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?  

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