Williams, Shirley (1930—)

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Williams, Shirley (1930—)

British politician who co-founded the Social Democratic Party . Name variations: Shirley Vivien Teresa Brittain Williams; Baroness Shirley Williams. Born Shirley Vivien Teresa Brittain on July 27, 1930, in Chelsea, England; daughter of Sir George Catlin (a professor of political science) and Vera Brittain (1893–1970); attended St. Paul's Girls' School in London; educated at Somerville College, Oxford; attended Columbia University; married Bernard Williams (a philosopher), in 1955 (annulled 1974); married Richard Neustadt (a professor of politics at Harvard), in 1987; children: (first marriage) one daughter, Rebecca Clair Williams .

Began career as a journalist for Daily Mirror and Financial Times (1954–59); ran for election to Parliament in Harwich (1954–55); served as general secretary of the Fabian Society (1960–64); elected as member of Parliament for Hitchin (1964–74), and Hertford-Stevenage (1974–79); served in numerous government posts in the Ministry of Health (1964–66), Ministry of Labor (1966–67), Ministry of Education and Science (1967–69), and Home Office (1969–70); appointed minister of Prices and Consumer Protection (1974–76), and minister for Education and Science and paymaster-general (1976–79); was a member of Labour Party National Executive (1970–81); appointed Professorial Fellow of London Policy Study Institute (1979); co-founded the Social Democratic Party (1981); served as president of the Social Democratic Party (1982–88); served as a member of Parliament for Crosby (1981–1984); published Politics Is for People (1981).

Shirley Williams was born in 1930 in Chelsea, and the active civic lives of both her parents strongly influenced her choice of a career in politics. Her father Sir George Catlin was a professor of political science as well as a Labour Party candidate in the 1930s, and her mother, feminist Vera Brittain , was widely known for advancing her socialist beliefs. Her parents entertained T.S. Eliot, Arthur Greenwood, and other celebrities; Jawaharal Nehru bounced Shirley on his knee when she was an infant. Her father taught at Cornell University in New York and at McGill University in Montreal in addition to acting as 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 and wrote extensively on U.S.-British cooperation.

Shirley Williams completed much of her education in London, although during the war years she went to St. Paul, Minnesota, to avoid the bombing. Returning to England in 1943, 13-year-old Williams attended St. Paul's Girls' School before enrolling in Somerville College, Oxford. At Somerville, she became active in politics, joining the Labour League of Youth during her freshman year. Following graduation, Williams chose to work alongside her Labour Party constituents, taking jobs in factories and waiting on tables before earning a year-long fellowship to Columbia University. While studying in New York in 1952, she met Bernard Williams, whom she married three years later.

Returning to London in 1954, Williams worked as a reporter for several London papers while beginning her political career. Nicknamed the "schoolgirl candidate," she 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 (1964–66), the Ministry of Labor (1966–67), the Ministry of Education and Science (1967–69), and the Home Office (1969–70), 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 decidedly 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 the voice of the party 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. She proclaimed that the Labour Party was opposed to the Common Market and 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, she 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 her 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.

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% of the vote to unions and 30% 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 (SDP), 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. However, 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 the following year. 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. Having annulled her marriage to Bernard Williams in 1974, she married Richard Neustadt, a Harvard political economist, in 1987. 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.


Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2nd ed. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1998.

Uglow, Jennifer S., comp. and ed. The International Dictionary of Women's Biography. 2nd ed. NY: Continuum, 1985.

Pamela Shelton , freelance writer, Avon, Connecticut

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