The extent of inequality in society may be reaching a crisis, veteran politician and former government minister, Baroness Shirley Williams, warned in a public interview at the Magee campus in the University of Ulster’s “Life Stories” series of events.
The Liberal Democrat peer, whose political home was the Labour Party before she became one of the ‘gang of four’ who founded the Social Democratic Party in 1981, spoke candidly about her childhood in an intellectual family, her spells in journalism, her life in politics and her assessments of political friends and foes.
Life Stories is a series of interviews with prominent University of Ulster honorary graduates from the world of arts, culture, politics, law and other sectors. The one-to-one discussions offer audiences a rare opportunity to hear the personal account of the life and achievements of guests.
Shirley Williams’s high profile in British politics has been matched by an equally illustrious career in the international academic world. Between 1988 and 2000 she was Professor of Elective Politics in the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. She has also held senior academic posts in Oxford and Cambridge.
She told her interviewer, Professor Paul Moore, Head of the School of Creative Arts, that pursuit of power, when it showed “dismissal for the citizen”, was something that people must learn not to accept.
Baroness Williams said she was someone who was quite suspicious of power, and she added: “I think that one has to be very careful about the way in which power can be over and over again abused, and so forth.”
“At the moment, I am at least beginning to be as worried about what is happening to capitalism as 30 years ago I was worried about what was happening to communism.
“Capitalism is beginning to suffer from the same narrowing down of the pyramid, (with) fewer and fewer people at the very top (and) the few people at the very top having utterly disproportionate rewards.”
Citing a huge disparity that had developed in the earnings ratio of senior managers and ordinary men and women since 1964, when she was first elected an MP, she said it represented a level of inequality in Britain, and even more so in the United States, which could make society impossible.
“You cannot run a society where inequalities are as great as that. I think we have got to really worry ourselves a very great deal about the bankers….
“I think we are getting near a society which is going to crack at the seams if we are not careful. That’s why I am still a social democrat.”