Sunday, July 07, 2013


Arrogant, Patronising and Discriminatory: Some of Shirley Williams’ Greatest Mistakes

“Equality is not the same as sameness” was the arrogant war-cry of the Apartheid regime and, shamefully, now of Liberal Democrat Queen Mum-equivalent Baroness Shirley Williams. Reports by Pink News and Lib Dem Voice of grandstanding homophobic actions are finally bringing into the open the unpleasant side of her that many of us have had personal experience of over the years.

There are many things to admire about Shirley Williams, but her ‘commitment to equality’ isn’t one of them. It’s an extremely narrow one: proposing only her own programme of equality for women; and only the ‘right sort’ of women. It’s a great shame but perhaps unsurprising that she’s become so conservative in her years as an unelected, unaccountable peer that no-one can ever vote out. It goes back a lot further and wider than merely leading the charge in the House of Lords to put the gays in their place and propose legal special privileges for – surprise – only people like Shirley Williams.

Shirley Williams – Bully

I’ve never said this in public before. I’m writing now in part because my ever-declining health means I’m unlikely ever to seek any position again within the Lib Dems through patronage or election. I’m obviously spurred by her being not just a quiet fellow-traveller with the House of Lords bigots but appointing herself chief of the anti-equal-marriage legislators. And I regret not having thought about this over the last few months and supplied testimony to the Lib Dems’ independently-led enquiry on internal party processes. Because there is no way on Earth that I would ever trust any internal process led by Shirley Williams. She is the most arrogant and biggest bully I have ever encountered within the party, and the one who was most open about their prejudices and about acting on them.

What particularly sticks in my mind is not just her very prominent and active legal homophobia but her deplorable attitude to young people – patronising, hostile and going out of her way to block their progress within the Lib Dems. I remember particularly vividly her spiteful, patronising and ageist attacks on all the young women who disagreed with this self-satisfied grandee during the party’s debates over sexist shortlists, where any woman with the temerity to disagree with her exact decree of what should be was put down in such ageist and indeed sexist terms that any similarly haughty male Lib Dem peer would have been excoriated for.

I have direct, personal experience of Baroness Williams’ bullying ways, too. When I was young and very active in the party I encountered occasional prejudices and put-downs: certainly, when I was over a decade younger than anyone else elected to the Federal Policy Committee, I was often looked down on and had to work much harder to prove myself. Despite having been very out at all levels of the party I’ve ever been involved in, back when that was surprisingly rare, I’ve experienced very little homophobia (usually discreetly), more often having had people sneer because I had no money and, for example, had to hitch-hike to meetings (at which I didn’t wear a suit). But the overwhelming number of times I saw people try to put me back in my box was for ideological reasons – which was fair enough, as long as we both had an equal say and I could beat them, too.

The biggest exception to all this was back in 1999. Who else but Baroness Shirley Williams was in charge of making sure than all new peers would be exactly the same as the existing peers interviewing all the newly elected members of the party’s first Interim Peers’ List. This was a baby-step innovation in which, against strenuous opposition from the party’s Great and Good, the Lib Dems took a small step towards practising what we preach in electing our party nominees to the Lords rather than leaving it entirely to the Leader’s patronage that appointed the Great and the Good like Shirley Williams from on high.

Believing that the average age and background – and views – of peers should change radically, I and several other (at the time) young people (at the time) put ourselves forward and, of the original fifty, three of us were elected to the panel in our twenties. I have never, ever, been so patronised and discriminated against in the party as by Shirley Williams on that occasion: she made it very clear that she was against the plebs having a vote for Lords selection at all, and that she would do everything in her (considerable) power to prevent any young person being given a place, whatever the mere party members had voted for. It was less an interview than a lecture. She wasn’t openly homophobic to me at the time, but after the second time I’d mentioned my partner with the word “he” and she’d talked about “she” I decided not to bother correcting her again, as there was clearly no way she was ever going to get it.

Afterwards, I met up with another of the three, a young woman who also had never been so bullied and humiliated by anyone in the party as by Shirley, again primarily because of Baroness Williams’ quite open and arrogant ageism. It’s the only time I’ve seen a woman in tears at their treatment by anyone in the Lib Dems.

But she was both a young person and a woman who had the temerity to disagree with the great Shirley, so no doubt Baroness Williams would claim that she treated her ‘equally’ with her longstanding mates who were on the list… Just not the same.

So that’s Shirley Williams: a very, very narrow commitment to equality, for only ‘her’ chosen sort of women. Her latest arrogant moves for legal special treatment for her own special interests and people of her own background, her own interests and her own opinions shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s seen her commitment to equality for the Great and Good – but not for people who are not the same – at work over so many years.

How Do You Want To Be Remembered?

Update: Inspired by Baron Tony Greaves’ quite staggering degree of self-unawareness on the Lib Dem Voice thread – a Lord accusing a blogger of “using his privileged position… to pursue his personal hobbyhorses” and describing his fellow unelected, unaccountable, unbearable grandees as “good Liberals” for using the law and their ultra-privileged personal prejudices to grind my relationship into the dirt, as they have for many years, I ask a simple question. You might put it, politely, to any Lib Dem peers of your acquaintance.

Imagine a “good Liberal” of, say, the middle of the last century who had an impeccable record in progressive opinion and legislation save that, for reasons of moral concern, and religion, and tradition, they just weren’t comfortable with black people and white people marrying and strained every sinew in their later years to prevent the heinous sin of mixed-race marriage, because “Equality is not the same as sameness”.

Is there any way on Earth that we would remember their legacy as a “good Liberal” today?

How do Liberal Democrat Peers want their legacies to be remembered?

Former self-styled radical Tony Greaves appears to be going out of his way to prove the point that taking a place in a ‘democratic’ legislature from which no mere mortal has the power ever to remove you rots your brain into ‘going native’.

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Whilst there are some lovely, humble Lords, the overwhelming majority I've met have been unpleasant, arrogant, and utterly disrespectful to anyone lacking a title. Meeting members of the Lords has made me more convinced that the titled should have no special democratic privilege than ever mere reasoned argument could.

thank you. This is stuff that needs to be known.
A brave post, and I'm sure you'll get a lot of stick for it from some in the party. But as Jennie says, we need to know.
Thanks. I'm mainly feeling very exposed at the moment and that I may have made a big mistake - doing harm but no good.

I've kept schtum for such a long time in part because I didn't want to do any damage to a party icon, still less one of our few prominent women. But a mixture of fury at what she's doing and the fact that she's destroying her own reputation set me off.
And Steve, I'm sad to hear that's been your experience. Baroness Williams is thankfully not typical of mine! I found most Lib Dem peers that I got to know (mostly through the Policy Committee) if anything rather less full of themselves than the MPs... But there was a strong tendency even among the best of them to defend the Lords as it stood and its wise ways.

When I stood - only once, deciding that once I was over thirty I was too old to break the mould - for the Peers Panel, I made a pledge that I believe is still unique. I stood on a manifesto saying that, were I nominated to the Lords, if it was still an unelected or unabolished House ten years later, I'd resign. Because I'd seen quite a few people 'going native' and didn't trust myself not to join them unless I bound myself!
It is not legally possible to resign from the HoL if you are a life peer.
I know that, Tim. So I'd have made a fuss about changing it, wouldn't I?

You may recall that it "was not legally possible to resign from the HoL if you..." were an hereditary peer. Until the law changed because some of them made a fuss about changing it.

As I said, I stood to change the Lords, not to keep it the same.
I've certainly heard some of this before - and Shirley's public comments after the gender balance debated in 2001 fit the pattern above.

BTW I voted for you 2nd preference in Lords election and never thought it was a bad decision :-)
This is very difficult for me to read as a lifelong admirer of Shirley Williams. I've spent the non sport watching part of today re-reading her autobiography in the sunshine.

I've been reading about how she challenged the establishment as a young woman & candidate & how she dealt with the discrimination she faced.

I know you, too, to be a decent person whose judgement I respect. I don't like that you have been through an experience like this which has clearly cast a very long shadow. I just wish there had been a way of getting this dealt with and resolved at the time. Things shouldn't fester for years like this.

Thank you, Hywel.

And I’m sorry, Caron. That’s one of the sorts of reasons I was torn about saying this at last and worry I’ve done the wrong thing. Shirley Williams was a hero of mine, too, through my teens and most of my twenties; I’ve agreed and disagreed with her on policies, but always acknowledged her as one of our most inspiring speakers; I, too, have books by her.

But for obvious reasons, after 1999 I’ve had a more conflicted opinion of her. I’ve still admired a lot of what she says and does, and often quoted her approvingly – for example, here. Ironically, I’d been aware that it’s a while since I last wrote any of my occasional ‘Liberal Mondays’ pieces where I select a Liberal quote, and one of hers was going to come up soon: it’s a particular favourite that I’ve quoted several times (for example, here). It’s a shame she no longer appears to stand by it. But that hasn’t felt like ‘festering’ to me. But as for resolving it at the time… Who was there to raise it with? She was the Leader in the Lords. That was that.

But reading about her yesterday was somehow just triggering. A Lib Dem Peer who was a friend of mine once pithily described Liberalism as ‘standing up to bullies’; I didn’t do that when I felt it was just about me (or about me and a couple of others). But now that Baroness Williams appears determined not just to destroy her own reputation on equality but to bring the Liberal Democrats into disrepute by bullying the gays, I felt it would be wrong not to take a stand.
Thanks for sharing this Alex: sorry this happened to you.
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