To tell the story of someone as controversial and misunderstood as Marcia Williams is a particularly difficult task, one that Linda McDougall ably achieves in her new book Marcia Williams: The Life of Baroness Falkender. Williams was at the heart of Harold Wilson’s governments, as his Political Secretary in the 1960s and 70s. She is a much misunderstood and maligned figure, being accused – among other things – of compiling Wilson’s infamous Lavender List of resignation peerages for her own financial benefit. McDougall seeks to get beyond the tabloid-level analysis which Williams is often treated with and place her as one of the most important women of twentieth century British politics.
Williams’ role was one that seemed unbound by any conventional job title; she was, McDougall argues, effectively Wilson’s “political wife.” The bond between them is core to the book – Williams provided Wilson with insight and advice that helped shape him as a politician and Wilson would turn a blind eye to Williams’ private life in exchange for her aid.
It was an unconventional relationship from the start as McDougall remarks that prior to meeting for the first time, Williams regularly sent Wilson anonymous notes warning him of potential threats to his career. She had, McDougall argues, seen something in Wilson and decided that not only was he the future of the Labour Party but also her own pet project. What initially drew the two figures to work together is hard to ascertain as McDougall makes clear that Williams’ politics were not obviously on show during her youth. Williams’ interest in how the media worked is clearly apparent from a young age though.
McDougall is able to deftly intertwine the comparative points of both Williams and Wilson; both were bright, headstrong and from outside the traditional public-school background of many politicians of the day. The sense of being an outsider and their later mutual contempt for Hugh Gaitskell’s set of friends dubbed the “Frognalites” (derived from Gaitskell’s home, 18 Frognal Gardens) is apparent. For Williams, only 24 years old when she first met Wilson and 14 years his junior, politics was not about the likes of Tony Crosland, who McDougall remarks only visited his Grimsby constituency once a year. Williams wanted to be part of a more proactive and dynamic political movement.
Williams made clear that Labour’s 1964 campaign was explicitly inspired by John F Kennedy’s 1960 Democratic Presidential campaign, even saying that Labour’s slogan for that election was “their Kennedy campaign [slogan]… and we used it blatantly – we took it – and our PR team came up with ‘Get Britain going again’.” Williams understood, in the same way the Kennedy campaign did, the power of the media. The anecdote that McDougall relates of Williams discovering to her horror that Steptoe and Son would air on the night of the election prompted her to ask Wilson to phone the BBC’s Director General in order to pull the programme for fear it would impact turnout..
What this moment highlights, as is shown throughout the book, is the way Britain’s politics has changed. Prior to Wilson’s election, it was clear that the public school boys still dominated both parties. The post war consensus might have already been alive and well when Wilson and Williams entered Number 10 but both Labour and Conservative parties were hardly led by men of the people. The background of the likes of Attlee, Gaitskell, Crosland, Dalton and others is often glossed over in a way that it isn’t with Conservative politicians. The importance of this distinction for Williams between them and her and Wilson is central to McDougall’s argument as to why she was a crucial figure in the history of the Labour Party. She knew that the British public wanted something new and they wanted someone they could relate to; Harold Wilson was that man. Wilson himself cultivated this image of ordinariness in ways no Prime Minister had before.
There will be readers who will want to read the more “salacious” parts of the book – namely the two illegitimate children Williams had while working at Number 10 (Wilson was not the father though McDougall makes clear the reason for their existence being hidden was the fear that everyone would assume they were), and her addiction to prescription drugs during the 1970s. Whilst this and Williams’ alleged affair with Wilson in the late 1950s will certainly be of interest to some, they are not – and rightly so – the focus of McDougall’s book. Marcia Williams was dogged by sexism and misogyny throughout her life, and it would be unfortunate if people only focussed on these parts of her life and not her achievements; masterminding Wilson’s Labour Leadership campaign and being a key part of his team in government. For a woman who once thought she’d end up working on a coal barge, it was an extraordinary achievement.
McDougall’s said of Williams’ relationship to Wilson:
“But Marcia was a lioness. If it was ‘Wilson against the world’ – and with her youthful and rebellious spirit she believed it was – then she was staying with him in Britain to protect him and guide him.”
Marcia Williams was an extraordinary woman and one whose place in the history of the Labour Party has often been overlooked. Linda McDougall’s book offers a compelling reassessment of one of the most misunderstood and yet important women in the history of 20th century British politics. Marcia Williams was at the core of a revolutionary government that changed Britain for the better. Without her intelligence and determination, her belief in the ability of politics to change lives for the better and her understanding of how to communicate with the public, the governments of Harold Wilson would not have been as successful as they were. Marcia Williams deserves to be recognised and celebrated for her true legacy, not the tabloid stories which she’s often remembered for.