Shirley Vivien Teresa Brittain Williams

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Shirley Vivien Teresa Brittain Williams

The British politician Shirley Vivien Teresa Brittain Williams (born 1930) was a Labour party minister who later helped to form the Social Democratic party in the 1980s.

Shirley Williams was born on July 27, 1930, in London, the daughter of two eminent socialists, Sir George Catlin and Vera Brittain. She was raised comfortably in the Roman Catholic faith in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, where her parents entertained T.S. Eliot, Arthur Greenwood, and other celebrities; Jawaharal Nehru bounced her on his knee when she was an infant.

Her father taught political science at Cornell University in New York and at McGill University in Montreal. Catlin was a special adviser to Wendell Willkie in 1940 when Willkie was Republican contender for the presidency of the United States. In British politics he was adviser to the Labour party from 1930 to 1979. He wrote extensively on U.S.-British cooperation. Her mother, Vera Brittain, was a feminist and a pacifist, a nurse in World War I, and a gifted writer between the two world wars.

During World War II, Williams was evacuated to the United States. She lived in St. Paul, Minnesota, and attended the Summit School there from 1939 to 1943. She also was educated at St. Paul's, a private school in London, and at Somerville College in Oxford, England. She joined the Labour party at the age of 16. A member of Britain's Labour League of Youth, she became the first woman to chair the Labour Club in 1948. She worked in factories and at waitressing jobs in England, then pursued graduate studies, focusing on trade unions, at Columbia University in New York. There she met her future husband.

To Parliament

For two years Williams worked as a gossip columnist for the Daily Mirror, a London newspaper which then was associated with Labour causes. She then joined the staff of the Financial Times. In 1955 she married Professor Bernard Williams, a philosopher and, beginning in 1979, provost of King's College, Cambridge. Their marriage was annulled in 1974. They had a daughter, Rebecca Clair.

Nicknamed the "schoolgirl candidate," Williams ran for Parliament in 1954 and 1955 at Harwich, Essex, but lost. For three years she lived in Africa with her husband, teaching at the University of Ghana in Accra. She returned to England to run for a seat in Parliament from Southampton in 1959; she again failed. Williams became general secretary of the Fabian Society, the nucleus of socialism in England, from 1960 to 1964. Finally she was elected to Parliament at Hitchin, Hertfordshire, in October 1964. That year, after 13 years in opposition, the Labour party returned to power, with Harold Wilson as prime minister.

Wilson gave Williams minor posts in the government. She served in the Ministry of Health (1964-1966), the Ministry of Labor (1966-1967), the Ministry of Education and Science (1967-1969), and the Home Office (1969-1970), where she concentrated on the Northern Ireland issue. The Protestants of Ulster never trusted her because she was a Catholic. During the 1960s she voted against liberalizing divorce laws and against abortion rights.

Williams was a self-confident, ebullient, popular, and decidely unglamorous politician. With a rumpled appearance and unruly hair, she noted, "People like me because I look as crummy as they do."

When Wilson was defeated and the Labour party became the opposition government in 1970, Williams became a member of the party's national executive board. She also became party spokesperson on Social Services, Home Affairs, and Prices and Consumer Protection. In May 1971 she was among 100 Labour members of Parliament who signed a declaration endorsing the Common Market despite criticism of the Common Market by many leftists in the party. Williams vehemently opposed isolationist policies and advocated joining the European Economic Community. Wilson proclaimed that the Labour party was opposed to the Common Market, and Williams threatened to resign from the opposition cabinet unless Labour adopted a "more constructive" stance toward Europe. The Conservative government of Prime Minister Edward Heath brought Britain into the Common Market in July 1972, aided by Williams and other Labour party members. "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 said in an interview with the Guardian on April 15, 1975. "I see staying in Europe as being part of the price of living with reality."

In the election of February 1974 Williams won a new seat in Parliament, representing Hertford and Stevenage, and Wilson regained power. Williams was appointed minister of prices and consumer protection, her first cabinet office. As minister, Williams endorsed voluntary guidelines for combating inflation.

When Wilson, in a surprise move, resigned in March 1976, Williams removed herself from consideration for party leadership. The new leader was James Callaghan, who appointed Williams minister of education and science, where she led a campaign for comprehensive education but cut teacher training positions. She also served as paymaster-general from 1976 to 1979.

Social Democratic Party Founder

In May 1979 the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher swept the elections, routing Labour. Williams lost her seat in Parliament and turned to a job as a senior research fellow at the Policy Studies Institute in London until 1985. Within the Labour party, the leftists and the centrists battled. At a Labour party conference in January 1981, the left, led by Anthony Wedgwood Benn, staged a showdown with the leaders of the center: Williams, Roy Jenkins, David Owen, and William Rogers, known as the "Gang of Four." Instead of letting the party's members of Parliament choose the party leader by themselves, Benn moved to give 40 percent of the vote to unions and 30 percent to local party organizations. Benn's faction won platform fights endorsing unilateral disarmament and withdrawal from the Common Market. Williams and others who opposed the platform resigned from the party. With Owen, Rogers, and Jenkins, she formed a new party, the Social Democratic party, in March 1981.

Eight months later she was elected to Parliament at Crosby, a suburb of Liverpool, as a candidate for the Social Democratic party. By the end of 1981 the fledgling Social Democrats had 23 seats in the House of Commons and were gaining popularity. Williams became the party's president in 1982 and remained its leader until 1988.

The Social Democrats quickly went into decline. By 1983 they had only six seats in the House of Commons, and Williams lost her seat at Crosby in 1984. Popular support for the Falklands War against Argentina carried Margaret Thatcher's government and the Conservative party to new heights of popularity, and the SDP never regained its initial momentum.

In 1985 Williams became director of the Turing Institute in Glasgow, Scotland. In 1987 Williams married Richard Neustadt, a Harvard political economist. That same year she ran again for Parliament at Cambridge and lost. In the 1990s she became a member of the House of Lords, a Harvard University professor of electoral politics, and a director of Project Liberty, which assisted developing democracies in eastern and central Europe. She continued to play an active role in trying to bring peace to Northern Ireland.

Further Reading

Williams wrote Politics is for People in 1981 and A Job to Live in 1985. Information on Williams can be found in New York Times Magazine (December 13, 1981); John Newhouse, "Profiles: Breaking the Mold," New Yorker (May 21, 1984); Hugh Stephenson, Claret and Chips: The Rise of the SDP (London, 1982); Newsweek (February 9, 1981; December 7, 1981; and June 6, 1983); and The Nation (December 19, 1981). A good analysis of the Social Democratic party is Polly Toynbee, "The Rise and Fall of Britain's Neoliberals" Washington Monthly (November 1987). □

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Shirley Vivien Teresa Brittain Williams

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