Skip to main content

Tributes: Baroness Williams of Crosby

Volume 811: debated on Wednesday 14 April 2021

My Lords, I first met Shirley as a teenage student. I served with her on the Labour Committee for Europe. I was at her side as she chaired every session of every SDP conference. Latterly, I worked with her closely in the Lords where initially she was my leader and, more recently and improbably, I was hers. Over these 50 years, Shirley did not really change. She continued to be passionate about the things she believed in, principally social justice and Europe. She was always fearless in advocating these things and was prepared to take political hostility head-on to promote them.

Shirley had a long political career, which began as general secretary of the Fabian Society. She was MP for Hitchin and then Stevenage, and held a series of ministerial posts in the Wilson and Callaghan Governments, culminating in the position of Secretary of State for Education. In 1981 she left the Labour Party as one of the gang of four founder members of the SDP. Leaving the Labour Party was particularly hard for her because she remained popular within it, was an elected member of the National Executive Committee and could have expected further promotion, possibly even the leadership. But, having made the break, she never questioned her decision. She also quickly realised that good relations with and an eventual merger between the SDP and the Liberals was a political necessity. Her role in creating the Alliance and then the Liberal Democrats was crucial because she was able to build rapport and trust between parliamentarians and members of both parties.

Her victory in the Crosby by-election in November 1981 was critical in sustaining momentum for the SDP in its early months. Her eloquence, directness and popularity guaranteed her regular media appearances, which provided a vital part of the oxygen necessary for our future successes. Having lost Crosby in the 1983 general election, Shirley was nominated to the Lords by Paddy Ashdown in 1993. She combined many of her early years in your Lordships’ House with being professor of electoral politics at Harvard University. She took over from my noble friend Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank as leader of the Lib Dem group in 2001, a position she held for three years, and from 2004 until her retirement in 2016 she used the bully pulpit of this House to promote her principal causes, and, appropriately, used her final speech to argue for Britain’s continued place within the EU.

But Shirley was no ordinary politician. What set her apart from any other politician I have met was her empathy and charisma. She was genuinely interested in other people, their ideas and their lives. She had a special magnetic charm which meant that people warmed to her and were energised by her.

Two episodes summed this up for me, one personal and one political. In the early days of the SDP, Shirley invited my wife and I to stay overnight at her Hertfordshire house to break a journey up to Yorkshire. Our political discussions with fellow guests went on well into the night. She had all the enthusiasm of a student. But next morning, at 8 o’clock, a knock at our bedroom door heralded Shirley bringing us a cup of tea. It was impossible not to be infatuated.

In the 1981 Warrington by-election, Shirley took part in a cavalcade in support of Roy Jenkins. She stood on the front seat of the car, her head poking through an open sunroof. As the cavalcade progressed down the road in a council estate, we passed a man lying on his back underneath his car repairing it. On hearing Shirley’s voice through the loud-hailer, he looked up and beamed. “Hello Shirley”, he said, as if he had been expecting a visit from a dear friend. To generate that kind of warm response from strangers was as commonplace with Shirley as it is rare with the rest of us.

Shirley gained something of a reputation for disorganisation and was frequently late, but this was borne out of the mistaken belief that she could moderate the passage of time to allow her to fit in an impossibly large number of tasks to which she committed herself. She was immensely energetic and, in a crisis—of which I have seen a number with her—she demonstrated a steely nerve and a razor-sharp focus.

As one of the earliest female Cabinet Ministers, and a single mother, Shirley faced widespread prejudice, but this never embittered her. She simply got on with it. It did, however, make her particularly keen to support young women who wanted to go into politics, and to persuade them that this was an honourable calling—which she fervently believed it was. I know that many of my female colleagues in the Lords and Commons, as well as councillors and activists across the country, were inspired by Shirley to take up politics. This in itself is a powerful legacy.

More generally, in an era when politicians are widely distrusted, Shirley maintained popular affection. She was trusted and admired by millions. As I was writing this tribute, the phone rang on my office desk. The caller had never met Shirley, but had rung to express his condolences for someone he described as “a legend”. He was right: she was—and we will miss her.

My Lords, I do not think that any of us were in any doubt about the impact that Baroness Williams had on our political life, or the huge affection so many felt for her. But it brings it home to hear a close friend and colleague articulate them, as the noble Lord, Lord Newby, has just done so well.

Our paths crossed in this House for just a short time, so I did not have the privilege of learning first-hand from someone who has been described to me as one of the most talented speakers in this House. However, I did have the honour of winding up the debate when Baroness Williams made her valedictory speech in January 2016. As a relatively new Peer and Whip at the time, it was a nerve-racking occasion for me, but it gave me the opportunity, albeit briefly, to see some of her many qualities, which others will recall.

Of course, I was well aware of the impact that Baroness Williams had on the politics of this country. Our politics may have been different, but a passion for education and advocacy on behalf of women are areas of interest we shared. As we have heard from the noble Lord, she served as a Labour MP from 1964, and held various ministerial posts before landing her first Cabinet job in 1974 under Harold Wilson, and subsequently Jim Callaghan, culminating in her appointment as Secretary of State for Education and Science.

There is no doubt that Baroness Williams’s decision to leave the Labour Party and create the Social Democratic Party with the gang of four was one of the boldest moves in recent political history. Her by-election victory for the newly formed SDP in Crosby in 1981 was a great achievement for the fledgling party, overturning a 19,000 Conservative majority. By-elections are never easy, but her success showed what a formidable campaigner she was. Whether it was for her intellect, her wit, or her down-to-earth sincerity, it is not difficult to see why the voters of Crosby wanted her as their voice in Parliament. Although the SDP achieved record highs for a new party in the opinion polls, that was not translated into winning seats at the subsequent general election, so her time as a representative of the party in the other place was short-lived. However, as the noble Lord said, she was made a life Peer in 1993, and appointed Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the Lords in 2001.

Baroness Williams was often spoken of as a potential leader of her party and a future Prime Minister—for many, perhaps, the best we never had. What is clear is that she had a remarkable ability to communicate, whether on the stump, on television or in the House. When I asked colleagues on my Benches for their memories of her, many recalled her as one of the most fluent and formidable debaters. One said, “She was never with a note—spellbinding sometimes. She could hold the House in the palm of her hand.” Perhaps just as importantly, all agreed that she was gracious and courteous, even to those she fundamentally disagreed with. As the Prime Minister has recalled:

“Even when we disagreed—as we often did—she had the gift of sounding so completely reasonable at all times.”

Even when Baroness Williams was away from Parliament, she was making a lasting impact on policy and politics abroad. Her ideas were transported internationally when she became a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of government, where no doubt she planted the seeds of her brand of liberalism in a generation of students over the 13 years of her tenure. She also left her mark in multiple countries when she assisted in drafting the constitutions of countries around the world.

What is clear is the respect she commanded, but also—as is not always the case—the huge affection, particularly in this House. Indeed, the esteem in which she was held was demonstrated when she was made a Companion of Honour for services to political and public life. We on these Benches send our best wishes and sincere condolences to her daughter, her family and all her friends and former colleagues. She was a remarkable woman. She will be much missed.

My Lords, despite being made a life Peer in 1993, Baroness Williams of Crosby was nearly always publicly referred to as Shirley Williams—not in ignorance, but in affection. She was of that generation of multi-skilled intellectual politicians who could easily have taken a different path in life from politics. Perhaps if Elizabeth Taylor had not pipped her at the post for the lead human role in the 1944 film “National Velvet”, she might never have returned home to the UK and a life of public service. But, like many others of her generation, she managed to combine her other interests with a passion for politics, always believing in it as a force for good and a route to social, political and economic advances.

She proudly described herself as a feminist. Her grandmother had been a suffragist, and she said that her feminism was instilled in her by her mother, Vera Brittain, supported by her father. In a 2015 interview for the book 100 Leading Ladies, she recalled that until she became a teenager she had never encountered anything that made her feel inferior to her brother and simply took that for granted. Her feminism was a constant throughout her life, especially in her politics.

She was pretty dismissive at having been tipped, as a Labour Minister, to be the first female Prime Minister, saying that

“there were then … so few women in politics that if you were quite good at your job and were a good speaker, you were almost inevitably going to be tipped for the job”.

But the feminist in her also claimed that she had

“learnt that politicians, especially male ones, tend to overestimate their own capacities, and so I am careful not to overestimate mine”.

Instead, she described her character as “tremendously involved and energetic”. She felt that whatever you had to do, you had to “throw yourself into it”—and she certainly did.

Having been raised in a strongly political and intellectual home, she brought an academic rigour and energy to all she took on. She was the first woman to chair the Oxford University Labour Club, and her degree in PPE and Fulbright scholarship led to a career first in journalism and then as general secretary of the Fabian Society. She was radical, pragmatic, articulate and enthusiastic. As a Labour MP and Minister in the 1960s and 1970s, she would energise debates in the House of Commons and, in the days of well-attended public meetings, delight audiences around the country. She was a passionate supporter of European integration in the days when it was a divisive issue in the Labour Party.

In 1979 she earned the admiration of many as throughout the election campaign she travelled the country supporting colleagues in marginal seats. As many of us witnessed in this House, she was a naturally engaging, authentic speaker who drew in audiences. On the eve of poll, she was miles away from her own constituency, supporting one of the youngest members of the Government, Ann Taylor—now my noble friend Lady Taylor of Bolton—who was defending a majority of just 900. Although Ann was returned to Parliament, unfortunately Shirley lost her seat. Some attributed her defeat to the overly hostile press coverage of her visit to the Grunwick picket line to hear from those who were on strike.

However, she remained one of the country’s most popular characters and returned to Parliament, as we have heard, in the 1981 by-election, but this time as one of the leaders of the newly created SDP. Splits in political parties are painful for all and, while the Labour Party suffered as a result, the SDP never achieved the success that some predicted. I had not long been politically active, but I recall that time vividly. Whatever the views of individual Labour Party members, the loss they felt most sadly was that of Shirley, for whom they had enormous affection.

Despite those differences, the warmth of the tributes paid to Baroness Williams by her former colleagues is testimony to her character. She was always generous with her time and passionate about her beliefs. Her commitment to the issues she cared about never wavered. As a Member of your Lordships’ House and leader of the Liberal Democrats, she was a force to be reckoned with. She never stopped working and hoping for a better world. My colleague and noble friend Lady Royall—now principal of Somerville College, which Baroness Williams attended—said:

“She was a … feminist, a woman of great intellect who cared deeply and worked tirelessly to bring about greater social and economic justice … I never spent a moment in her company which I did not appreciate or enjoy.”

Shirley Williams lived a long, eventful and productive life. On behalf of these Benches, I send our condolences to her daughter, her family, her friends and her party.

My Lords, I too rise to pay tribute to Baroness Williams, whom I always knew as Shirley. Others have focused on her political career and I can certainly echo that, but I will pay particular tribute to her for two very distinct but sometimes closely interrelated qualities and achievements.

For me and many women of my generation, Shirley was a profound influence. She encouraged us in the 300 Group, formed to get 300 women into the House of Commons, and encouraged us as individuals. She did that by acknowledging the real problems that women often face in political life, particularly parliamentary life and particularly those trying to combine small children and a parliamentary career. She was very kind to lots of us. Indeed, my noble friend Lady Hayman has just asked me to record her kindness to her. She was kind to us all.

She was unfailingly supportive of women who wanted to make a difference, as she always described it, and she was unflinchingly honest about how hard it would be. I have particular reason to be grateful to her. I had known her slightly as a child, but she was particularly kind to me as a student at Cambridge, as her marriage to Bernard Williams was coming apart. I was then membership secretary of the Labour Club. There was one of the usual internal scandals, and my college room was broken into to collect the membership records for said Labour Club. I was terribly upset by this, but Shirley was immensely comforting. She assured me I was right to make a real fuss about it and egged me on in doing so. I have been making a fuss about things ever since, thanks to Shirley.

Shirley would ask many of us younger women thinking about political interests and careers to work out what we really minded about. She would also always argue that party politics was not the only way we could influence things—though for her it was the main route—and that we should think about academia, as of course she herself did so successfully as a professor at Harvard for 12 years when married to the wonderful Dick Neustadt. She said that we should also think about NGOs.

She influenced many of us. Talking to a group of much younger women yesterday, I heard that many of them, in their 30s, also traced their willingness to enter politics, both local and national, to her straightforward way of talking with them, to her popularity with women voters—“Shirl the Pearl”, if people remember that—and to her immense personal kindness.

Of course, you could not go anywhere with Shirley without lots of people, often women, coming up to her and paying tribute. It was somewhat inconvenient. A group of us would go walking regularly in the Chilterns, and quite often people coming in the other direction would go past us, then realise they had just walked past Shirley Williams, turn back and come and pay tribute. It was wonderful, but slow.

Her obituaries have focused to a considerable extent on her encouragement of women, but they have not really focused on her immense personal kindness. Members of staff in this House have been telling me how kind she was to them, but we as a family have one particular, unforgettable example among many. A friend, Ralph Skilbeck, the former diplomat who became a headhunter, was dying of a very aggressive cancer in his early 40s. He told us how he desperately wanted to meet Shirley but never had. I rang Shirley, and immediately—without hesitation and without knowing him at all—she agreed to come and meet him, which she did a few days later. He was over the moon. He died a few weeks later, talking to the end about how amazing she had been.

I could give this House many other examples of her immense kindness; she was a profoundly good person. I believe her legacy will be memories of her immense strength of character; her inspirational qualities, particularly for younger women; the fact that she became a national treasure; and her legacy of kindness and goodness to so many people. She was a wonderful mother, and particularly grandmother, to her family, and I know they have been amazing to her in these past few years. I officiated with a blessing at her marriage to Dick Neustadt and said a blessing at Dick Neustadt’s funeral. I do feel that I can now say, “May she rest in peace”.

I find myself rising again to give a tribute on behalf of the Lords spiritual from these Benches and wondering what I can add to all the wonderful things that have been said. However, as the first female Lord spiritual in this House, it is a privilege to pay tribute to an amazing person who, as we have heard, was something of a trailblazer for women in politics.

As a comparative newcomer to this House, I did not have time to get to know Baroness Williams, but now, as Anglican Bishop to Prisons, I was pleased to learn that she had once been a Prisons Minister and had a particular interest in improving the experience of women in prison. This may be an apocryphal story, but I believe that at one point she even asked to be locked up in Holloway to see what the experience for women was like. I am only sad that I never had a conversation with her about women in the criminal justice system.

As we have heard, Shirley was one of the iconic figures of British politics, shaped by the post-war world and one of those rare politicians known in public simply by her first name. Although she often seemed to struggle to acknowledge her own brilliance, from the outside others saw her talent and razor-sharp mind.

So much has already been said, but I wish to draw attention to her faith. She came from the tradition of politics of people grounded in internationalism, Catholic social teaching and social justice. Often found at Lambeth Palace, she was prepared to work across parties without fear or favour, with people of all faiths and none, to develop ideas and policy to the betterment of British society. Her Catholic faith and belief in universal values were central to her politics. In her final speech to this House, she called on us as the institutional memory of the nation to protect universal values of human rights, to play our significant part in the world and to think globally, not simply nationally. I can think of no clearer call from Baroness Williams to this House, and it is one shared by the Church: a commitment to social justice, protecting the vulnerable and being committed to global thinking.

After her many decades of faithful public service, I wish to end with the prayer: may she rest in peace and rise in glory.

My Lords, I will just add this very briefly. I saw Shirley Williams in action both in the Commons and in the Lords. When I was in the Commons as a member of Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet, I did not get the impression that she was one of our natural supporters. She was in fact a formidable critic, but I will say that she was always fair in her criticism. When she came to this House, as we all remember, she retained that fairness of judgment. I remember with gratitude her support for my campaign on phone hacking, for example.

Above all, I will remember her for one thing: in an age when politicians are criticised, rightly or wrongly, for being more interested in what they can get out of politics, she was entirely motivated by what she could give, what contribution she could make to the public good—and her contribution was vast. I will remember her as a true politician and an example to us all.