Eastern Eye (UK)
‘Shirley was the best prime minister Britain never had’
BARONESS SHIRLEY WILLIAMS CHAMPIONED HUMAN RIGHTS AND DIVERSITY, SAYS PEER
SHIRLEY WILLIAMS, one of the foremost post-war politicians in the UK and the first president of the Social Democratic Party, was better known as one of the Gang of Four who split from the Labour party and was ultimately instrumental in creating the Liberal Democratic party.
Many tributes have been paid about her career, which saw her appointed a minister of education in the Labour administration, to be followed by a similar appointment in the Home Office.
However, she will always be remembered as a politician well liked by electors for her forthright views on education and Europe. She was a committed European and her lasting legacy will be her valedictory address in the Lords about remaining in Europe.
I remember sitting in the chamber of the Lords during her contribution and noticing her great disappointment that we were about to leave Europe. At the end, I got a hug from her with the parting words that the UK was making a big mistake in the decision it had taken.
My earliest recollection of Shirley was when Mark Bonham Carter invited her to meet the staff of the Community Relations Commission. Her remarks were as pertinent today as they were then. She said it was her privilege to meet so many people of our diverse communities working together to promote racial harmony and good community relations. Her interest in human rights was reflected in everything she did, and her contribution in parliament and her views on TV and radio reflected this.
I remember during my inauguration as president of the Lib Dems, she came on stage to congratulate the party and the leadership for this historical decision. I served for more than four years in this capacity and both Charles Kennedy and Shirley remained close confidants whom I could consult for advice on political issues.
Shirley was instrumental in guiding me through my political career which resulted in the largest number of Lib Dem MPs elected to parliament in recent times.
I was invited to the baptism ceremony of her grand-daughter at her country residence. I said it at the time and I continue to maintain that Shirley was the best prime minister we never had.
Our relationship continued over all these years. I recall her interest in a number of local charities in India and, in particular, in Rajasthan. Together we were involved in a number of fund-raising events and until her death, she continued to take interest in these charities.
The last time during her leadership in the Lords, we were on a delegation to India, to look at the political situation in Jammu and Kashmir. Her knowledge of the subcontinent was wide and then Indian prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh recalled the days when they had met in Cambridge.
My lasting memory was of panic when we could not locate Shirley on the morning of our departure from New Delhi. Search parties were sent to locate her and they found Shirley relaxing in the hotel swimming pool. We were taken to the VIP lounge and she ensured that her wet swimming costume was hung on the windows to dry.
Needless to say, she was one of the most disorganised people I have ever come across, but that was, after all, her endearing quality we have all come to love.
Lord Navnit Dholakia is deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords