Shirley Williams

The Right Honourable
 The Baroness Williams of Crosby 

Shirley Williams, Baroness Williams of Crosby PC (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] In 2001-2004, she served as Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords, and served as Adviser on Nuclear Proliferation to Prime Minister Gordon Brown from 2007 to 2010. Williams also serves as Professor Emerita of Electoral Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.


Early life

Born Shirley Vivian Teresa Brittain Catlin, Williams is the daughter of a political scientist and philosopher Sir George Catlin, and pacifist and writer Vera Brittain. She was educated at Talbot Heath School in Bournemouth, St Paul's Girls' School, London, and Somerville College, Oxford, where she was an Open Scholar. As a member of the OUDS she toured the USA playing the role of Cordelia in Shakespeare's King Lear. She was the first woman to chair the Oxford University Labour Club (1950).

After graduating in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics as a Bachelor of Arts and then an MA,[2] she was a Fulbright Scholar and studied at Columbia University in New York City. On returning to Britain, she began her career as a journalist. In 1960, she became General Secretary of the Fabian Society.

Member of Parliament

After unsuccessfully contesting the constituency of Southampton Test at the 1959 general election, in the 1964 general election, Williams was elected as Labour MP for the constituency of Hitchin in Hertfordshire, and rose quickly to a junior ministerial position. Between 1971 and 1973 she served as shadow Home Secretary. In 1974 she became Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection under Harold Wilson, and, when Wilson was succeeded in 1976 by James Callaghan, she became Secretary of State for Education and Paymaster General, two cabinet positions held at the same time.

Creating the SDP

Williams lost her seat to Bowen Wells in the Labour Party general election defeat of 1979 (her seat had been renamed Hertford and Stevenage in 1974). Williams's defeat was one of the most prominent of the election. She was interviewed by Robin Day for BBC Television's Decision 79 election programme shortly after learning that she had lost her seat. Merlyn Rees, the Labour Home Secretary, and Norman St John Stevas - the Conservative education spokesman who had frequently clashed with Williams at the Dispatch Box - both paid tribute to her. In 1981, unhappy with the influence of the far left in the Labour Party, she resigned from it to form the SDP, along with Roy Jenkins, David Owen and Bill Rodgers. Later that year, following the death of Conservative Sir Graham Page, she won a by-election in Crosby in Merseyside, becoming the first elected SDP MP.

General election defeat and after

Despite becoming SDP President, she lost her seat in the 1983 general election. She then stood for Cambridge in the 1987 general election, but lost to the Conservative candidate. Williams supported the SDP's 1988 merger with the Liberal Party to form the Liberal Democrats. Also during this time, Williams served as a BBC broadcaster on Shirley Williams in Conversation and has appeared on many television and radio programmes, including as a commentator on BBC's Question Time more than any other panellist.

Harvard University

In 1988, Shirley Williams moved to the United States to serve as a full professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government until 2001, and thereafter as Public Service Professor of Electoral Politics, Emerita. Nonetheless, she remained active in politics and public service in the United Kingdom, 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,[3] Williams was awarded a life peerage with the title The Baroness Williams of Crosby, PC, in 1993 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 of Lords.

Among other non-profit boards, Williams is or has been a member of the Council of Foreign Relations, the European Union's Comité des Sages[clarification needed], 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 2010 Bilderberg conference in Sitges, Spain.[4]

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.[5]

Personal life

Younger sister of John Brittain-Catlin, 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 philosopher Professor Sir Bernard Williams; the couple had one daughter. The marriage was dissolved in 1974. 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. Williams is a Roman Catholic.[6]

In the media

Williams has been a fixture of the British media for decades, and is indeed one of the most quotable politicians of the past 50 years. Williams also hosted in the early 1980s BBC TV's Shirley Williams in Conversation.[7] She started her career soon after graduating university as a journalist, working firstly for the Daily Mirror and then for the Financial Times.

Williams also has appeared more than any other panellist on the BBC political talk show Question Time; most recently on the 4 March 2010 in London

In the fictional comic strip Invasion!, set in 1999 and first appearing in 1977, Shirley Williams was depicted as the Prime Minister, before being killed by the invading Volgans in the first episode. References are made to this event (and Williams's premiership) in later episodes, notably the recent reboot of the strip set in 2004, where Williams is still mentioned as having been the PM at the time of the invasion and is venerated to some extent by the resistance.


  1. The SDP later merged with the Liberal Party to form the Liberal Democrats.
  2. . 
  3. Public lecture at Newcastle University, February 2010
  4. Bilderberg Meetings official website 2010 attendee list
  5. Borger, Julian (8 September 2009). . The Guardian (London). 
  6. Williams, Shirley (2009). (1st ed.). p. 294. . 
  7. . Retrieved 2010-06-11.