Shirley Williams, Labour Cabinet minister who left her party to help form the SDP – obituary

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Baroness Williams of Crosby: principled and warm-hearted
Baroness Williams of Crosby: principled and warm-hearted

Baroness Williams of Crosby, who has died aged 90, was a controversial Education Secretary and one of the “Gang of Four” who left Labour to found the SDP, eventually becoming Liberal Democrat leader in the Lords.

Warm-hearted, principled, impulsive, dishevelled and infuriatingly unpunctual, Shirley Williams had great electoral appeal, yet never quite fulfilled her promise.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: principled and warm-hearted - ITV ARCHIVE
Baroness Williams of Crosby: principled and warm-hearted - ITV ARCHIVE

She was born Shirley Vivian Teresa Brittain Catlin on July 27 1930, younger child of the “semi-detached” marriage of the political scientist Prof Sir George Catlin and the pacifist feminist Vera Brittain, author of Testament of Youth and companion of the novelist Winifred Holtby.

She was an egalitarian from childhood; as a minister she flew economy to Moscow, stranding the reception committee at the first-class exit. Nor did she find the Commons congenial, reckoning it a men’s club which kept women in the cold.

A tomboy as a young girl, she dressed for convenience, not impact. At Oxford she was known as “the Shetland pony”; Margaret Thatcher told her: “You will never get on in politics with that hair.” The flamboyant Tory Sir Nicholas Fairbairn branded her a “scruff”.

In 1940, aged nine, she was evacuated to Minnesota; her performance in a school production of The Greenwood Tree won her a screen test for the part in National Velvet taken by Elizabeth Taylor. Her affection for America would survive a 250-mile journey at gunpoint in 1968 after picking up a hitch-hiker in New Mexico.

Returning to Britain, she was delayed in Portugal after the troopship on which she and another girl had to barricade themselves in their cabin was struck by a cyclone.

Social Democratic Party President Shirley Williams applauding Liberal leader David Steel, centre, who has joined hands with SDP leader Dr David Owen after Mr Steel's speech to the SDP conference in Torquay, 1985 - PA
Social Democratic Party President Shirley Williams applauding Liberal leader David Steel, centre, who has joined hands with SDP leader Dr David Owen after Mr Steel's speech to the SDP conference in Torquay, 1985 - PA

She found St Paul’s Girls’ School “shockingly rigid” after America and left at 17 to work as a waitress, farmhand and chambermaid, having won a scholarship to Somerville to read PPE. She shone as first woman president of the university Labour Club and played Cordelia to the Lear of the future British Rail chairman Peter Parker, an early beau.

Graduating with a Second, she spent a year at Columbia University, New York. After helping Adlai Stevenson’s 1952 presidential campaign, she became a gossip writer with the Daily Mirror, moving to the Financial Times before spending a year lecturing in Africa.

Instinctively a Gaitskellite, Shirley Williams – she married first in 1955 – joined the Fabians “crackling with ideas” and in 1960 became their general secretary. She fought a by-election at Harwich at 23, and after further attempts there and at Southampton Test was elected for Hitchin in 1964.

The Health Minister Kenneth Robinson appointed her his PPS, and after Labour’s re-election in March 1966 Harold Wilson made her Parliamentary Secretary for Labour under Ray Gunter; she took on the entire department weeks later when Gunter fell ill at the height of the seamen’s strike.

In January 1967 Wilson promoted her to Minister of State for Education. Conservatives blamed her for killing the grammar schools, but she was not the prime mover of a policy she warmly embraced, crediting her Secretary of State, Anthony Crosland, and even more his successor, Margaret Thatcher.

In October 1969 she moved to the Home Office, where James Callaghan delegated heavily to her as Northern Ireland erupted. Her main responsibility was prisons; she also piloted through the resolution perpetuating the abolition of the death penalty.

After Labour’s defeat in 1970 she was elected to the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) and the Shadow Cabinet, becoming health and social security spokesman. In 1972 Wilson appointed her Shadow Home Secretary.

With Bill Rodgers aboard their train at Paddington Station bound for Torquay and the 1985 party conference - PA
With Bill Rodgers aboard their train at Paddington Station bound for Torquay and the 1985 party conference - PA

Her rise stalled as Labour moved against Europe. In 1971, after a special party conference voted 5-1 against entry, she joined 66 colleagues to back Edward Heath’s application to join. She irritated Roy Jenkins’s supporters by staying on the front bench, but escaped the opprobrium heaped on her fellow non-resigner Roy Hattersley. However, she fell from first to eighth in the 1973 shadow elections, and Wilson demoted her to prices spokesman.

Shirley Williams played a key part in Labour’s knife-edge victory in February 1974, highlighting soaring prices with Barbara Castle, who fumed that her younger colleague was being “built up as Harold’s deputy and probably the next Prime Minister”.

Elected for the new Hertford and Stevenage constituency, she entered the Cabinet as Secretary for Prices and Consumer Protection. Her task of getting the unions to accept pay restraint – through subsidies on basic foods which she privately branded “economic nonsense”, wooing business and a statutory Price Code – was made more daunting as inflation surged to 27 per cent.

She had a foothold in economic policy – once having a stand-up row with Tony Benn in front of industrialists at “Neddy” – and ruled on controversial mergers. Crucially, she appointed Gordon Borrie as Director-General of Fair Trading; he stayed 13 years, proving more effective during the Thatcher years than under a government he personally supported.

With Labour moving Leftward, Shirley Williams fought Benn’s plan to nationalise 25 leading companies, and when the EC referendum was held in 1975, headed the Labour Campaign for Europe.

She angered the Left further by warning that the public might prefer a coalition to confrontation; opposing relief for the Clay Cross councillors penalised for flouting Tory housing legislation; refusing as a Catholic to accept abortion as party policy; demanding action against the Militant Tendency; and backing her colleague Reg Prentice when infiltrators tried to oust him at Newham.

Baroness Williams - Eamonn McCabe/Popperfoto via Getty Images
Baroness Williams - Eamonn McCabe/Popperfoto via Getty Images

She opposed Michael Foot’s plans to give pickets more power, yet in 1977 joined them at the Grunwick film processing plant. When Sir Keith Joseph christened her “the Madonna of the picket line” as the dispute turned violent, she replied: “I didn’t envisage the whirlwind would come. I don’t think the strikers did.”

When Wilson retired in April 1976, she resisted pressure to stand for the leadership and become Britain’s first woman prime minister, but contested the deputy leadership, Foot defeating her by 166-128.

Callaghan, now prime minister, made her Paymaster-General on top of her prices portfolio, chairing key Cabinet committees. During that autumn’s economic crisis she argued – to an extent correctly – that cuts the IMF demanded were unnecessary. In Cabinet she suggested a Silver Jubilee gift to the Queen of a saddle – only for Benn to note that Parliament had donated one to Charles I.

That September Callaghan made her Education Secretary, launching a “Great Debate” over standards. She was caught between a populist premier wanting a core curriculum and tight budgeting, and the Left detecting a threat to comprehensive education. She published a Green Paper shifting the curriculum toward the needs of industry; she wanted legislation to underpin standards and guarantee parents a degree of choice, but Benn blocked it.

With “comprehensivisation” almost complete, she infuriated Conservatives by coercing recalcitrant councils. She upheld private schools’ charitable status and warned that comprehensives were failing gifted children, but moved her 15-year-old daughter from Godolphin and Latymer to a comprehensive when the former went independent.

She approved the replacement of O-levels by GCSEs, and a start on the British Library, costed at £74 million – (one eighth of the outturn). She raised overseas students’ fees, halved teacher training places, criticised the “barbarous practice” of caning and – despite her background – the exposure of children to Americanisms; she also insisted on new teachers having Maths O-level. She advocated a “school wage” to help bright working-class pupils stay on, championing a pilot scheme almost to the point of resignation.

The “Winter of Discontent” saw her pitted against teaching unions pressing a 36.5 per cent claim despite the Government’s 5 per cent norm. As caretakers’ strikes closed schools, she asked in despair: “If there is no prospect of co-operation with the unions, what is the point of plans for industrial democracy?”

For Shirley Williams, the 1979 election was a disaster. Labour lost office, another woman became Prime Minister, and she lost her seat – largely because of Mrs Thatcher’s “right to buy” pledge to council tenants. Many Labour MPs took her defeat personally; Benn accused the media of treating it “as a State funeral”.

She regrouped at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, interviewed fellow politicians on television and joined bidders for the Midlands ITV franchise. She published a book, Politics Is For People, blaming Britain’s institutions for perpetuating class attitudes. She still justified the moderate Labour approach, but was raising themes later developed by the SDP – and Tony Blair.

Her disengagement from Labour was gradual and agonising. She was deeply committed, declaring that a third party would have “no roots, no principles, no philosophy and no values” – a quote that would haunt her.

As she hesitated, the Left forced the issue with its drive for mandatory reselection of MPs, a manifesto written by the NEC and a college to elect the party leader. She formed, with David Owen, Bill Rodgers, Roy Mason and Hattersley, a “Campaign for Labour Victory” to fight back, but was soon warning the Bennites their behaviour was fuelling demand for a new “party of conscience and reform”.

The Left’s victories at the 1980 party conference provoked her withdrawal as a Labour candidate, and when Foot defeated Healey for the leadership she cut her links with her constituency. Yet only when Labour’s conference in January 1981 gave the unions a 50 per cent stake in electing the leader did she conclude the party was past saving.

With Jenkins, Owen and Rodgers she formed the Council for Social Democracy; its 100 backers were largely her friends. Amid acrimony she quit the NEC, declaring: “The party I loved and worked for over so many years no longer exists”, and left the Fabians.

At the SDP’s launch on March 26 1981 she predicted it could win power with the Liberals. Terming the SDP the “heterosexual wing of the Liberal Party”, she negotiated close links between the parties with Rodgers and Steel, only for Owen to object. Then, at that September’s Liberal Assembly in Llandudno, she, Jenkins, Steel and Jo Grimond launched the Alliance on a wave of emotion.

The SDP’s “collective leadership” valued her popularity, warmth, intellect and enthusiasm – less so her ability to miss trains, catch the wrong one and forget engagements, which had led her civil servants to keep “Shirley Time”. She retorted: “Women don’t have the advantage of having a wife. My colleagues pull my leg about being late and seeming to be in a hurry, but who stocks their fridge, cooks their supper and solves their adolescents’ thorny problems?”

She now needed a seat. The first vacancy came at Warrington; despite it having a large Catholic vote, she passed the challenge to Jenkins who finished a close second. Next came Croydon North-West, where the Liberal Bill Pitt refused to stand down for her and won.

When Crosby, with a 19,272 Conservative majority, came free she announced her candidacy in a “climb every mountain” party conference speech. She fought a brilliant campaign, helped by the savaging of the Tory candidate by journalists who had themselves sought the nomination.

On November 26 1981 she became the SDP’s first elected MP, romping home by 5,289 votes. When the SDP opted for a single leader, she backed Owen against Jenkins and took the party presidency.

Despite her distaste for the Commons, she proved a formidable critic of Thatcherism and the “Loony Left”. But her return was brief. The SDP recovered after the Falklands to damage Labour in 1983, but took only six seats – and Shirley Williams was among the casualties. Despite looming defeat at Crosby after boundary changes, she campaigned nationally, and spoke up for Jenkins when Steel sidelined him in mid-campaign.

After the election, she opposed Jenkins’s decision to make way for Owen; by mid-1984 she was criticising the new leader’s flirtation with Thatcherism, and when in 1986 a leftward Liberal shift on defence provoked a blast from Owen, she retorted that he should “be prepared to listen to other points of view and even consider whether there is room for some improvement on his part”.

In 1987 she fought her final election. As an honorary Fellow of Newnham tipped to succeed her ex-husband Bernard Williams as Provost of King’s, she seemed ideal for Cambridge, but the Common Room vote was small and not wholly sympathetic and she lost to the Tory Robert Rhodes James.

When Steel reacted to the Alliance’s poor showing by demanding a merger, Shirley Williams backed him and urged Owen to drop his opposition. When SDP-Liberal negotiations produced the ridiculed “dead parrot” policy document, she steadied nerves to get the merger back on track. Once the Social and Liberal Democrats were formed, she supported Paddy Ashdown for the leadership.

In 1988 she returned to Harvard with her new second husband Professor Richard Neustadt – an adviser to Michael Dukakis’s presidential campaign – to take a chair in Electoral Politics, staying five years. Neustadt achieved the miracle of “getting Shirley punctual”. She kept her home in Hertfordshire, attending Lib Dem conferences and joining Lady Thatcher, another honorary Fellow of Somerville, to protest at the college going co-educational.

Shirley Williams in 1966 when she was Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Labour - Phillip Jackson/ANL/Shutterstock
Shirley Williams in 1966 when she was Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Labour - Phillip Jackson/ANL/Shutterstock

She was made a life peer in 1993, but retained her ability to unnerve. When Blair was elected Labour leader in 1994, she reacted so warmly that colleagues feared she might re-defect. She denied this, then backed Blair’s commitment to a minimum wage against Lib Dem policy. She supported Ashdown’s renunciation of “equidistance” between Labour and the Tories, and his closer dialogue with Labour.

With the fall of the Iron Curtain she became director of Project Liberty, promoting the election of women to the new parliaments of eastern Europe. She campaigned to halt the mass rape of Muslim women by Bosnian Serbs, and in 1995 attended the UN women’s conference in Beijing as an adviser to secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

She was elected Lib Dem leader in the Lords in 2001, defeating Lord McNally, serving until 2004 when McNally succeeded her. In 2003 she was proposed as Chancellor of Oxford University, but declined to stand in protest at Labour’s decision to let universities charge “top-up” fees.

When the Lib Dems went into coalition with the Conservatives after the 2010 election, Shirley Williams determined to make it work, playing a key part in the Lords’ efforts to fine-tune Andrew Lansley’s unpopular NHS reforms. She retired from the upper house in 2016.

In 1955 Shirley Catlin married Professor Bernard Williams, once described as “the cleverest man in England”; their daughter Rebecca survives her. The marriage was dissolved in 1974 despite her religious views so he could re-marry; he died in 2003.

She agonised throughout her Cabinet years over her relationship with Professor Anthony King, saying she would “love to marry him” but as a Catholic could neither remarry nor live with a man outside wedlock; the Vatican annulled her marriage in 1980, and in 1987 she married Professor Neustadt, a widower; he died in 2003.

Baroness Williams of Crosby, born July 27 1930, died April 12 2021