Milligan's week: Shirley the Brave

By Becky Milligan
BBC Radio 4's World at One


There is a vast glorious space in Portcullis House - the wildly expensive building where lots of MPs live - a high-ceilinged atrium, with soothing water features, fringed with green trees, tables spaced well apart and a cafe.

Like a real shopping centre, only with more head space and no shops.

Actually, now I think about it, not one café, but two, one with proper coffee.

You might queue here for several days before being served with your cappuccino but that is ok, with so much to observe and note.

Waiting in the queue this week, I could spy Liberal Democrats scurrying around, eyes cast down, saying one thing, thinking another.

"What to do, what to do?" I could hear them muttering as they scuttled past me. I stopped Don Foster the senior Lib Dem in his tracks.

"I still, genuinely, don't know what to do," he said, his thick eyebrows becoming one solid bushy fuzz.

'I'll decide later'

He dashed outside for a smart smoke before heading off to the television studios for yet more interviews on tuition fees.

"But the vote is in a few hours," I said. "Surely you must have an inkling, a hint, a something in your head?"

"I'll have to decide later."

Image caption,
Students made their anger heard outside Parliament

A wonderful example of how not to do it.

Not true for Sir Ming Campbell, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, dismissed for, for, was it for dithering?

Anyway, he was statesman-like when I plonked myself down in the seat next to him.

With a twinge of a smile he said, regally, that he would be neither making a comment before or after the vote.

I winked at him - it was meant to be cajoling. I regretted my tactic, he looked at me as though I was afflicted and excused himself.

Outside the heaving crowds of students, the police, the kettling, continued, Parliamentarians were safe inside. But I can tell you, one brave peer did venture out.

Baroness Williams, the Lib Dem, was outside the House of Lords when it happened.

The story goes that a group of students, two or three, accosted her, and she suddenly thought it might be worthwhile engaging them in a conversation about tuition fees.

Back in 1968, the year of the Vietnam protests, this tactic had proved useful.

She was higher education minister and Jim Callaghan was home secretary. They took the decision to talk to the revolting students gathered outside the American Embassy.

Callaghan mingled with the crowds and in that avuncular way of his, said things such as: "What a lovely day for a protest," and "Might be better if there wasn't any violence."

And the students were so stunned, so amazed to be engaged in conversation by the home secretary that they obliged him. At least that was what I was told.

So this week Shirley Williams had a go, only to hear one of the students yell over her shoulder to the other students: "Here guys, look over here, it's Shirley Williams, she's betrayed us."

Needless to say the noble peer backed off and scuttled back into Parliament.

But not to worry, Sir Ming had this to say, that the students will soon forget, they have essays to write and Christmas to think of.

It may appear a big deal now but next week... you know what they say. I could add that over-used quote. So I won't.

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