Baroness Williams of Crosby by Victoria Russell

Shirley Williams and Parliament

We were very sorry to hear of the death last week of Shirley Williams. In honour of her passing we are pleased to publish this guest post on her life in Parliament by Oonagh Gay.

Shirley Williams was first elected to the House of Commons on 15 October 1964 as Labour MP for Hitchin. She was a journalist and daughter of Vera Brittain, author of the First World War classic, ‘Testament of Youth’. Williams rapidly achieved junior ministerial office and then became Shadow Home Secretary in 1971. On 28 February 1974 she was elected for the new seat of Hertford and Stevenage and held this seat until the general election in 1979, when she was defeated by the Conservative Bowen Wells.  Harold Wilson made her Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection in March 1974, when he formed his second administration. She became Secretary of State for Education and Paymaster General in 1976, when James Callaghan became Prime Minister.

Shirley Williams, Parliamentary Archives, PUD/F/3373
Shirley Williams as new Minister of State, Home Department, 20 Oct 1969. © Parliamentary Archives, PUD/F/3373

In terms of her achievements in government, Shirley Williams was best known for her expansion of the comprehensive schools programme in the late 1970s. This was politically controversial, but successfully implemented, with only a minority of local authorities retaining grammar schools in the 1980s. Williams was a very popular Cabinet Minister and was widely expected to be a strong candidate to be the first woman Prime Minister. Instead Margaret Thatcher was the first woman in 10 Downing Street and Williams left Parliament after her defeat.

Baroness Williams of Crosby by Victoria Russell
Baroness Williams of Crosby by Victoria Russell. 2007, Oil painting. © Parliamentary Art Collection, WOA 6590

Williams soon became a key player in the formation of a new political party, the Social Democratic Party. She was one of four senior Labour politicians to establish this centre left party in 1981 and the first to be elected for the SDP at a by-election that year in Crosby, Merseyside. The SDP failed to make an electoral breakthrough at the 1983 general election, when Williams again lost her seat. She played a major role in the subsequent merger of the Social Democrats with the Liberal Party in 1988, under the leadership of Paddy Ashdown. She was a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government from 1988 to 2001, but kept close links with British politics.

Rose Hudson-Wilkin (Speaker's Chaplain) and Shirley Williams
Rose Hudson-Wilkin (Speaker’s Chaplain) and Shirley Williams, on the centenary of the Representation of the People Act 1918, 6 February 2018. © UK Parliament

She was made a life peer in 1993 as Baroness Williams of Crosby, and had a long and distinguished career in the House of Lords, serving as Leader of the Liberal Democrat peers from 2001 to 2004. She chose to retire formally from the upper house on 11 February 2016, under the House of Lords Reform Act 2014. She was appointed to the Order of the Companions of Honour in the New Year Honours 2017. Throughout her life, she made frequent media appearances as a guest and as a presenter, and was widely known for her personal kindness and approachability.

Oonagh Gay, UK Vote 100 volunteer