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The Right Honourable
 The Baroness Williams of Crosby 

In office
10 September 1976 – 4 May 1979
Prime Minister James Callaghan
Preceded by Fred Mulley
Succeeded by Mark Carlisle

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

Born 27 July 1930 (1930-07-27) (age 79)
London, UK
Political party Labour Party (1964 - 1981)
SDP (1981 - 1988)
Liberal Democrats(1988 - present)
Alma mater Somerville College, Oxford
Occupation Journalist

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 since 2007 has served as Adviser on Nuclear Proliferation to Prime Minister Gordon Brown. 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 the UK, 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, 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 UK, USA, and internationally. 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); and as a member of the European Union's Comité des Sages, among other top policy positions. Upon Williams's elevation to the House of Lords in 1993, she returned to the UK 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. She complains that she is often mistakenly referred to as Dame Shirley Williams.

Among other non-profit boards, Williams serves on the council of management of the Ditchley Foundation, and on the advisory councils of the Institute for Public Policy Research. In the USA, she serves on the International Advisory Board of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and the Twentieth Century Fund, now known as The Century Foundation. She was previously joint President of Chatham House. She now sits on the Board of Directors of the influential Washington-based think-tank Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) and as a Commissioner on the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND). Williams is also the President of Cambridge Student Liberal Democrats.

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 UK Teaching Awards.

Personal life

Younger sister of John Brittain-Catlin, Williams has been married twice. In 1955, she married the philosopher Professor Sir Bernard Williams; the couple had one daughter. They were one of the few couples to both hold titles in their own right. 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.[4]

In the media

Williams has been a fixture of the British media - television, radio, print - 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.[1] 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 of the UK, 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.

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)
  • A Job to Live (1985)
  • Politics is for People (1981)

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


  1. ^ The SDP later merged with the Liberal Party to form the Liberal Democrats.
  2. ^ "Rt. Hon. Professor Shirley Williams". 
  3. ^ Public lecture at Newcastle University, February 2010
  4. ^ Williams, Shirley (2009). Climbing the bookshelves (1st ed.). p. 294. ISBN 978-1844084760. 

External links

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Martin Maddan
Member of Parliament for Hitchin
1964Feb 1974
Succeeded by
Ian Stewart
New constituency Member of Parliament for Hertford and Stevenage
Feb 19741979
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
1971 – 1973
Succeeded by
Roy Jenkins
New creation Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection
1974 – 1976
Succeeded by
Roy Hattersley
Preceded by
Frederick Mulley
Secretary of State for Education and Science
1976 – 1979
Succeeded by
Mark Carlisle
Preceded by
Edmund Dell
1976 – 1979
Succeeded by
Angus Maude
Party political offices
New political party President of the Social Democratic Party
1982 – 1987
Succeeded by
John Cartwright
Preceded by
The Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank
Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords
2001 – 2004
Succeeded by
The Lord McNally


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