RODGERS, William (b.1928).



5 April 1962 - 28 February 1974
28 February 1974 - 9 June 1983


William Thomas Rodgers was born in Liverpool on 28 October 1928. He was educated at Sudley Road Council School, Quarry Bank High School and Magdalen College, Oxford. He married Silvia Szulman in 1955.

Rodgers joined the Labour party when he was 18 years old. At 22 he took a job with the Fabian Society. After unsuccessfully contesting the 1957 Bristol by-election for the party he became a St Marylebone Borough Councillor. He entered Parliament after winning the 1962 by-election in Stockton-on-Tees, and held positions in the Treasury and the Foreign Office before he became Minister of State at the old Board of Trade (1968-69). When Labour returned to government in 1974, Rodgers became the Minister of State at Defence until 1976 when he entered the cabinet as Secretary of State for Transport.

In 1981, as a result of Labour's move to the left, Rodgers left the party with Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins and David Owen to found the Social Democratic Party (SDP). He lost his seat in the 1983 General Election. He became the vice-president of the SDP. In 1987, after the merger of the SDP and the Liberal Party, he was defeated as the Liberal Democrat candidate for Milton Keynes. He subsequently became Director General of Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). In 1992 he was made a life peer, as Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, and led the Liberal Democrats in the Lords from 1997 to 2001.

Click here to listen to the full interview with William Rodgers in the British Library.

Transcript of clip

"I never thought of leaving the Labour Party, never crossed my mind. I was fighting, I’d done it before, I’d fought in support of Gaitskell in 1961-62, although it was going to be a much, much tougher proposition to deal with the far left by that time through the 1970s… Once the Election was over in 1979 I assumed I would have to play a hard part and rather a tough time trying to save Labour Party. But I suddenly began to feel that there were too many shifting away. I remember when I made a speech outside and it was well reported in the newspapers and I very well remember walking along the library corridor and in the distance I saw a Labour Member of Parliament, and I knew where he was going to go, he was going towards the Library, and he saw me, and he turned away, not to disagree with me, but to avoid being seen talking to me. He was a moderate man. … That was the weakness of my part of the Party … they were running away from the hard left. … Right to the last moment really I just didn’t know [if I should leave the party] and [I had a] bad back and I really couldn’t move and I had to lie in bed. And this sounds imaginative, but over that Christmas of 1980-81 I made up my mind and within a few days I began to walk."

Summary of interview

Track 1 [02:57:35] Born in Liverpool in terraced house near Penny Lane then moved nearby, ending up in new suburban house which his father had bought with a mortgage. Describes “normal” life in suburbia [01.57]. Keen on cycling (cycled to London and back aged 16). Enjoyed school, had an older brother there. Remembers visiting former teacher –was able to mention her in speech in House of Lords . 6.00. Decent people, not well-off but middle class Liverpudlians –had great political impact on him. Interested in class [07.00]. Got scholarship to Quarrybank High School. Remembers war in Liverpool –but still “normal” life. Father had left school at 13 with crippled foot, got job with Liverpool Corporation –for 40 years. Devoted to Public Service but never told him his political views –had to work with people of all parties. On Retirement he disclosed his voting record [09.50]. No great political arguments but had books at home about Socialism and Communism. Father not committed to any political view –a factor in Rodgers becoming a moderate [11.10]. Remembers some Liverpool districts with a pub on every corner and kids without shoes [12.00] –felt something was wrong about that. No phone, fridge or car at home; discusses prices of houses at the time –and the social gradations they represented. Aware of conflicts in Liverpool –religious divides [14.45] e.g. in football; his family was Protestant and middle class. Talks about visiting Docks with slums [16.00]. Knew about hardships faced by dockers. Two hospitals at either end of docks –to deal with accidents. Uncle was plumber and rat catcher –took him round docks. Had “lascars” (Indian) workers living there –Liverpool v cosmopolitan city [18.30] Lots of churches and mosques. Evolution of his own political views [19.10] He was always an “organiser”, working in committees. Mentions father kept diary and mentions possibility of his son becoming, one day, on MP. At 16 began to read widely [21.00], would have called himself a socialist. Read about European politics and history. Interested in Fabian Society. Had a view about 1945 Election [22.35] –talks about heckling the Tory candidate. Three weeks before results of election came out –big gains for Labour [24.45] Father wouldn’t let him use the union jack to celebrate at home. Wrote to all the parties –had a letter back from the Communists, literature from the Commonwealth and Liberals, but nothing from the Labour Party [26.24]. Tories had the better girls. Very political in 6th Form; teacher a great influence –a romantic socialist. On Polling day he didn’t go to school –was reprimanded. When SDP was set up in 1981, many of his classmates at school got in touch –they were now supporting SDP (“moderate labour”) [29.30]. Debates at school on ending Capital Punishment and on Communism. [32.00] Summer of 1945 had cycled from Liverpool to London and back. Offered a place at Liverpool University –but returning servicemen had priority, so he had a go at a scholarship to Oxford –successful. National Service: they didn’t like him as an officer –his politics had emerged. Drove lorries, then went into Army Education. Time at Oxford –most of his peers were from Public Schools [37.00]. Recruited 100 members of Magdalene College to Labour Club. Talks about importance of political clubs [40.00].

Track 1 [cont.] Joined the Oxford Union –but thought it was adolescent. Shirley Williams was a contemporary at Oxford –as was Robin Day, William Rees-Mogg, Dick Taverne, Tim Renton –some of whom are now in House of Lords with him [42.50]. Oxford more political than Cambridge. Wanted to be a journalist at first [43.30]. Contacted Liverpool Daily Post but at same time had had an offer to become assistant secretary of Fabian Society –would have preferred to join the paper, but they couldn’t decide in time, so he joined Fabian Society. Lack of private means at the time. Beginnings of ambitions to be a politician [50.45]. Refers to need to be impartial at Fabian Society and not get involved in e.g. Gaitskell/Bevan conflict. Could see issues in the round – but had some tough fights nevertheless. “Not a good hater…I was fair minded and rational” [53.40]. Talks about conflict in Labour party between “consolidators” and radicals in 1950s. Arguments over extending policy of nationalisation and over nuclear weapons. He was multilateral disarmer –had been taught by AJP Taylor at Oxford [57.00] but he thought Taylor’s arguments against nuclear weapons were outrageous. Work at Fabian Society [58.35] –staff of 12, good learning experience. Lots of contacts with leading Labour figures –Wilson and Jenkins. Became an organiser [1.01.20] quotes Taylor on politician’s qualities “a first rate combination of second rate qualities”. Private life vs Political life–marriage and children [1.02.10] Fought first election when wife was pregnant . Wife committed to politics; she worked as dentist. MPs not well paid at the time [1.03.45]. Tried to take children to school, but biggest burden fell on wife –he was neglectful. They had an au pair for a while. It was easier if you had money. His wife assumed that work in the House would be v demanding [1.07.30]. First attempt at standing for Parliament, in Bristol by-election –an unwinnable seat. Had no connection with Bristol, but it was thought to be good experience for him [1.09.00]. Caught jaundice during the campaign. Enjoyed campaigning and speaking etc. Happened v fast in those days –three weeks from selection to election. 1962 went to Stockton for by-election –had a call from Dalton tipping him off about forthcoming vacancy [1.15.10]. Met current MP and was introduced to people in constituency. Dalton was good at helping people. Refers to practice in Blair’s leadership of “dropping” his own people (i.e. inserting them) into a safe seat after getting the incumbent to resign [1.16.20]. More political patronage in last 15 years in Labour politics. Had become a local councilor 1958 in St Marylebone, London –thought it would be good experience. Enjoyed it. Tells story of opposing Tories’ artificial flowers [1.20.30]. Local Government wasn’t an established route to Westminster, but it helped. Feels that experience of Local Government is declining –most experience is to be found in House of Lords. [1.23.10] Stockton constituency –had been prosperous –ICI and Steel had been major employers. 1961 decline set in. He was MP for 21 years. Stockton was like a rural market town. Two big council estates. A Labour town. Talks about working class local Labour party, dominated by unions, albeit not v political. [1.26.45], Tories not v inspiring either–“not high quality politics”. Some good Trades Unionists -mentions local figures. They thought an MP should “behave themselves” and be biddable [1.29.30]. Story of child’s accidental death –and how his criticism brought him into conflict with local party. Always attended Armistice service in constituency. Never occurred to him to live in constituency [1.31.25].

Track 1 [cont. from 1.31.25] Took train back and forth and stayed with friends or in a v run down hotel. From 1964 you could get an allowance. Experiences of constituency issues – held surgeries but not weekly. Demands weren’t that great –there weren’t then high levels of unemployment or privation, nor was it like Hampstead, with lots of “global” issues being raised [1.35.00]. Issues were quite parochial –gives some examples of following up constituents’ concerns [1.37.00]. Importance of attending to local matters –can inform your wider views on politics. Tells story of day after he was elected –put in his place! [1.40.00]. Important to be available to constituents of all persuasions; surgeries held on neutral ground. Examples of listening to non-party points of view e.g. on Housing Associations -“public duty” [1.44.15]. Changes to constituency over time e.g. boundary changes –always difficult. Example of industrial Billingham joining his constituency to form Stockton North. Labour party in Billingham were more middle class and more critical of him. Issue of Europe, where he voted against three-line whip to support membership of EEC (and was removed from Labour Front Bench by Wilson); need to handle new constituents with care. Refers to Sedgefield boundary changes. Got to know ICI board room better –impressive. Interested in how industry was run –talks about Iron and Steel industry old fashioned methods. Enjoyed being an MP “a varied experience and I did it on my own terms” [1.49.45]. Economic and social changes to constituency. Recognized that change was inescapable. Limit to what he could achieve –technology was changing in industry [1.53.00]. Growth of Militant Tendency -not a problem for him. Talks his stance on Europe and how he managed his constituents. Hard Left only became difficult from 1979 onwards when there were a lot of murmerings on “Bennite Left” [1.56.40]. Role of Constituency MP today. You have to be organized. Didn’t visit unless it was important. Today it’s more comfortable for an MP (apart from not having First Class travel anymore). Today MPs have more staff and support. He didn’t have to make speeches all of the time. His first impressions as a new MP –he knew Westminster well from Fabian Society. He felt entitled to explore the place [2.00.25] “every door was my door”. Friendly place. Struck by old-style Trades Unionists –offered wisdom and advice. Mentions relations between parties –mentions Tim Kitson, another local MP –but otherwise little cross-bench feeling. Talks about places in Westminster associated with parties and groups e.g Smoking Room (v Tory, v male), where Barbara Castle would choose to go to “fight her corner” as a woman (compared with Shirley Williams who had less collegiate feeling) [2.04.40]. Dining Room Cabinet table –a labour corner. Friendships with other politicians –not across party. Mentions Dick Taverne, Roy Jenkins within own party –got quite close to him. [2.06.40]. Describes annual party at home –cherries, cheese and wine –big political event. Held dinners for literary people and artists. Political figures he admired most –Roy Jenkins; had regard for Gaitskell but he was a clumsy man. Shirley Williams is v close to him but he sees her shortcomings. David Steel had achieved a remarkable performance. “I’m not a natural admirer” generally. Political enemies -Tony Benn was v damaging to Labour party –makes me v angry [2.11.20]. Thatcher was a v substantial person –she knew where she stood. I didn’t like her but I respect her consistency. Thinks Tories like Norman Fowler perform well. Professional politician? Was full time Chief Exec of RIBA after losing Stockton seat. Whilst an MP he didn’t have another career. Has worked in publishing and in Management recruitment, and did lots of writing

Track 1 [cont. from 2.14.10]. Didn’t have another career whilst in politics. What support available from Parliament for working life? No researcher, had part time secretary. Library was v useful [2.15.30]. Never felt he lacked assistance. Ambition beyond Back benches; started taking an interest in Transport [2.16.20], and wrote and spoke on subject. 1970-74 much involved in European issues –and critical of Labour Party policy. Experience of Party discipline [2.18.05] he was loyal on most things but on Europe he was outspoken, and also was seen as a voice for moderate Labour against the Left (was spoken of as a possible leader). Quotes father’s advice to be a back bencher to retain freedom of views. Leaving the Labour Party [2.21.10] Never thought of leaving. Late 1970s party moving far to the Left. After 1979 Election felt there was too much shifting away –story of MP avoiding having to speak to him. Felt that some MPs were abdicating decision making to their constituency. Hard and ugly Hard Left tactics –including physically . Last Shadow Cabinet [2.23.50]. Decided late in the day to leave. Jenkins and Owen had decided to leave already. Back problem developed –psychosomatic –it cleared when he had made his decision to leave [2.25.25]. Painful to leave behind his friends in the party. Ensured SDP candidates didn’t stand against some of his closest colleagues in Labour party. “New Labour” like SDP. Talks about context of the times. Some SDP people rejoined Labour party under Blair. Apocryphal that “New Labour” almost became title instead of SDP. Forming an alliance with Liberals [2.30.20]. Divisions with other leading figures e.g. David Owen. Talks about organizing the campaign, fundraising. Difficulties of dividing constituencies between SDP and Liberals for the election. Describes David Steel’s style of leadership [2.34.50]. Two parties with v different styles. Used the Press to get the division of “gold seats” settled. Handling the media. [2.38.00] You get to know the press quite well and had close working relationships with the Lobby. Close to Peter Jenkins and other influential columnists. 1983 Election lost his seat –he thought he would [2.40.25]. Boundary changes had shifted the balance in local constituencies. Could have fought Stockton South but carried on in Stockton North. Knew in his bones it was too narrow [2.42.00]. Made a speech –riveting because he was speaking with restrained passion “as if a man about to die”. Next day asked for all his papers to be removed from his room in House of Commons – “I don’t intend to go back in any circumstances” [2.43.25]. “I knew I was going to have my head chopped off”. Talks about that speech in Stockton. Everyone assumed he would fight another by-election but one didn’t come up in right form. He did fight Milton Keynes –best campaign he ever fought –but didn’t win [2.45.45] “That was the end of my life in House of Commons. (Interviewer gets confused at this point about his next comment M.G.) Wouldn’t go into House of Commons for another nine years. Went to be Director General of RIBA. When he went to House of Lords he could go back into Commons. 1992 Joined House of Lords –experiences of the other Chamber [2.48.20]/ John Major more willing than Thatcher for Life Peerage appointments to be more balanced between all parties. Style more friendly and helpful across the benches [2.51.00]. Staff v helpful. Didn’t do much to start with –still working full time for RIBA. Many major votes took place before 6 p.m. After stepping down he played a more active role as party spokesman. Biggest achievement and greatest regret –wished there had been a left-of-centre social democrat grouping. Governments of Wilson and Blair were defective. Wishes he had been able to rescue Labour party 1970 -83. Pleased to be able to speak his mind “a dissenter”. Pleased by some small things in constituency. Greatest concrete achievement was saving the Tyneside Metro despite difficulties with unions and disagreements with British Rail and local council- “Unions were damaging throughout whole of my political life” [2.55.11]. Had saved enough money to be able to let it go ahead. “Otherwise, I haven’t changed the world”. [2.57.20]