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It meant that she was sometimes less than straightforward with the entire truth, not because she was devious but because she sought not to hurt people’s feelings. It sometimes infuriated her friends, however, that she had a capacity for fantasy, often about trivial matters such as the reason for her being late.
Her pursuit of popularity also led to the evolution of a particular political style. She exuded reasonableness, both in public debate and in the course of an interview on radio or television. But there was a certain trick involved. She would appear to agree with what an opponent had asserted, by smiling and genially seeming to acknowledge the point, while she was in fact simultaneously putting an entirely contrary point of view, but doing it so pleasantly that she would already have won over the audience before she had finished speaking. It worked wonders, whether she was speaking to the Labour conference or on the BBC’s Question Time, where it won her a Most Frequent Panellist award. Horse Show Mom I Just Hold The Horse And Hand Over The Money Shirt, hoodie, tank top
There was a chameleon quality to Williams that perhaps came partly from a peripatetic education and partly from a lifetime’s travel, particularly in the US, which she had learned to love as a child. Not only did her mother visit the US, but her father taught at Cornell University, New York.
Her early childhood was spent in the cushioned comfort of Chelsea. She went to a smart private nursery school, Mrs Spencer’s Academy, followed by Christ Church elementary school. At the outbreak of the second world war, she was sent to boarding school in Swanage, but air raids over Dorset persuaded her parents to evacuate her and her brother to the US. “Send us your children,” said a telegram from a family in St Paul, Minnesota, whom Brittain had met on a lecture tour.
As a pacifist and a sponsor of the Peace Pledge Union, Brittain felt that she could not herself leave the country. In June 1940, Shirley and John were packed off, unaccompanied but duly labelled, through the dangers of the Battle of the Atlantic, on board the ocean liner Duchess of Atholl. It would be the overture for her to a lifetime’s love affair with the US, culminating in her second marriage.
Shirley Williams, secretary of state for prices and consumer protection, in 1975, at a London press conference on behalf of the Labour campaign for Britain in Europe. Photograph: PA
Returning in 1943, Shirley was briefly a pupil at St Paul’s girls’ school in Hammersmith, west London, before it was bombed and she was sent to stay with acquaintances in Cambridge, where she was tutored privately. She then attended Talbot Heath girls’ school in Bournemouth, close to the family’s second home in the New Forest, which Shirley came to love.