Shirley Williams (Lady Williams), 1930-2021

As the byelection car cavalcade drove slowly through a council estate in Warrington, Shirley Williams, microphone in hand, was drumming up support for SDP candidate Roy Jenkins. Standing precariously on the front seat, her head and shoulders poking through the sun-roof, Williams was in her element. As she passed a broken-down car, its grease-stained owner raised his head from beneath the bonnet and found himself within a few feet of Williams. ‘Hello, Shirley’ he said, grinning broadly as if greeting a long-lost friend. No other contemporary politician could have evoked such a warm, familiar response from a complete stranger. For me, it captured, in an instant, the Williams magic.

Shirley Vivien Teresa Brittain Catlin was born on 27 July 1930. Her parents, the political scientist George Catlin and the feminist writer Vera Brittain, were left-wing intellectuals. She had a peripatetic education in the UK and USA before taking a degree at Somerville College, Oxford. She began her career as a journalist with the Daily Mirror and Financial Times before becoming General Secretary of the Fabian Society in 1960, a post which she held until being elected as Labour MP for Hitchin in 1964. Williams held the seat (albeit with revised boundaries and renamed as Stevenage from 1974) until 1979. By this stage she had already stood three times unsuccessfully, twice in Harwich (1954 and 55) and once in Southampton Test (1959). Her rise up the ministerial appointments ladder was smooth, with junior ministerial appointments in the 1964-70 government at the Ministries of Labour, Education and Science and Home Office. With the return of the Labour government in 1974 she joined the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Consumer Protection and two years later moved on to Education and Science, where she is best remembered for her efforts to extend the comprehensive school system.

She lost her Parliamentary seat in 1979, but remained on the Labour Party National Executive, to which she was first elected in 1970. Increasingly in a small minority on policy issues on which she felt particularly strongly – Europe, defence, internal party democracy – she resigned in January 1981 to become one of the Gang of Four (with Roy Jenkins, David Owen and Bill Rodgers ) who formed the SDP.

In the heady days of 1981, she scored one of the SDP’s most sensational by-election wins, at Crosby, turning a Conservative majority of 19,272 into a SDP majority of 5,289. Major boundary changes, however, played a key role in her losing the seat at the 1983 general election and she then remained outside Parliament for a decade. In 1982 she became SDP President, a position she held throughout the party’s independent existence. An early supporter of the Alliance with the Liberal Party, she was increasingly at odds with the style and substance of David Owen’s leadership and their relationship became one of open hostility after the 1987 general election and the moves towards merger of the SDP and Liberals, which she enthusiastically supported.

1987 also saw her second marriage to US political scientist Professor Richard Neustadt (her first marriage to Bernard Williams was dissolved in 1974; they had one daughter) and a move across the Atlantic to become Professor of Elective Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. She became a Liberal Democrat peer in 1993, taking the title Baroness Williams of Crosby, and the party’s spokesman on foreign affairs in the Lords in 1997.

During her period outside Parliament in the mid 1980s, she was based at the Policy Studies Institute, where she concentrated on employment policy issues. This interest in employment policy, particularly youth unemployment, is reflected in her publications: Politics is for People (1981); Jobs for the 1980s: Youth Without Work (1981); Unemployment and Growth in the Western Economies (1984); A Job to Live (1985); and Snakes and Ladders, a diary of political life (1996). She chaired the Liberal Democrat working group on employment policy in 1993-94.

Williams is a remarkable politician not just for her achievements, but just as importantly for her approach to politics. One of the most charismatic politicians of her generation, she brings a passion and commitment to the causes for which she fights which make her a formidable performer in Parliament, at party conferences – she notably defeated Paddy Ashdown in 1994 to swing the Liberal Democrats behind a commitment to the minimum wage – and on the stump. She combines an amazing ability to empathise with her audience – whether a full hall or an individual – with a steely determination and a shrewd understanding of the low arts of political cunning. As a friend she is generous, thoughtful and kind.

In an age of soundbites, cynicism and ideology-free politics, Williams remains an idealist in supporting democracy, equality and freedom, and has promoted these virtues in the new democracies of Eastern Europe and southern Africa. She has a phenomenal energy and a huge enthusiasm for discussing the big issues of politics. This love of politics and the warmth of her personality communicates itself to everyone Williams meets. It explains the tremendous affection in which she is held – and that smile in Warrington.


Lord Newby served as the National Secretary to the SDP between 1983 and 1988.