Shirley Williams talks at Oxford Arts festival 2017

Shirley Williams

The next in our series on women MPs by the House of Commons Hansard Writing Team.

Shirley Williams (1930-2021) was the daughter of feminist writer and pacifist Vera Brittain, who achieved fame as the author of “Testament of Youth” (1933), and political scientist Sir George Catlin, who was a member of the Fabian Society and stood twice for election as a Labour MP.   When the Second World War broke out in 1939, 10-year-old Shirley and her brother, John, were sent to Minnesota. When she returned to London as a teenager, she joined the Labour party and in 1948 went to Germany as a delegate to the congress of the youth wing of the German Social Democratic party. Her Catholic faith informed her internationalist perspective. “[W]hen I was a youngster…Europe was very divided by the pain of the aftermath of the war,” she said in 2004, and “the fact that I could walk into a Catholic church anywhere in the world and recognise the Mass was terribly important to me.”

Photograph of Shirley Williams, 1965
Shirley Williams, 3 Jun 1965 © Parliamentary Archives, PUD/14/794

Williams won a scholarship to attend Oxford University in 1948, and in 1950 chaired the University Labour Club. After graduating, she won a Fulbright scholarship to Columbia University in New York, returning to the UK in 1951 to work as a journalist. She said in her memoir, “Climbing the Bookshelves” (2009), that “politics was the most exciting of all the exciting things in the world”, but securing a seat at Westminster was a long, hard struggle.  She stood unsuccessfully for Labour in Harwich in a 1954 by-election and in the 1955 general election, going on to contest Southampton Test in 1959.  She finally won Hitchin in 1964, representing the constituency until 1974, when she contested the new seat of Hertford and Stevenage, which she represented until 1979.

Williams married philosopher Bernard Williams in 1955, and their daughter Rebecca was born in 1961. She soon established herself in Parliament, and served as a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Ministry of Health and in the Ministry of Labour from 1964 to 1967, before becoming Minister for Education and Science (1967-69).  She worked to abolish the 11-plus and championed the introduction of comprehensive schools, as she thought that children lost out because of  “the failure of the system, not of they themselves, and we need to put that right.”

Shirley Williams by Walter Bird
Shirley Williams by Walter Bird, bromide print, 21 June 1966, NPG x166854 © National Portrait Gallery, London

 As Minister for Home Affairs (1969-70), she helped to introduce legislation to end capital punishment.  After Labour lost the 1970 election, she was elected to its National Executive Committee and became the first woman to serve as shadow Home Secretary (1971-73), before becoming shadow Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection (1974-76).  She did not support Labour’s opposition to British membership of the European Economic Community,  and in 1971, along with 68 other Labour rebels, she voted with the Conservative Government to endorse entry. “I am not as much a passionate European, as I am a passionate internationalist, with a deep sense of the special and unique nature of Britain,” she later said. “I see staying in Europe as being part of the price of living with reality.”

When Labour returned to power in 1974, Williams became Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection, and in January 1975 introduced the Prices Bill, which she said was “an effective way of trying to mitigate the effects of inflation upon those whom the House, and above all, my party is committed to assist—namely, the most vulnerable, the poorest, the oldest and the weakest in our society.” She became Secretary of State for Education and Paymaster General in 1976, but lost her seat in the 1979 election, and took up a fellowship at the John F Kennedy Institute of Politics at Harvard. Returning to the UK, she became disillusioned with the direction of the Labour party, and in 1980 she published a statement with senior Labour MPs David Owen and Bill Rodgers saying that the party faced “the gravest crisis in its history”. In 1981, all three left Labour, along with Roy Jenkins, to launch the centre-left Social Democratic Party. Williams became the party’s first female MP—and the first person to win an election as an SDP member—when she took Crosby, which had been a safe Conservative seat, in a by-election in 1981.  The SDP formed an alliance with the Liberal Party, which won a 25.4% share of the vote in the 1983 election, but Williams lost Crosby, partly because of boundary changes, and never returned to the Commons, failing to win Cambridge when she stood there as the Alliance candidate in the 1987 election.

Williams helped to cement the merger of the SDP and the Liberal Party into the Liberal Democrats in 1988. From 1988 to 2001, she taught at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where she helped to draft the constitutions of South Africa, Russia and Ukraine. Her first marriage had ended in 1974, and she married political scientist Richard Neustadt in 1987.  She was made a life peer in 1993, and served as Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords from 2001 to 2004. She was active in the 300 Group, formed to get 300 women into Parliament, and the Cross-Bench Peer, Baroness Neuberger, remembered her “profound influence” in “acknowledging the real problems that women often face in political life, particularly…those trying to combine small children and a parliamentary career.”

Shirley Williams talks at Oxford Arts festival 2017
Shirley Williams, the politician who was Labour, SDP and then LibDem, talks at Oxford Arts festival, 2017. © Alamy Stock Photo MJCF8E

Williams retired from the Lords in 2016, and was made a Companion of Honour in the New Year’s Honours List in 2017.  After she died, Ed Davey, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, said: “She connected to people—in a deep and personal way. She truly cared about their lives, and about making them better.”

House of Commons Hansard Writing Team


In-depth interview with Shirley Williams | High Profiles

Shirley Williams, obituary in The Guardian:

Shirley Williams, speech on the Plowden Report, 16 March 1967,

Second Reading of the Prices Bill, 30 January 1975:

Shirley Williams, “Pioneer who tried to reshape politics:

Baroness Neuberger, tribute to Baroness Williams of Crosby, 14 April 2021:

Ed Davey, speech at the 2021 Liberal Democrat conference: Ed Davey’s conference speech – in full (