It was with great sadness that the Lecture Club learned of the passing of our figurehead, Baroness Shirley Williams of Crosby. A pioneer and tenacious campaigner, she was the very essence of what it means to be a radical politician. In case you missed it, Lord Dick Newby, Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords, shares his tribute to a true legend, who was trusted and admired by millions.
Lords Tribute to Shirley Williams
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. And 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 didn’t 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 founders 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 – and 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 both 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. And 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 much of her early years in Your Lordships House with being professor of electoral politics at Harvard University. She took over from Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank as Leader of the Liberal Democrat group in 2001, a position she held for three years. 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’ve met, was her empathy and her charisma. She was genuinely interested in other people, their ideas and their lives. And she had a special magnetic charm which meant that people warmed to her and were energised by her.
Two episodes sum this up for me. One personal, one political.
In the early days of the SDP, Shirley invited my wife and me 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 – and 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.
And in the 1981 Warrington by-election, Shirley took part in a cavalcade in support of Roy Jenkins. She stood on the front seat of a car, her head poking through the open sunroof. As the cavalcade progressed down a road in a council estate, we passed a man, lying on his back underneath his car, effecting repairs to it. On hearing Shirley’s voice through the loudhailer, he looked up and beamed. “Hello Shirley” he said, as if he’d 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 had committed herself. She was immensely energetic and, in a crisis, 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. And this in itself is a powerful legacy.
But more generally, in an era when politicians are widely distrusted, Shirley retained popular affection. She was trusted and admired by millions. As I was writing this tribute, the phone on my office desk rang. The caller had never met Shirley but rang to express his condolences for someone he described as a “legend”. He was right. She was. And we will miss her.