Shirley Williams: opinions are still divided

It’s always rewarding for a writer to see his contributions triggering off wide public debate. In that spirit I’d like to thank all the readers whose intellectual curiosity was piqued by my latest piece.

Among other things, I speculated on the identity of the senior member(s) of the Wilson cabinet who supposedly chased Shirley Williams, then at her most nubile, around office furniture. According to Shirley, the prize they pursued was ‘worse than groping’ – which is to say non-consensual sex, a crime barely short of mass murder on the modern moral scale.

It’s good to see that readers have treated this attempt at forensic enquiry with the seriousness it merited. Some respondents were kind enough to offer their own suggestions, and this is exactly the type of active participation that raises an enquiry to a new high – or, depending on one’s point of view, lowers it to a new low.

One reader offered this observation: “It wouldn’t have been Crosland: he promised he would only f*** the grammar schools.”

Deeply shocked by the use of an expletive, even one masked by asterisks, I was about to fire off an indignant reply when I realised that my correspondent was loosely quoting Antony Crosland himself, Shirley’s predecessor as Education Secretary.

The problem therefore lies not in the turn of phrase but in the looseness of the quote. This is what Crosland actually said: “If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to destroy every f***ing grammar school in England. And Wales and Northern Ireland.” Lucky Scotland, is all one can say.

Therefore, taken literally, his statement doesn’t suggest that he himself wished to perpetrate a sex act on the grammar schools. Quite the contrary: the intensifying modifier ‘f***ing’ conveys the notion of grammar schools being an active rather than passive partner in sexual congress.

Mr Crosland therefore never treated grammar schools as sex objects, and he certainly never foreswore expanding his amorous horizons beyond this offensive educational institution. In fact, he was known at the time as quite a ladies’ man, which supposedly could make him a prime suspect in the crime of running those laps around the filing cabinets.

However, if we eschew primitive literalism and consider the net effect of Crosland’s and Williams’s attack on grammar schools, then – as a figure of speech – we would perhaps be justified in agreeing with my correspondent’s suggestions, while still sternly rebuking him for his choice of words.

Expanding the metaphor, we can perhaps imagine a threesome involving grammar schools flanked on either side by our two protagonists. However, threesomes usually presuppose three willing participants, which young Shirley self-admittedly wasn’t, and neither were the grammar schools.   

“Barbara Castle?” asks another correspondent. Implicit in this suggestion is the libellous insinuation that the two women practised what at the time was known as perversion and which, by the mercy of God, has been progressively updated to mean an alternative and equally (more?) valid lifestyle choice.

I’ll have my correspondent know that both ladies were happily married… well, married in any case. Of course, he might object that this ipso facto doesn’t preclude certain Sapphic tendencies, as the example of our greatest, or at least most progressive, writer of all time Virginia Woolf shows. However, the Barbara theory is defeated on two counts.

First, Mrs Williams, as she then was, states unequivocally that she was pursued by a senior cabinet colleague. Yet though Mrs Cartland, as she then was, did occupy a number of ministerial posts, none of them put her in a position of institutional seniority vis-à-vis Shirley. Second, since the two women were evenly matched physically, Shirley could have had a sporting chance of fighting Barbara off, rather than embarking on an obstacle race around the office.

Thanking this correspondent for his offering, I can move on to the next reader whose suggestion shows a great deal of imagination, lamentably compromised by his cavalier treatment of political correctness. “My money,” he writes, “is on David Blunkett.”

This is outrageous, especially for those familiar with the key personages of British politics. The author of this comment is referring to Mr Blunkett’s… impairment? Challenge? Handicap? As a lifelong stickler for politically inoffensive language, I’m stuck for the proper word to describe the fact that David Blunkett is blind from birth and consequently feels the urge to walk his dog at all times.

Referring to this impairment-challenge-handicap offends every fibre of my PC soul, and the offence is exacerbated by the implicit suggestion that one had to be sightless to fall for Mrs Williams’s charms. Here I have to admit that I myself may have encouraged such a reference by my ungallant comment that Mrs Williams’s photographs don’t explain the fervour of her multiple pursuers.

Now I’m man enough to admit I was wrong in trying to impose on my readers my own aesthetic preferences. But two wrongs don’t make a right, and I think my correspondent should apologise to Baroness Williams, as she now is. To set an example, I too apologise for suggesting in a personal e-mail to this writer that Shirley would have bitten David’s dog.

He must also admit to a rather slipshod treatment of historical facts. For Mr Blunkett, a considerably younger man, only entered Parliament in 1987. His ministerial career did overlap with Shirley’s in the early noughties, but she was LibDem then, rather than Labour, and therefore not Mr Blunkett’s junior colleague. Moreover, at the time she was rather past the age of consent or especially of withdrawing consent by racing around desks.

None of this is meant to discourage a free exchange of opinion on this site. On the contrary, how else can we arrive at the truth if not by approaching serious issues from every possible angle?  

The revenge of Baroness Williams

Shirley Williams has come out, all guns blazing, her CV nailed to the mast, in defence of Lord Rennard, former LibDem chief executive.

Several women have accused Lord Rennard of sexual harassment, specifically of going further than ‘placing a hand on my knee,’ as one victim described the transgression. The press doesn’t report how much further, but then such details no longer matter in the general scheme of things.

It could have been placing a hand higher than a knee, it could have been rape – these days it could even be complimenting a woman on her appearance. Such misdeeds aren’t just committed against persons; they’re committed against the ethos, so the degree of severity is immaterial.

It still matters to some extent in a court of law although, given the prevailing trend, it’s hard to tell for how much longer such differentiation will persevere. But in any trial by media no extenuating circumstances are admissible. There the defendant is guilty as charged simply because he is charged.

Baroness Williams wouldn’t take it lying down, as it were. She sprang to Lord Rennard’s defence by claiming that, as Education Secretary in Wilson’s government back in the 1970s, she was regularly chased around the filing cabinets by ‘senior figures’, who were after a prize ‘worse than groping’.

She didn’t name any names, which leaves room for conjecture. Assuming that those in inferior positions wouldn’t have dared impose themselves on a senior colleague, one can limit the guessing game to a handful of players, of whom, according to the Baroness, ‘there was more than one.’ Wilson? Callaghan? One wishes old Shirley weren’t so discreet.

Running around office furniture she protested against such unwanted attentions, only to be told in no uncertain terms that ‘politics isn’t a soft business.’ By the sound of it, the business was very hard indeed. The Baroness omits any reference to the possible success or failure of any ‘senior figure’ in catching up with her, but then she’s entitled to her privacy.

Without in any way wishing to sound discourteous, Shirley’s photos from that period give little indication of what exactly could have inflamed her colleagues’ passions to such an extent, but then politicians aren’t known for their taste. Shirley could breathe and she had a pulse – what more did they need?

All this is fascinating stuff, though it’s not immediately clear how any of it is relevant. Surely attempted rape in the past (presumably that’s what ‘worse than groping’ means) can’t be used as justification for a similar transgression at present (‘worse than placing a hand on my knee’)? Either sexual harassment is wicked or it isn’t. If it isn’t, why are we talking about it at all? And if it is, then it’s like any other crime, where numerous similar incidents throughout history in no way excuse the one under current indictment.

Nor is it relevant to the matter at hand that, according to Baroness Williams, Lord Rennard is ‘a very fine man’. When it comes to this sort of thing, many a finer man has had his superlative traits overridden by momentary passions. Character references don’t cut much ice even in court, never mind in a trial by media.

Baroness William’s defence of Lord Rennard is pathetically weak, but then logic was never her major strength. Witness the fanatical zeal with which she pursued, when not being chased around filing cabinets, the destruction of grammar schools and their replacement with the idiot factories of comprehensives.

One wonders if there is a direct link between Shirley’s suffering at the hands of ‘senior figures’ and her desire to dumb down the whole nation. In common with other Leftie politicians she must have seen herself as a victim of the establishment – without realising that she herself was the establishment.

This pervasive culture of resentment had to extend to the very people in whose name the likes of the Baroness perpetrate their outrages. After all, the people stubbornly refused to revolt against the very establishment that pursued young Shirley around the House of Commons. What better revenge could she have exacted than creating an educational system that makes it possible for people to vote the likes of Tony Blair or Dave Cameron into power?

I don’t know if this exercise in cracker-barrel psychology makes any sense. Probably not. But then nothing else about our leaders does either. Shirley’s defence of Lord Rennard, for example, is silly. And one would be frustrated trying to detect a flicker of reason in her defence of comprehensive schools:

‘I have never in any way regretted them and I still believe strongly in them. The problem was that in many places they were heavily skimmed because people kept grammar schools in place beside them.’

Let me see if I get this right. Comprehensives failed because a few real schools were still around, and people could see the difference. Had every grammar school been demolished, rather than merely 99 percent of them, no one would have known any better.

Such is Shirley Williams’s revenge on Britain. She and her libidinous likeminded colleagues made sure few voters can any longer recognise their pronouncements for what they are: utter rubbish. Old Shirley has done to the country what those ‘senior figures’ tried to do to her.

Trust Tony to sort out the Middle East

Far be it from me to suggest that all the problems of the Middle East would be instantly solved if Tony Blair were banned from visiting the region and indeed talking about it. But it would be a good start.

First a little historical background. When Tony was our PM he played lickspittle to George ‘Yo, Blair!’ Bush, who in turn was the dummy to neocon ventriloquists. In committing Britain to the harebrained attack on Iraq, Tony was thus in effect a dummy’s dummy.

That idiotic, criminal action, accompanied by the usual complement of lies, pushed the button on a delayed-action bomb in the region. Actually, the action wasn’t as delayed as all that: within a mere 10 years several secular governments collapsed, the Middle East was aflame, the rest of the world was brought to the brink of a major conflagration, the only civilised country in the neighbourhood was put in grave danger – graver even than anything Israel has had to face for the last 65 years.

One would think that the only comment Tony, one of the principal instigators of the calamity, could possibly make would be mea culpa. Now he’s a Catholic he must have heard the words that one time he attended mass with Cherie.

So do we hear an apology from him? Do we hell. All we hear is inane, illiterate bleating and yelps for attacking the last secular government standing, that of Syria’s Assad.  

The latest outpouring came through The Mail’s good offices, and I have to thank Tony for making my job much easier. In common with many intellectually challenged individuals, he’ll hoist himself with his own petard given a chance to talk. All I have to do is add a few parenthetical comments.

“Syria is in a state of accelerating disintegration. President Assad is brutally pulverising communities hostile to his regime. At least 80,000 have died.”

[How many of them have been murdered by Assad’s opponents? You know, those chaps who eat people’s internal organs on camera? Without this information the body count is meaningless.]

“The Syrian opposition is made up of many groups. The fighters are increasingly the Al Qaeda-affiliated group Jabhat al-Nusra. They are winning support, and arms and money from outside the country.”

[So does Tony want to stop this support? Au contraire, as he’d have said during his dish-washing career in Paris. He wants to give them more ‘arms and money from outside the country’. And if that doesn’t do the trick, he wants us to attack Syria. Why?]

Because “we are at the beginning of this tragedy. Its capacity to destabilise the region is clear.”

[A startling admission, that. We started ‘this tragedy’, so we might as well make it worse.]

“To the South in Egypt and across North Africa, Muslim Brotherhood parties are in power…”

[Quite. And Tony has just admitted it’s partly his fault. So what’s he going to do about it?]

“When I return to Jerusalem soon, it will be my 100th visit to the Middle East since leaving office, working to build a Palestinian state.”

[The logic is unassailable. Because ‘Muslim Brotherhood parties’ are in control elsewhere, they should be given yet another state, this one wholly their own.]

“But are we really going to examine it and find no common thread, nothing that joins these dots, no sense of an ideology driving or at least exacerbating it all?”

[Not at all, Tone. We’ve found it. It’s called Islam, the only major religion that has the murder of infidels and apostates built into its scriptural makeup. What do you say to that?]

“There is not a problem with Islam. For those of us who have studied it, there is no doubt about its true and peaceful nature. There is not a problem with Muslims in general.”

[‘Those of us who have studied’ Islam, which Tony manifetsly hasn’t, have seen 107 Koran verses like these: “Slay [unbelievers] wherever ye find them…” (2:91), “Take them and kill them wherever ye find them” (4:91), “Slay the idolaters wherever ye find them, and take them captive, and besiege them, and prepare for them each ambush” (9:5), “…If they turn renegades, seize them and slay them wherever ye find them…” (4:89). Just how peaceful is its nature, Tone?]

“Of course there are Christian extremists and Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu ones.” [True. These chaps are as capable as the Muslims of flying planes into buildings, attacking our allies and beheading Westerners who disagree with them. It’s sheer luck that so far they’ve refrained from doing so.]

“On the other [hand there] are the modern-minded, those who hated the old oppression by corrupt dictators and who hate the new oppression by religious fanatics. They are potentially the majority, but unfortunately they are badly organised.”

[Majorities are always badly organised, Tone. It’s fire-eating activists like you who do the damage. The Muslim world has always had to choose between the two forms of oppression, that’s the nature of the beast. We should offer tacit support to the beast that’s less likely to bite us – those same ‘corrupt dictators’ you agitate against.]

“The better idea is a modern view of religion and its place in society and politics. There has to be respect and equality between people of different faiths.”

[Splendid idea. There’s a problem though: there’s no such thing as ‘religion’. There are only different religions, of which some encourage people to erect tall buildings and some to fly planes into them. It would be unrealistic to expect Tony to think before mouthing bien-pensant twaddle, but the rest of us should realise that promoting ‘equality between people of different faiths’ can have only one practical effect: weakening the builders and strengthening the flyers.]

“We have to start with how to educate children about faith, here and abroad. That is why I started a foundation whose specific purpose is to educate children of different faiths across the world to learn about each other and live with each other.”

[But Mohammed was extremely well-educated about Christianity – he did spend several years studying it at Nestorian monasteries (in Syria, as it happens). That hasn’t prevented his followers from feeling ever so slightly hostile towards every religion other than their own.]

Give it a rest, Tone. Really, the best thing you can do at this stage is shut up. That’ll be your greatest contribution to peace in the Middle East. And to the cause of fighting nausea among normal people who have the misfortune of glancing at your articles.