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Climbing the Bookshelves, By Shirley Williams

Shirl the Pearl stands by a comprehensive mistake

Difficult as it may be to credit now, for a brief time in the 1970s it was Shirley Williams rather than Margaret Thatcher who was tipped to be Britain's first female prime minister. Thatcher had neater hair, better dress sense and was punctual; Shirl the Pearl was legendarily late and untidy – but was much the warmer, more voter-friendly personality. Like Thatcher, Williams served as education secretary, and both were self-styled conviction politicians. In her memoirs, Williams says she was "always a democratic socialist", betraying a ling-ering affection for her old Labour roots. More strikingly, she is unrepentant about the comprehensive school system that she did so much to build, driven by her vision of how they would help create "an inclusive, cohesive society".

Whatever else they have done, the comps have not conspicuously achieved that. Politicians are entitled to use their memoirs to defend the indefensible, and Williams does a reasonable job of reminding us that comprehensivisation was once popular, and tells us about how she tried to make the comps more diverse when she was in charge three decades ago. But the "bog-standard comp" as we know it today has blighted the life chances of countless youngsters, and stands as the worst failure of public policy since the Second World War. Mrs Thatcher may have deprived Generation X of a job, but Mrs Williams did her bit to ensure that they were unemployable.

As someone of modest background who attended a grammar school that was destroyed by Williams, I found it particularly unnerving to read about the arrangements made for the education of Williams' own daughter, Rebecca, at roughly the same time: "A direct-grant school, Godolphin & Latymer, a good traditional girls' school only a short distance away from our new house. She was 11 now. I offered a pleasant third-floor flat in my house to the grown-up son Tristan, and later to the daughter, Amanda, of my friends Kenneth and Betty Alsop, in exchange for the company for Rebecca. The arrangement worked well, but only because Rebecca was a conscientious and hard- working pupil determined to do well in her O levels, and fortunately for me, she was blessed with similar friends."

By 1977, with Williams as education secretary, Godolphin had decided to revert to full fee-paying status rather than become non-selective. It was only one of many fine state schools, including mine, to be lost forever, an unforgivable destruction of what was, in reality, one of the UK's few first-class capital assets. We are paying for it still.

There is an arresting passage in Williams' memoir in which she describes clambering up on to the roof of her parents' home in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, when she was about seven: "From that high perch I could see the whole of south London laid out before me, the glistening Thames, the warehouses and power stations of Lots Road and Battersea, the endless terraces of little red-brick Victorian houses snaking over the low hills on the opposite side of the river." You can't help feeling she never quite lost that way of looking at the working classes: from a very high perch.

For Shirley Catlin was fabulously privileged. Thatcher's father was, famously a grocer. Shirley's was a don, and her mother was Vera Brittain, whose bestselling memoir of the Great War, Testament of Youth, is still in print. Shirley Catlin herself went on to marry two distinguished academics, Bernard Williams and Richard Neustadt, and the title of her book refers to her habit of climbing to the top of her parents' bookshelves to discover the juiciest literature in the house (Marie Stopes and Havelock Ellis). The Thatchers made do with the Encylopedia Britannica and Readers' Digest.

But the real difference between Thatcher and Williams is the quality of courage: Maggie had more guts than Shirl. By her own witness, Williams admits that. When no one else seemed willing to draw Heath's disastrous leadership of his party to a close in 1975, Maggie decided she would, and won. A few years later, Williams flunked a similar challenge. Having left Labour to help found the SDP, she baulked at its first big challenge, and a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Warrington: "I did not dither. I quailed. My reputation for boldness, acquired in the long fight within the Labour Party, never wholly recovered." Williams' hopes of ever leading her new party to a victory over Thatcher's Tories evaporated in a cloud of funk. A pity: Maggie v Shirley would have made a wonderful spectacle.