was leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords (having earlier been for many years a Labour frontbencher in the Commons) when Roy McCloughry met her in the Palace of Westminster on 25 February 2004.
Photography: Andrew Firth
Reading your recent book God and Caesar,1God and Caesar: Personal reflections on politics and religion (Continuum, 2003) it struck me that your world is full of heroes, whose lives you celebrate. And yet our culture at large has long preferred celebrities to heroes.
Oh yes, you are right. To me, what makes someone a hero is moral courage – that’s the virtue I admire more than anything else, I think. It can be a very ordinary whistleblower, a Katharine Gun,2Katharine Gun was a translator at GCHQ who in February 2003 revealed that the US National Security Agency had asked the British Government to assist in the illegal surveillance of the six delegations to the UN Security Council that had yet to decide whether to vote to authorise war against Iraq. She was charged under the Official Secrets Act, but the case was finally dropped in February 2004. somebody that no one’s heard of before, who suddenly comes out with some extraordinary act of conscience that has nothing to do with where their opportunities lie or what their corporate culture is. I’ve seen some in politics, I’ve seen some in churches, I’ve seen some in NGOs who suddenly can’t keep silent any more.
The celeb is essentially a creation of the media, and moral courage rarely comes into it. What they are – in a rather sad way, I think – is an attempt to create a model for other people, but a model that is based almost entirely upon the ‘virtues’ the media recognise – which are to do with one’s looks, one’s way of life (in a very superficial sense), worldly success of one kind or another, and youth.
Can governments possess moral courage?
I don’t think that governments have moral courage as such. I think individuals almost always do. Even if you look at a government like that of Lula da Silva in Brazil, would you say that it is morally courageous? No, but you might say that he is.
The Book of Proverbs says that where there is no vision the people perish.3Proverbs 29:18 (KJV). More recent translations interpret the verse rather differently. To what extent is any government – let’s say Tony Blair’s – responsible for giving a moral vision to the country?
It thinks it does indeed. Let us not make any bones about this: we have a profoundly believing Prime Minister. It’s quite clear that this is a man who is sincerely Christian. He’s not being a hypocrite, he’s not pretending to be a Christian: he is one. He therefore has to persuade himself of the moral value of what he’s doing – the Iraq war is a pretty good example of that.
I was brought up to be a passionate internationalist. My mother was one of the very few people to protest against the saturation bombing of Germany. God bless her for that!
One difficulty for Christians is to get their minds round the idea that Christianity covers a very wide spectrum of political views, from the Christian Socialists, with whom I was brought up, all the way to Christian Conservatives (and there are many in the House of Lords), who would see Christianity as being in part about keeping the state at bay. I might pick out the gospel of social justice and make that central to my perception of Christianity, but I have to admit that if I were an 18th-century Christian it would have been the sense of obligation, the sense that hierarchy owes it to lesser people to look after them – a very different concept of Christianity.
Do your political opinions derive from your Christian worldview or from a commitment to some political ideology?
Funnily enough, they are intertwined. I was brought up by my parents to be a passionate internationalist. My mother4The feminist, socialist and pacifist writer Vera Brittain, best known for her best-selling 1933 memoir Testament of Youth was one of the very few people to protest against the saturation bombing of Germany, and especially the bombing of Hamburg and Dresden, on the grounds that these were acts of inhumanity. God bless her for that! I think it would be very hard to unpick her views on the grounds of what is civilised behaviour and her views on the grounds of religion.
(What was interesting, as a footnote to all this, was that she was denounced by some of the bishops, including the Archbishop of Canterbury of the time, but was very strongly supported by others. Of course, at that time the Church of England was very strongly patriotic. Nowadays, I think, it would take a much more internationalist view, as the Vatican did then.)
In many ways, I think, the developing concepts of human rights and the rule of law internationally flow very clearly from Christian sources. I mean, the concept of human rights is, in a sense, a secular expression of the idea of the infinite value of each individual human being in the eyes of God which is very deeply entrenched, particularly in the Catholic Church – it goes right back to Aquinas and before. And it also relates to the concept that there are no boundaries to God’s love laid down by nationality or colour or race or gender.
Obviously, there are other sources. It is no coincidence that India is the country in the Third World with the strongest human-rights legislation and parliamentary committees, because there is also a Hindu concept of the infinite value of each individual; and it is also, of course, an Islamic concept. But it’s much harder for human rights to take hold in parts of the world where there is no sense of that value.
Where it becomes a matter of controversy is in the interpretation – most particularly in the whole area of gender, for example, or of gay marriage. But, apart from these rather specialist issues, I think there’s a very large area of common ground.
It sounds to me as if your political vision owes as much to your parents’ as to your own studies.
That would probably be true, yes. But I did study history – I got a scholarship to Oxford to read history, and only later started studying economics – and obviously you can’t divorce history from religion, because it’s the dominant factor in history up until the 18th century. And my father5The political scientist and philosopher George Catlin brought me up with a great deal of scholarly background in Roman Catholic doctrine, especially that of Aquinas.
Your father was a Catholic and your mother was a ‘dissenting’ Anglican. What kind of Christian are you?
It’s a good question. I wasn’t baptised until I was 18, so I had to think myself through it. I suppose I’m a Catholic because it made the greatest demands. It sounds funny, doesn’t it, but it’s true. Also, it was international, and when I was a youngster (bearing in mind especially that Europe was very divided by the pain of the aftermath of the war) the fact that I could walk into a Catholic church anywhere in the world and recognise the Mass was terribly important to me.
These days I would probably describe myself as a (let’s put it this way) somewhat dissident Catholic. I think the Church has moved away from the position taken by the Second Vatican Council, with which I would have found myself completely at one, happy in every way. And then it moved away from liberation theology, which again I found extremely exciting, a marriage of Christianity with the concept of social justice in its strongest sense. Frankly, in all churches, I guess, but certainly in my own, there is a certain hard-nosed readiness to live with the existing power structures, and I think there should be a lot more challenging of those structures.
By the by, I should say that my mother was probably closest of all to John Bunyan in her thinking.
There is a lot of talk of the compromises politicians have to make. What are the principal issues on which you have felt obliged to compromise?
I suppose one of them is abortion/contraception. I’ve always voted against abortion, but I can’t uphold the Church’s view on contraception: I think it’s just wrong. I have always said quite openly that the resistance to reform on contraception was a major mistake – and I’ve always felt free to say so because that’s what my conscience told me, and I’m not in that sense bound by doctrine as much as I should be.
I felt the Church’s stand on contraception seriously weakened its ability to sell its case on abortion, and I still feel that very strongly. People knew perfectly well that in a lot of developing countries the form contraception took was killing the unborn baby, and the Church offered no alternative. It was extremely unwise, if I may say so.
But, yes, I’ve had to compromise on quite a lot of issues. You can’t be in politics and not. But you have to distinguish very clearly between the necessity for compromise to make it possible for a party to continue… It’s no good trying to run a democracy without any parties, because you won’t have any discipline to get anything through. There has to be a fair degree of (as it were) loyalty within the structure. So, you have to recognise that you have every right to make your case heard as loudly as possible until a law is promulgated, but after that, when it is being put through or is being fought by your party, you have to consider very carefully whether it is so objectionable that you have to vote against it.
Really, votes against, and resignations, are for very special cases where your conscience tells you very strongly that this is something you cannot compromise on. That is what, in the end, led me to leave the Labour Party [in 1981] to form the [Social Democratic Party], because the compromise on accountability to the party and not to the people, which was the heart of the left-wing message, was something I couldn’t accept.
Are there issues coming up that are going to face MPs with those kind of moral decisions?
There is obviously a big issue about the basis of the war in Iraq. I think the facts are already strong enough to show that we almost certainly did go to war illegally, but I understand that there are people who would say they were not yet convinced. If the facts pile up – as I’m sure they will – to produce an absolutely copper-bottomed case that we went to war illegally, then I would regard that as a matter of conscience, rather like Suez,6In 1956, after President Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal, Britain and France colluded with Israel to try to take it back into international control by force. After the Israelis invaded Egypt, Britain and France followed suit, ostensibly to protect the canal from the Israelis. The British Government justified this, in the face of huge opposition at home, with the claim that this military action had prevented a war in the Middle East and ensured the eventual intervention of the United Nations. and it would then be incumbent upon politicians to say, ‘We cannot flout the rule of law internationally without bringing down the whole of the framework of the rule of law, and therefore we must now expect from the Government some full explanation and, to some extent, an apology.’
I don’t pretend for a moment to live up to this, but there’s a sense in which the life of the really good man or woman is itself a sort of prayer
I think this relates to smaller things, like the fact that we made no count of Iraqi civilian casualties, which I think is appalling. What it says is: We don’t count Iraqi dead in either sense. This whole group of issues, I think, are all issues where there are a great deal of moral considerations to be looked at.
And then there are broader issues where you can compromise but probably shouldn’t. Do we send far too many people to prison? Are we still returning people to countries where they’ll be tortured? Do we put up with bullying in the Armed Forces of young men and women who then commit suicide? I don’t mean that these are issues on which you resign, but you do have an obligation, in my view, to keep nagging on, to say: ‘How are you going to deal with this? What are you going to do to stop it?’
Where does prayer fit into the increasing pragmatism of politics?
I suppose I have a problem with prayer, in the sense that it can become detached from life in such a way that one feels that if one says one’s prayers every day one has satisfied one’s obligations. I don’t think so. I don’t pretend for a moment to live up to this, but there’s a sense in which the life of the really good man or woman is itself a sort of prayer. You can’t divorce the way in which you express your religious rituals from the way in which you live your life, and I think therefore that prayer as it’s expressed – for example, in the celebration of the good things that happen in life and so on – is what one might call a natural emanation of prayer from life.
I think there’s a real difficulty about prayers by rote. I can’t think that saying Ave Maria a hundred times over has got an awful lot to do with what I believe must be the concept of prayer.
What do you think the priorities should be now for Christians? Are they focusing on the right things?
I think they should concentrate on two things. One is the saving of creation, nothing less, which means a serious involvement in the environmental movement. The second, I would have to say, is a greater degree of global social justice. And that means that in both cases Christians should recognise that they have an obligation not just to wring their hands and say, ‘Isn’t it awful?’ but actually to get involved in some way, in public debate, public commitment…
Which doesn’t mean that they have to join a political party, though obviously I would like them to.
A longer version of this interview was published in the April 2004 issue of Third Way.
God and Caesar: Personal reflections on politics and religion (Continuum, 2003)|
Katharine Gun was a translator at GCHQ who in February 2003 revealed that the US National Security Agency had asked the British Government to assist in the illegal surveillance of the six delegations to the UN Security Council that had yet to decide whether to vote to authorise war against Iraq. She was charged under the Official Secrets Act, but the case was finally dropped in February 2004.|
Proverbs 29:18 (KJV). More recent translations interpret the verse rather differently.|
The feminist, socialist and pacifist writer Vera Brittain, best known for her best-selling 1933 memoir Testament of Youth|
The political scientist and philosopher George Catlin|
In 1956, after President Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal, Britain and France colluded with Israel to try to take it back into international control by force. After the Israelis invaded Egypt, Britain and France followed suit, ostensibly to protect the canal from the Israelis. The British Government justified this, in the face of huge opposition at home, with the claim that this military action had prevented a war in the Middle East and ensured the eventual intervention of the United Nations.|
Shirley Williams was born in London in 1930. She was educated at eight different schools in the UK and the US, and read philosophy, politics and economics at Somerville College, Oxford before going to Columbia University, New York as a Fulbright Scholar. She joined the Labour Party on her 16th birthday.
She went first into journalism, working for the Daily Mirror from 1952 to 1954 and then for the Financial Times until 1958.
In 1960, with research papers under her belt on the Common Market and its forerunners, Britain and free trade, and Central Africa and ‘the economics of inequality’, she became general secretary of the Fabian Society, until 1964.
In that year, having stood for Parliament as a Labour candidate in Harwich in 1954 and 1955 and in Southampton Test in 1959, she was elected MP for Hitchin and joined Harold Wilson’s government as parliamentary private secretary to the Minister of Health.
In 1966, she was promoted to parliamentary secretary at the Ministry of Labour, and in 1967 to minister of state at the Department of Education and Science. In 1969, she moved sideways to the Home Office.
In opposition, she then held the portfolios of social security (1970–71), home affairs (1971–73) and prices and consumer affairs (1973–74).
In 1974, now MP for Hertford & Stevenage, she entered James Callaghan’s Cabinet as Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection and became a Privy Counsellor. Two years later, she was made Secretary of State for Education and Science and Paymaster General, positions she held until 1979, when Labour lost power and she lost her seat.
She was a member of the party’s National Executive Committee from 1970 to 1981.
In 1981, she quit Labour to co-found the Social Democratic Party as one of the so-called Gang of Four (with Roy Jenkins, William Rodgers and David Owen) and became the first SDP MP when she was elected in Crosby. She was president of the SDP from 1982 until 1988, when the party merged with the Liberals to form the Liberal Democrats.
Having lost her seat in the 1983 general election, following boundary changes, she concentrated on her academic career. She held lecturing posts at Cambridge and, in the US, Princeton, Berkeley and Chicago Universities, and from 1988 to 2000 was Public Service Professor of Elective Politics at the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
She re-entered Parliament as a life peer in 1993, taking the title of Baroness Williams of Crosby. She spoke for her party on foreign and Commonwealth affairs in the Lords from 1998 and was deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats in the Lords from 1999 to 2001, when she was elected their leader.
She is a member of the US Council on Foreign Relations and also sits on the boards of the Moscow School of Political Studies and the International Crisis Group.
Her publications include Politics is for People (1981), Unemployment and Growth in Western Economies (1984), A Job to Live (1985), Snakes and Ladders: A diary of a political life (1996) and God and Caesar (2003).
In 1980, she hosted the BBC TV series Shirley Williams in Conversation and in 1988 she produced Women in the House for BBC Radio 4.
She has received honorary degrees from universities in Britain, Belgium and the US, and is an honorary fellow of her old Oxford college.
She has been married twice, to the philosopher Sir Bernard Williams and to the leading US political scientist Richard Neustadt, who died recently. She has one daughter by her first marriage.
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