Shirley Vivian Teresa Williams obituary: Dedicated egalitarian who co-found the Social Democratic Party in Britain

Former Labour cabinet minister was one of the most highly achieving women in British politics and one of the most popular with the electorate

Shirley Vivian Teresa Williams, Lady Williams of Crosby
July 27th, 1930
April 11th, 2021

Shirley Williams, Lady Williams of Crosby, who has died aged 90, was one of the most influential figures in British social democracy in the latter half of the 20th century. The former Labour cabinet minister who defected to co-found the Social Democratic Party, of which she then became president, later served as leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords after the merger between the SDP and the Liberal party.

A dedicated egalitarian, she was the minister responsible for the abolition of the socially divisive 11-plus examination in most education authorities. She was an internationalist with a distinguished academic record, and in her later years spent more than a decade as professor of elective politics at the John F Kennedy school of government, Harvard University.

Although one of the most highly achieving women in British politics and one of the most popular with the electorate, Williams was self-deprecating about her suitability for the top posts, something she ascribed to a lack of self-belief, common among women of her generation and earlier ones.

Had she stood against Roy Jenkins as leader of the SDP – and polls suggested she would almost certainly have won – the popular momentum behind the SDP under her leadership might have been sustained and might have led to the sort of success for the nascent party in the 1983 and 1987 general elections that could have changed the course of British political history.

Instead, Jenkins proved hugely unsuited for the role and the SDP failed to break through electorally and merged with the Liberal party to form the Liberal Democrats after the 1987 election. Williams lost her Crosby seat in 1983, and was president of the SDP from 1982 to 1988.

Williams – who was named after Charlotte Brontë’s eponymous “gallant little cavalier”, a champion of social justice – was born in Chelsea, London, the second child of the political scientist George Catlin and the pacifist author Vera Brittain. The pattern of her life and many of its defining influences owed much to the legacy of their unusual and curious parenting.

Lecture tours

Brittain was to be the main breadwinner of the family, and her elegiac classic Testament of Youth, about her experience of the first World War, was a huge commercial and literary success when it was published in 1933, leading to considerable fame in Britain and in the US, where she undertook lecture tours. But she was a remote mother, a worrier who was always anxious and concerned, yet also somewhat distantly absorbed with other causes.

Her daughter understood from her earliest years that she came third in her mother’s list of priorities, after writing and Shirley’s brother, John, who was two years older and bore a striking resemblance as a child to Vera’s brother, Edward, who had been killed in the trenches. It was something that the little girl did not resent but, rather, developed into an understanding of the need for her to be independent.

She also rejected some of her mother’s other concerns. Brittain was always scrupulously tidy, organised and punctual. Her daughter gained a degree of notoriety in adult life for being none of those things .

In the view of one of Williams’s close friends, although she became devoted to her mother as an adult, she was nevertheless profoundly ambivalent about her and suppressed, perhaps even unknowingly, a deep resentment towards her. Her friends from her university years remarked that at Oxford she chose to be known as Shirley Catlin and did not take the hyphenated name of both parents, as her brother had done.Yet this difficult childhood also produced a further defining characteristic that would in time prove an invaluable personal and political asset – a desire to please.

Her years at Oxford were dominated by politics and her second love, acting. Williams had become interested in amateur dramatics in the US and was among those screen-tested for the lead part in National Velvet, for which the producers were seeking a 12-year-old horse rider with an English accent. Elizabeth Taylor was chosen.

It was her political life that dominated, however. In 1950 she became the first woman to chair the Oxford University Labour Club, which had 1,500 members. She took a second-class degree in philosophy, politics and economics and applied successfully for a Fulbright scholarship at Columbia University, New York, to study economics and trade unions.

After only eight months, however, she returned to the UK, having been selected for her first parliamentary seat, as the Labour candidate for the safe Conservative constituency of Harwich, which she contested unsuccessfully in a byelection in 1954. She lost the seat again in the general election in 1955 and fought Southampton Test unsuccessfully in 1959 before her selection for the winnable seat of Hitchin, in Hertfordshire.

In the meantime she worked as a reporter for the Daily Mirror (1952-53), followed by five years at the Financial Times. In 1955 she married Bernard Williams, a philosopher whom she had first met at Oxford. In 1958 she left the FT and taught briefly in Ghana, where her husband had been invited to teach for a term.

Back in Britain once again, she became deeply involved in Labour politics and in 1960 succeeded William Rodgers as general secretary of the Fabian Society. It provided her with a superb vantage point for the battles between left and right within the Labour party, to study policy issues and to forge friendships that would prove vital throughout her political career.

These apprenticeships paid off. Two days after her election as an MP in 1964, she was appointed as a parliamentary private secretary to the health minister, Kenneth Robinson in Harold Wilson’s government. In 1966 she became a junior minister and the following year she was rewarded with promotion to education minister, which brought her face to face with one of the bigger controversies of her career: the introduction of comprehensive schools.

Daunting brief

In 1970, after Wilson’s defeat to Edward Heath, she secured election for the first time to the shadow cabinet and also to the Labour party’s national executive committee, thanks in part to the respect she commanded among the trade unions, the leaders of which liked her warmth and natural egalitarianism.

On Wilson’s re-election as prime minister in 1974, she entered the cabinet with a daunting brief as the secretary of state for prices and consumer protection at a time of huge oil price increases and with annual inflation running at 13.5 per cent. When James Callaghan succeeded Wilson in 1976, he moved her back to education as secretary of state, a role she combined with being paymaster general.

By 1978, Williams was profoundly concerned by what she saw as the party’s relentless drift to the left and was the first cabinet member to speak out against the Militant tendency. She lost her seat in the 1979 election as Margaret Thatcher swept into Downing Street.

Until this time, Williams had resisted any suggestion that she could have a role in a new centre party. She had memorably declared that such a party would have “no roots, no principles, no philosophy and no values”. But after the 1980 Labour conference, at which she spoke vehemently against the “red fascism” that was displayed by the buoyant left in the conference hall, she agreed with her fellow co-founders of the SDP to establish a Council of Social Democracy.

She would admit privately in later life that in her heart, she still continued to identify strongly with the Labour party, within which she had worked so hard for so long.

Her marriage to Bernard Williams was dissolved in 1974. They had one daughter Rebecca who survives her. She later fell in love with a friend, the journalist and political scientist Anthony King, himself a widower, and they would have married but for Williams’s profound Roman Catholic faith. She sought an annulment of her first marriage which was submitted to more than one ecclesiastical tribunal and was not granted until after she and King had parted in 1976. In 1987 she married Richard Neustadt, by then also a widower, whom she first met 15 years earlier when he was a professor of government at Harvard. Neustadt died in 2003, following a fall. – Guardian