Liberal Democrats were not so morally accused as the two [bigger] parties, but there was a sense that you’re all up to it, you’re evil. So we got a plague on all your parties, on all your houses. Therefore, when the electorate voted in fairly substantial numbers, it was an improvement on earlier elections, not a drop. What you got was this very strong feeling that we’re going to give you another chance, we’re going to stick to the mainstream parties. There wasn’t a huge upsurge for UKIP, as you know, or the Greens.  What they wanted was, I think, the parties to work together. I don’t think they worried explicitly about which party they wanted to work together but they wanted to see politicians working together. There are lots of places that I went to, what we got was people saying “you’ve bloody well got to work together”.  They said so very explicitly so I think the message was people wanted a coalition.

      I have a very strong sense, partly affected by Greece, that because we have such a serious economic problem that we would need more than just one party to get it through and we would have to have something resembling a consensus on the way the reductions should be made and so forth. Therefore, I know this sounds awfully corny, we had a semi-patriotic duty to be part of this really tough story. In this really tough story, I hope, and it remains to be seen, that the emphasis on social justice would be real. So, I’m a fairly outright critic of the banks. I’ve been pushing really hard recently for the argument recently for the proposals that came from America about splitting the retail banks and the gambling banks. I’m a strong believer in having limits on what could be paid for bonuses. I feel very disappointed that we do not have a more effective policy for affordable housing which I think is becoming a really big issue, especially in the towns. So, on quite a lot of things, there are clear benchmarks for me on whether we have had an impact. I think we have had a good impact on civil liberties areas. For example the decision to not proceed further on detention without trial and to look into the torture issue and to move from locking up everybody who you could possibly lock up.

They were existing Conservative policies surely?

      Some were, mainly due to David Davis. I do respect the man. We have got extreme luck in having Clarke as minister of Justice. So we’re going to get a lot further than when we had people like Straw there. So things like that have been rather good.  Some of them come out of expenditure. For example, education, and I am strongly in agreement with stripping off these endless bureaucratic orders all over the shop. I know this isn’t specifically Conservative... but they’re quite right about that. I think it goes back quite right to back away from the tremendously restrictive attempt to try and hem teachers in in every possible direction. I’m very surprised by the degree of, perhaps the only word is detestation, for local government. I’m a believer in it. I’ve seen how countries like Spain and France have been regenerated by regional autonomy. By tapping into the good ideas and thoughts of people at a regional level. If you go somewhere like the Rhone in France or parts of Spain, you see the amazing differences that have been made. Both the old parties seem to be united in their total contempt for local government and kicking them out of any area of responsibility that they have.

I never understood why local government has to run schools.

      It doesn’t have to be, but it is.  It’s where you start from. You start from a situation where it has the biggest single responsibility and biggest single source of funding. You can’t take that away without a) wondering whether it is good or bad for education itself and secondly without recognising that if you take it away without replacing it with something else, you are going to have a very emascerated local government, which is what we have got.

Isn’t it more important for schools to be able to run themselves rather than local government?

      Primary schools can’t. They just haven’t got the means to do it. You could argue that some big secondary schools can. I suggested to Michael Gove that we ought to delay the primaries to see how it went before we leapt into this...

Has he ever talked to you as a former Secretary of State? 

      Oh yes, I’m the coalition aren’t I?

Well I know but you’re...

      A long way apart?

Well no, I just thought as a former secretary of state, I hopefully thought that he would consult you...

      Oh he did greatly to his credit. I think Michael and even possibly more Jonathan [Hill].  There has been a real attempt for minds to meet. They’ve been extremely good that way. They’ve been open to talking to us. I know how busy it is being a minister. Both of them find the time somehow. I think they probably think that because I’m a former Secretary of State that they want to persuade me that this is the right thing to do.

I do think primary schools are the building blocks of community really. They are not quite the same as secondary schools.  At their best they’re embedded in the community. If you close a primary down in a village or a small part of town, you gradually kill the community, it dies. In a small village it dies completely. There is nothing else that’s there. In the towns and urban areas, it isn’t quite so difficult. But even there it is quite difficult as a lot of cases in primary school, the teachers and head are an alternative to a family for kids who don’t have a family, who come from very deprived social backgrounds or very deprived emotional backgrounds. The amount that teachers do there is just incredible. To actually then drive them out into the private sector which is much more expensive, is not very clever actually. In a big secondary school you may have a head and a team who can handle it and decide ‘do we go to a local authority or do we go to the private sector’ but in a small primary school, maybe a couple of hundred kids, it’s just not there. That really worries me. I think we may have run ourselves into deep trouble.

Do you think one of the reasons the coalition has worked so far is because the interpersonal relationships between the different personalities and that they’re all learning together at the same pace?

      I think that’s a perfectly fair point. Most of the Conservatives ministers have not been there before. What I don’t really know is quite where Iain Duncan Smith and Frank Field fit in. Clearly there is quite a lot of innovative thinking going on about welfare and so forth. What I can’t really see is what the positive incentives are to people who for example live on disability benefit and so forth.

I think in ministerial terms, that department [the DWP] has the strongest team of the whole government.

      It is a strong department. I think the problems are more likely to rise either in the Home Office, which at the moment doesn’t seem to be doing too badly, or Defence. Liam Fox has got his wheels off the rails once or twice already. There is a big issue with Trident. That one is hard to walk away from having to make a decision one way or another. You can delay the decision. Personally I’m strongly in favour of delaying it, having been involved in all the nuclear proliferation stuff for a year and a half, this seems a very bad time to make a decision of like for like because you are going to have 40 years of sitting on top of a deterrent which may prove to be totally pointless. It is a lot of money to be totally pointless.

     The LibDem leader of Liverpool City Council thinks that the coalition will result in the obliteration of the Liberal Democrats at the next election.

             A lot depends on how the thing plays out. If the coalition is directly associated with the economic crisis and how that is dealt with and it’s dealt with in a way that although painful, most people accept it was fair, then I think it’ll go the other way. I think the Liberal Democrats will be seen as serious people who have the experience of government. Our problems have always been being seen as the ones who are ineffective or unlikely to win or so improbable that you wouldn’t vote for them – that is largely got over by having come into a coalition because we’ll be able to say here are half a dozen people with considerable experience of government as Liberal Democrats. That, in turn, will turn on whether the public does see the final approach to fiscal problems as good and influenced by the liberal democrats or bad and influenced by the Liberal Democrats. I think that will be the key issue.

The historical precedents aren’t great are they?

      There aren’t many. There was a very successful coalition during the war which we all pretend wasn’t a coalition but it was. It was a five year long extremely successful coalition which among other things threw up the origins of the welfare state. It was probably the most impressive government we have ever had. People all go back to the ‘30s, which would have been a depressing time whoever was in government. They all neatly forget the war. I think the parallel is closer to the war than it was to the ‘30s because it was about taking very tough decisions which are painful decisions for a lot of people, but somehow holding them to feeling that was the right thing to do and therefore being closer to government rather than further away from it – which was what happened in the ‘30s, a sense of people moving away from the government, but not in the war, not at all!

When you go around the country and talk to Liberal Democrat members in your role as “national treasure” (laughs), do they ever take you aside and say “Oh Shirley, it’s terrible, I can’t believe we’re in this awful coalition..”

      No, actually, not. Most recently I’ve been doing quite a lot of book festivals. I’m well aware that the people that come are Liberal Democrats or Liberal Democrat sympathisers, and they come out in very large numbers. They pack the hall out every time. Quite a lot of people ask me in the book signing what I think about the coalition. So far, I’ve said to them what I say to you. In almost every case, I would say probably 2 out of every 100 would disagree. They say “Oh good, yes I think it’s a good idea, we have to make it work, etc.” They are still in love with it. A lot of people say to me “It’s such a wonderful change that we can have new ideas and new thoughts, we’ve lost that endless bickering of the Labour Party and Cameron is a decent Conservative and is keeping his right wing under control”. That is very much more the reaction.

How do you judge David Cameron?

      I only know him as a member of the public. I’ve never even met him. I don’t know him at all. He hasn’t asked to see me either. I would say he is a good deal more impressive than I thought he was. I thought that he was a lightweight charmer, a kind of Cecil Parkinson type -  able to charm the birds off the trees but with not that much to offer. I don’t think that now.  I think he has been quite impressive. He has been quite brave. On a number of things he has taken a strong line. I have to agree with my dear friend Nick Clegg that he is actually an impressive fellow. They seem to get along like a house on fire.

Do you think women who go into politics have it easy compared to when you started out?

      No not really. In some ways they have it harder. They don’t have it harder in the sense of running into a tremendous amount of patronage from men, which I certainly did. I had a permanent secretary who wouldn’t speak to me about things at all. He was the permanent secretary during the seamens’ strike when my minister was in hospital. It was rather difficult. I ran into a huge amount of patronising. I also ran into people who thought a woman minister was waiting for their charms to become obvious to her, particularly when I was Prices Minister. They all fancied themselves as people who could get me to agree that an increase in profits was badly needed for investment purposes. The way they thought they could do that was by taking me out to expensive lunches. They got that completely wrong. I ran into a lot of that too. I think the reason I think it was in some ways easier was first we were seen as exceptional. Just being a woman was being remarkable. You didn’t need to be much of a woman to get started. We had quite a lot of solidarity amongst ourselves, feeling that we were a minority so had to work together. Finally I would say that the absolutely devastating business was Blair’s babes. I always remember when I saw that photograph, being reminded of those Italian paints when you had Gods’ face surrounded by cherubs with lovely pink wings and pretty rosy bodies. The Blair picture with all the women around him, with identical haircuts and suits ineluctably reminded me of Renaissance gods. In the way they were background, they weren’t foreground. All of that, I think. Finally one big difference, if I go back to when I was very young, you either had women like Lady Astor who had total staffing, so the domestic burden wasn’t there for example. They were grand, they had nannies and all the rest of it. There were a few women subsequently, they might be like Mrs T and have the good luck to marry a wealthy man but had staff, as it were. Most current women politicians are terribly distracted by having two jobs to do. They don’t find it easy to balance them up. Normally they’re married and have children whereas they used to be single or widows. So in that sense I see more women I know struggling with the two lives as they try to keep them both up in the air. There are some remarkable women coming up, I think. There are some very good ones in the new crop. I think the Blair crop was foreshortened by being seen as background upholstery or decoration.

Would you like to have been Prime Minister?

      No, not really. I never thought I was good enough.

Oh really?


You really surprise me as that isn’t what comes through in your book at all in many ways.

      I think I say it, but actually it’s absolutely true. First of all my father brought me up to be excessively admiring of the great men of politics. Rather like you might feel about Mr Gladstone. You are a fairly tall tree but he was a pine that was twice your size. I was brought up particularly by my father to see people like Cripps and Bevan and so on as remarkably great men, not in terms of them being rich or aristocratic but in terms of them holding political office. I was slightly overawed by political men, both men and women actually but obviously many more were men. Secondly I always thought of myself as not quite good enough. That is very characteristic of women. Almost all the women I know underestimate themselves and all the men overestimate themselves.

      Is it a case of not being good or ruthless enough? Not actually wanting to be involved in what Harold Wilson engaged in... 

      Poor Harold! (laughs). He wasn’t really ruthless. He was manipulative.

Everyone always says about you “she’s so nice”.

      It’s rather damning.

I think it’s a good thing.

      It’s also damning. I suppose I might say I’ve survived in politics for a long time and held some fairly important offices and don’t like to be too horrible about it. I think men swallow the Alan Sugar picture of leadership. I won’t bore you by going into too much philosophy but for the first time we may be seeing a different kind of leadership emerge, mostly from women but not entirely from women. This leadership is much more consensual, much more reasonable and much less tribal. It’s not emerging very much in Britain, though. Cameron may turn out to be an example. When you go to places like Michelle Bachelet in Chile and Dr Sirleaf in Liberia, you come across this different kind of leadership which is basically about healing broken societies. I don’t think our society is broken, I think it is cracked in places. A truly broken society like Liberia or Chile in the past is one where this kind of consensual healing leadership is crucial and works and the very typical ruthless managerial view of politics you get in Britain and the United States simply disregards the fact that this kind of leadership is often more successful. It isn’t sentimental, it is necessary. I think that is what is beginning to happen. People are beginning to recognise there is more than one type of leadership.

I read your book and I remember thinking at the time that you haven’t used the book to settle scores, which is lot many use their memoirs for. It’s a very human book and I think it does sum up your career. I think it demonstrates why people say “she is nice, she didn’t really set out to do what most politicians do”. 

       I don’t think I have many scores to settle. Well, not many...

Not many! (laughs).

      No, not now. I’m not inhuman. I’m certainly not God. I’ve had some scores to settle where people have leaked to the press. I got one or two really difficult bits in my life, Grunwick, which lead me to have endless libel cases and so on. I had a very difficult time with The Sun when they announced I had never taken up, what was the phrase?, a single challenge to beat the left.  I did think that was a bit hard.  I’ve had my fair share of libel cases and all the rest of it. Maybe I am mellowing in old age, I don’t know, but I don’t really have a strong sense of scores to settle, no.

Final question, Enoch Powell said all political careers end in failure, how would you sum up your career?

      No, certainly not true. I think I end up with a sense of huge pleasure with the life I’ve lead. Huge excitement brought to me by the life of politics and a patchy sense of achievement – some achievement, some not - some being highly controversial, comprehensive schools and so on.  I don’t regret any of them actually. None.

10 questions:

What is your favourite food?


What food do you hate?


Tell me one thing few people know about you.

That I’m 80!

 What’s your favourite view?

The south end of Windermere Lake.

Favourite music?

The Beethoven Quartets.

One thing you’d change about yourself?

Looks. Hair particularly. Not looks, hair, I hate my hair. Nothing I can do about it except pull it out.

What book are you reading at the moment?

At this moment, the White Tiger.

One thing you wish you’d known at 16?

How to dress.

The worst gift you had ever given someone?

Oh dreadful. I once gave somebody a jar of marmalade that they had given me two years before. That was dreadful. (laughs)

What makes you cry?

Actually very little. Onions.

Political hero?

Gladstone or Mandela.


I’ll get shot for this. I suppose I have to say Enoch Powell. Entirely because of race.