Shirley Williams, founding member of SDP, dies aged 90

Sienna Rodgers
Shirley Williams appearing with w:Peter Ustinov on television programme After Dark on 10 June 1989, © Open Media Ltd 1989

Lady Shirley Williams, a former Labour minister and member of the ‘Gang of Four’ rebel group that split off from Labour to start the Social Democratic Party in the 1980s, has died at the age of 90.

The daughter of Vera Brittain and first woman to chair the Oxford University Labour Club was elected to parliament in 1964, as a Labour MP representing the constituency of Hitchin in Hertfordshire.

She became minister for education and science in 1967, then a home affairs minister, when Harold Wilson was Prime Minister. With Labour in opposition, she was Shadow Health Secretary and Shadow Home Secretary.

When Labour re-entered government, Williams became Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection, and later both Education Secretary and Paymaster General under James Callaghan’s premiership.

She lost her parliamentary seat in 1979, when Margaret Thatcher came to power, and quit the Labour Party to form the SDP in 1981 along with Roy Jenkins, David Owen and Bill Rodgers, followed by other Labour MPs.

Williams was the first SDP member elected to parliament, winning the Crosby by-election that same year, but lost the seat two years later. The SDP merged with the Liberals in 1988 and formed the Liberal Democrats.

She was made a life peer in 1993, Baroness Williams of Crosby, and served as the Liberal Democrats leader in the House of Lords from 2001 to 2004. She advised the New Labour government on nuclear proliferation.

Williams also dismissed claims of sexual harassment against a colleague as “silly and impolite and discourteous behaviour” and argued against same-sex marriage legislation, saying: “Equality is not the same as sameness.”

Labour MPs have paid tribute to Williams, including shadow cabinet member David Lammy who described her as “kind, eclectic with the sharpest of minds” and “a female pioneer and a giant of the political centre ground”.

Keir Starmer tweeted: “Very sad to hear of the death of Shirley Williams. She was widely respected across politics and was a tireless champion for the causes she believed in. She will be hugely missed. My thoughts are with her friends and family.”

Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown said: “I am very sad to hear of Shirley Williams death. I had the privilege of working with her in her efforts to achieve nuclear disarmament and greater cooperation in Europe, causes she steadfastly supported throughout all her political life. Her deep commitment to social democratic values will long be remembered.”

“Really saddened to hear about the death of Shirley Williams. She was an inspiration to so many women entering politics. Shirley was a true giant of British politics,” Marie Rimmer, Labour MP for St Helens South and Whiston, said.

Shadow environment minister Daniel Zeichner wrote: “Sad to hear news about Shirley Williams I disagreed with her decision to leave Labour, but she was an important figure in 20th century UK politics, and our region.”

“Saddened to hear about the death of Shirley Williams,” Margaret Hodge MP tweeted. “She was a trailblazing woman in British politics and a role model to myself and so many other young women entering politics for the first time.”

Andrew Harrop, general secretary of the Fabian Society, paid tribute to his “inspirational predecessor” as a “true loss to centre left politics”. Williams was the Fabians general secretary from 1960 to 1963 and chair from 1980 to 1981.

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