Shirley was incapable of preconceptions. It was perhaps her only incapability. Whether you were a learned professor of political theory, a longstanding cabinet minister, or an eager, awestruck undergraduate, she wanted to talk politics without assumptions or prejudices. She thought your opinion could change her mind, even though she would make no presumption at all as to what your opinion was. The only thing she ever assumed was the good-heartedness and excellence of others.
Some have remarked that that was her downfall—she lacked the killer instinct which could have made her Prime Minister. Maybe, but her fall was our elevation. Time after time throughout her career she chose the options that were right and difficult rather than wrong and easy. She was part of that loyal rebellion who succeeded in defying partisan nonsense to bring Britain into the European Communities. She resisted the urge to be parachuted into safer seats, always wanting to be on the frontline of political battles. And, of course, she left the party she grew up in so she could put the country ahead of her own ambition.
Her remarkable life, from her childhood acting, to her near-death escapes during the Second World War, from her extraordinary family to her glittering career in cabinet, academia and parliament, she never stopped being what Charles Kennedy called a fully paid-up member of the human race.
Wherever she went, the people she left behind were more committed and more humane for her influence. Crosby, Stevenage, Cambridge, and Limehouse, the places she made and lost her political fortunes are each of them touched by her presence—normally in the form of committed young liberals she left in her wake. Many people in many parties were inspired into politics by Shirley Williams. Although she was a formidable liberal, and a much better social democrat than anybody in the Labour Party, she was, above all, a defender of civilisation in all its forms.
The one form she loved above all others was conversation; she wanted to talk, and listen, and talk all over again. She wanted to put the world to rights, and she wanted you to help; she wanted to convince people by means of intellect and language that better things were possible. And often they were, and it was often because of Shirley Williams. On the several occasions she came to talk in Cambridge she made clear to me in no uncertain terms she wanted to hear from as many people as possible. During the 2017 election, when she was losing her ability to walk well enough to canvass, she wanted students to be brought to her in an orderly queue, so she would be able to convince them one by one. In 2018, when she spoke to CULA (for the second time that year) she upbraided members for not having more questions and letting her talk too much. On one occasion I woke up to find I had 27 missed calls from Shirley Williams; she wanted to argue about grammar schools, and she wasn’t giving up until somebody answered.
There is no doubt that she would have been a better Prime Minister than any since the war, killer instinct or no. We have had a lot of Prime Ministers with killer instincts, and, particularly these days, I would quite like to have had a Prime Minister whose key instincts were to think and to love.