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Shirley Williams

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Shirley Williams

The Right Honourable
The Baroness Williams of Crosby
President of the Social Democratic Party
In office
7 July 1982 – 29 August 1987
Leader Roy Jenkins
David Owen
Preceded by Office Created
Succeeded by John Cartwright
Secretary of State for Education and Science
In office
10 September 1976 – 4 May 1979
Prime Minister James Callaghan
Preceded by Fred Mulley
Succeeded by Mark Carlisle
Paymaster General
In office
10 September 1976 – 4 May 1979
Prime Minister James Callaghan
Preceded by Edmund Dell
Succeeded by Angus Maude
In office
5 March 1974 – 10 September 1976
Prime Minister Harold Wilson
James Callaghan
Preceded by Office Created
Succeeded by Roy Hattersley
Shadow Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection
In office
4 May 1973 – 5 March 1974
Leader Harold Wilson
Preceded by Office Created
Succeeded by Sally Oppenheim-Barnes
Shadow Home Secretary
In office
19 October 1971 – 4 May 1973
Leader Harold Wilson
Preceded by James Callaghan
Succeeded by Roy Jenkins
Shadow Secretary of State for Health and Social Services
In office
19 June 1970 – 19 October 1971
Leader Harold Wilson
Succeeded by Roy Jenkins
Minister of State for Home Affairs
In office
13 October 1969 – 23 June 1970
Prime Minister Harold Wilson
Preceded by Victor Collins
Succeeded by Richard Sharples
Minister of State for Education and Science
In office
29 August 1967 – 13 October 1969
Prime Minister Harold Wilson
Preceded by Goronwy Roberts
Succeeded by Alice Bacon
In office
26 November 1981 – 9 June 1983
Preceded by Graham Page
Succeeded by Malcolm Thornton
In office
28 February 1974 – 3 May 1979
Preceded by Constituency Created
Succeeded by Bowen Wells
In office
15 October 1964 – 28 February 1974
Preceded by Martin Maddan
Succeeded by Ian Stewart
Personal details
Born Shirley Vivian Teresa Brittain Catlin
(1930-07-27) 27 July 1930
Chelsea, London, England, United Kingdom
Political party Liberal Democrats
Other political
Labour (1964–1981)
Social Democratic (1981–1988)
Alma mater Somerville College, Oxford
Columbia University
Profession Journalist
Religion Roman Catholicism

Shirley Vivian Teresa Brittain Williams, Baroness Williams of Crosby, PC (née Catlin; born 27 July 1930) is a British politician and academic. Originally a Labour Member of Parliament (MP) and Cabinet Minister, she was one of the "Gang of Four" rebels who founded the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1981.[1]

Between 2001 and 2004, she served as Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords and, from 2007 to 2010, as Adviser on Nuclear Proliferation to Prime Minister Gordon Brown. She currently serves as an active lawmaker in the House of Lords and as Professor Emerita of Electoral Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, among numerous other activities.


  • Early life and education 1
  • MP and minister 2
  • Comprehensive schools 3
  • SDP 4
  • Harvard University 5
  • Life peer 6
  • Personal life 7
  • Further reading 8
  • Arms 9
  • Notes 10
  • External links 11

Early life and education

Born in feminist and pacifist writer Vera Brittain. She was educated at various schools, including Mrs Spencer's School in Brechin Place, South Kensington; Christchurch Elementary School in Chelsea; Talbot Heath School in Bournemouth; and St Paul's Girls' School in London. During the Second World War, she was evacuated to Minnesota in the United States for three years.

While she was an undergraduate and Open Scholar at Somerville College, Oxford, Williams was a member of the Oxford University Dramatic Society (OUDS) and toured the USA playing the role of Cordelia in an OUDS production of Shakespeare's King Lear directed by a young Tony Richardson. In 1950, she became the first woman to chair the Oxford University Labour Club.

After graduating as a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, Williams was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship and studied at Columbia University in New York City. On returning to Britain, she began her career as a journalist, working firstly for the Daily Mirror and then for the Financial Times. In 1960, she became General Secretary of the Fabian Society.

MP and minister

After unsuccessfully contesting the constituency of Harwich at the 1954 by-election and the general election the following year, as well as the constituency of Southampton Test at the 1959 general election, Williams was returned in the 1964 general election as Labour MP for the constituency of Hitchin in Hertfordshire. In government, she rose quickly to a junior ministerial position and, between 1971 and 1973, served as Shadow Home Secretary. In 1974, she became Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection in Harold Wilson's cabinet. When Wilson was succeeded by James Callaghan in 1976, she became Secretary of State for Education and Paymaster General, holding both cabinet positions at the same time.

Comprehensive schools

While in office between 1976 and 1979, Williams advocated the comprehensive school system and the abolition of grammar schools. In June 2012, she cited comprehensive schools as her greatest achievement, stating: "I have never in any way regretted them and I still believe strongly in them. The problem was that in many places they were heavily skimmed because people kept grammar schools in place beside them."

As her daughter Rebecca approached secondary school age, Williams moved into the catchment area of the voluntary-aided Godolphin and Latymer School (which later became independent in preference to becoming a comprehensive), allowing her daughter to gain a place there.[3]


Williams lost her seat (renamed Hertford and Stevenage) when the Labour Party was defeated in the 1979 general election. Her defeat was one of the most prominent of the election. When, soon afterward, she was interviewed by Robin Day for the BBC's Decision 79 TV coverage of the election results, both Norman St John Stevas – the Conservative's Education Spokesman who had frequently clashed with her at the dispatch box – and Merlyn Rees, the outgoing Home Secretary, paid tribute to her.

Following the election, she hosted the BBC1 TV series Shirley Williams in Conversation, interviewing, in turn, a number of prominent political figures, including former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt, former Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath and her recently deposed colleague James Callaghan.[4] Since then, she has appeared on many television and radio discussion programmes in Britain – in particular, the BBC's Question Time, where she has made more appearances than anyone else.

During this period, Williams remained a member of the National Executive of the Labour Party and sought to prevent the adoption of policies she considered would hinder the return of another Labour Government.

In 1981, unhappy with the influence of the more left-wing members of the Labour Party, she resigned her membership to form – along with fellow Labour resignees Roy Jenkins, David Owen and Bill Rodgers – the Social Democratic Party (SDP). They were joined by 28 other Labour MPs and one Conservative. Later that year, following the death of the Conservative MP Sir Graham Page, she won the Crosby by-election and became the first SDP member elected to Parliament. Two years later, however, having become the SDP's President, she lost the seat in the 1983 general election.

In the 1987 general election, Williams stood for the SDP in Cambridge, but lost to the sitting Conservative candidate Robert Rhodes James. She then supported the SDP's merger with the Liberal Party that formed the Liberal Democrats.

Harvard University

Sitting beside Peter Ustinov during an episode of the late-night TV discussion programme After Dark in 1989.

In 1988, Shirley Williams moved to the United States to serve as a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government remaining in the post until 2001, and thereafter as Public Service Professor of Electoral Politics, Emerita. Nonetheless, she remained active in politics and public service in Britain, the United States and internationally. During these years, Williams helped draft constitutions in Russia, Ukraine, and South Africa.

She also served as director of Harvard's Project Liberty, an initiative designed to assist the emerging democracies in Central and Eastern Europe; as a board member and acting director of Harvard's famed Institute of Politics (IOP). Upon Shirley Williams' elevation to the House of Lords in 1993, she returned to the United Kingdom and continued a more public life, but has maintained a close association with Harvard University.

Life peer

Having previously turned down a DBE offered to her by the then-Prime Minister Jim Callaghan,[5] Williams was created a life peer on 1 February 1993 as Baroness Williams of Crosby, of Stevenage in the County of Hertfordshire,[6] and subsequently served as Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords from 2001 to 2004. Baroness Williams remains an active member of the House of Lords, and regularly speaks from the floor of the House.

Among other non-profit boards, Williams is or has been a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the European Union's Comité des Sages (Reflection Group) on Social Policy,[7] the Twentieth Century Fund, the Ditchley Foundation, the Institute for Public Policy Research, the Nuclear Threat Initiative. She also served as President of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, as Commissioner of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament and as President of Cambridge Student Liberal Democrats. Williams served as United Nations Special Representative to the Former Yugoslavia (with American politician Lynn Martin). Williams was also an attendee of the 2013 and the 2010 Bilderberg conferences in Watford, Hertfordshire, England, and Sitges, Spain, respectively.[8]

In June 2007, after Gordon Brown replaced Tony Blair as Prime Minister, Williams accepted a formal Government position as Advisor on Nuclear Proliferation provided she could serve as an independent advisor. She remains a Liberal Democrat.

Her interest and commitment to education has continued, and she serves as Chair of Judges of the British Teaching Awards.

Williams is currently a member of the Top Level Group of UK Parliamentarians for Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament and Non-proliferation, established in October 2009.[9]

Williams was originally opposed to the Health and Social Care Bill, describing it as "stealth privatisation" during 2011.[10] The government made some changes to the Bill, described by Williams as "major concessions",[11] but dismissed as "minor" by Polly Toynbee.[12] Williams urged Liberal Democrats to support the amended Bill during the conference in March 2012,[13] saying "I would not have stuck with the bill, if I believed for one moment it would undermine the NHS."[14]

Williams spoke against gay marriage in the House of Lords, saying that "equality is not the same as sameness. That is the fundamental mistake in this Bill" and that woman and men "complement one another" so that marriage between people of the same sex should not be called marriage, but should have "different nomenclature".[15]

Personal life

Williams has been married twice. At Oxford she met Peter Parker (the future head of British Rail) and they had a relationship. In her autobiography ("Climbing the Bookshelves") Williams says that " the spring of 1949 I was in love with him, and he, a little, with me...".

In 1955, she married the moral philosopher Bernard Williams. Bernard left Oxford to accommodate his wife's rising political ambitions, finding a post first at University College London (1959–64) and then as Professor of Philosophy at Bedford College, University of London (1964–67), while she worked as a journalist for the Financial Times and as Secretary of the Fabian Society. For eight years, the couple lived in Kensington with the literary agent Hilary Rubinstein and his wife Helga.

During this time, described by Bernard as one of the happiest of his life, the marriage produced a daughter, Rebecca, but the development of Shirley's political career kept the couple apart, and the marked difference in their personal values—Bernard was a confirmed atheist, Shirley a Roman Catholic—placed a strain on their relationship, which reached breaking point when Bernard had an affair with Patricia Law Skinner, then wife of the historian Quentin Skinner. The marriage was dissolved in 1974 and Bernard Williams and Patricia Skinner subsequently married and had two sons.[16] Shirley Williams said of her marriage to Bernard:

... [T]here was something of a strain that comes from two things. One is that we were both too caught up in what we were respectively doing—we didn't spend all that much time together; the other, to be completely honest, is that I'm fairly unjudgmental and I found Bernard's capacity for pretty sharp putting-down of people he thought were stupid unacceptable. Patricia has been cleverer than me in that respect. She just rides it. He can be very painful sometimes. He can eviscerate somebody. Those who are left behind are, as it were, dead personalities. Judge not that ye be not judged. I was influenced by Christian thinking, and he would say "That's frightfully pompous and it's not really the point." So we had a certain jarring over that and over Catholicism.[16]

In 1987, she married the Harvard professor and presidential historian Richard Neustadt. Neustadt died in 2003. She has a daughter, a stepdaughter, and two grandchildren called Nat and Sam. Williams is a Roman Catholic, visiting church almost every Sunday with her grandson.[17]

Further reading

Shirley Williams has written several books including:

  • Climbing the Bookshelves: The Autobiography of Shirley Williams, Virago Press Ltd (2009).
  • God and Caesar: Personal Reflections on Politics and Religion (2003)
  • Ambition and Beyond: Career Paths of American Politicians (1993) w/ Edward L. Lascher, Jr.
  • New Party – The New Technology (1988)
  • Politics is for People (1981)

For details of Williams's early life see:

  • Vera Brittain: A Life by Paul Berry and Mark Bostridge (1995)
  • Testament of Experience by Vera Brittain (1957)

There is a substantial article on Shirley Williams by Phillip Whitehead in the Dictionary of Labour Biography, edited by Greg Rosen, Politicos Publishing, 2001.

See also:


Arms of Shirley Williams
A Coronet of a Baroness
Per chevron Azure and Or three Lions passant guardant in pale counterchanged a Bordure engrailed Ermine
Quamdiu (Until)


  1. ^ The SDP later merged with the Liberal Party to form the Liberal Democrats.
  2. ^
  3. ^ Shirley Williams Climbing The Bookshelves: Autobiography of Shirley Williams, Virago, 2009, p. 206.
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^ The London Gazette: no. 53207. p. 2049. 4 February 1993.
  7. ^ "Commission Establishes a 'Comité des Sages' on Social Policy", 4 October 1995 Retrieved 11 June 2011
  8. ^ Bilderberg Meetings official website 2010 attendee list
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^ a b Jeffries, Stuart. "The Quest for Truth" The Guardian, 30 November 2002.
  17. ^

External links

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Martin Maddan
Member of Parliament for Hitchin
Succeeded by
Ian Stewart
New constituency Member of Parliament for Hertford and Stevenage
Succeeded by
Bowen Wells
Preceded by
Graham Page
Member of Parliament for Crosby
Succeeded by
Malcolm Thornton
Political offices
Preceded by
James Callaghan
Shadow Home Secretary
Succeeded by
Roy Jenkins
New office Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection
Succeeded by
Roy Hattersley
Preceded by
Fred Mulley
Secretary of State for Education and Science
Succeeded by
Mark Carlisle
Preceded by
Edmund Dell
Paymaster General
Succeeded by
Angus Maude
Party political offices
Preceded by
William Rodgers
General Secretary of the Fabian Society
1960 – 1963
Succeeded by
Tom Ponsonby
Preceded by
Peter Archer
Chairman of the Fabian Society
1980 – 1981
Succeeded by
David Lipsey
New political party President of the Social Democratic Party
Succeeded by
John Cartwright
Preceded by
The Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank
Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords
Succeeded by
The Lord McNally
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