On Thursday I was at the Institution of Civil Engineers, just off Parliament Square in London, for the annual NCVO Hinton Lecture. The hall was packed this year to hear Baroness Williams of Crosby, The Rt Hon Shirley Williams, speak about ‘Beyond the State and the Market – what kind of society in the 21st Century?’. It was wonderful to have the opportunity to see her and she did not disappoint. Shirley Williams is now 81 years old and her list of achievements is incredible. She was the Secretary of State for Education who replaced grammar schools with comprehensives. She was one of the ‘Gang of Four’ rebels who left the Labour Party to found the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1981. More recently she co-drafted the constitutions of Russia, Ukraine and South Africa. And, as the NCVO Chair – the former BBC newsreader Martyn Lewis told us – she has appeared more times than any other guest on the BBC’s ‘Question Time’ programme. Shirley Williams is tiny (particularly next to the very tall Martyn Lewis). Entering the hall almost unnoticed while the audience were still deep in conversation, she suddenly broke away from the official welcoming party and strode quickly and purposefully onto the stage, keen to start her lecture with the minimum of fuss. She spoke eloquently and articulately with only minimal glances at her notes – until the poor lighting made it difficult for her to see some of the statistics she wanted to quote and she came a little unstuck. This only served to prove, however, how little of her speech had been read. Her sharp mind, vast experience, clear thinking and articulacy was particularly demonstrated in her answers to questions from the audience at the end of her lecture. Her speech ranged across a mass of topics, from the fall of communism and the peace dividend to the Arab Spring, the banking crisis, the expenses scandal, Occupy Wall Street, mobile technology, the rise of social networking, the loss of trust in politicians, poverty reduction in Lula’s Brazil and George Clooney’s new film ‘The Ides of March’ (“brilliantly made … and as cynical as anything I’ve seen”). Baroness Williams said that “our deliberative politics is going to be hard to maintain”. Politicians are already being bypassed in some ways and these changes could create huge opportunities for the voluntary sector. She warned, however, that a number of charities seem to play power games against each other and get caught up in selfish forms of politics. She urged the voluntary sector to “be a bit humble and realise that a lot of you can learn from those you serve”. Kevin Curley, the Chief Executive of NAVCA, asked Baroness Williams whether that flagship policy of the Government she supports, the Big Society, will deliver social justice? “No” she replied – how refreshing to hear a straightforward answer from a politician!
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