Celebrating Shirley Williams’ contribution to British politics on her 90th birthday

To celebrate Shirley Williams’ 90th birthday, members of the Social Democrat Group executive have written four articles about her contribution to the party and to British politics. Below is a summary of each piece. To see the full pieces, follow the links.

George Kendall joined the SDP when it was formed in 1981 and has been a member of the SDP and the Lib Dems ever since. He is acting chair of the Social Democrat Group.

He writes that he was like many foot soldiers in the SDP in Shirley being his favourite politician. He loved her honesty and humanity in acknowledging her weaknesses, and her passion in looking for new policies to improve social justice, whilst rigorously thinking through whether they would work.

But most of all he loves how she combines passion with respect for those who disagree with her.

In an age of angry echo chambers, which hurl abuse at each other, Shirley is an example today’s politicians should look to.

In his piece, Committee member Mathew Hulbert makes the case for disagreeing agreeably. He points out that, though he disagrees with Shirley Williams’ stances on social issues over the years, he can still appreciate and value her pioneering role in politics; as a radical Education Secretary, as a woman in politics and as a brave Social Democrat.

Michael Mullaney has fought Bosworth four times, coming within 5,000 of taking it in 2010.

He writes how Shirley Williams achieved an enormous amount, despite the disadvantage of never having a safe seat.

If not for boundary changes, she might have held the Crosby seat she took from the Tories. If so, and she had stood against David Owen for the SDP leadership after the 1983 election, the process of merging the SDP with the Liberals may have been a much less painful process.

Had Shirley Williams had a safe seat whilst in the Labour Party or had the SDP really taken off she could have reached the stratospheric heights of British politics. As it was she was a great campaigner who succeeded in making a big impact in the Labour Party, the SDP and then the Liberal Democrats.

Colin joined the Liberal Democrats from Labour in 2016

He writes how he greatly admires Shirley Williams’ courage in following her political and religious philosophy to its logical intellectual conclusion without consideration of the implications.

He suspects her huge popularity with the general public during this period was really based on admiration of her courage to risk everything for her beliefs, but many older members in the Labour Party still see her departure as a betrayal. They forget her radicalism, particularly in education: her passion to tear down educational divisions to allow all to succeed is a legacy which has changed millions of lives.

* The Social Democrat Group is a fringe organisation within the Liberal Democrats which exists to reach out to social democrats beyond the party, and to celebrate and develop our social democrat heritage.

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This entry was posted in Liberal History.


  • Many Happy Returns!!

  • Rabi Martins 27th Jul '20 - 11:41am


    You won me over at the launch of the SDP In London all those many years ago
    You then followed that up with a phone call which inspired me to Set the the West Herts Branch Which grew into the Watford SDP and eventually led to the election of the first Lib Dem Elected Mayor in Watford

    Throughout this time yiu have remained my inspiration and kept me in the Party despite my misgivings on our commitment to Diversity and Equality

    And I still carry fond memories of our trip to India and Kashmir What a privilege that was

    Thank you for your legacy
    You are a true inspirational Liberal Democrat
    Enjoy reflecting on your contribution to the Party – The Country and indeed to Our Society

  • Peter Martin 27th Jul '20 - 12:03pm

    I used to chat to Shirley Williams when we were both on the Picket line at the Grunwick Dispute. That was when she was still a Labour MP of course in the late 70s. I don’t remember any Liberals or Tories joining us.

    The wiki page I’ve linked to below seems too negative in tone. Yes, it was a defeat for the TU and Labour movement, in the short term, but it was the first time that the then predominantly white working class mobilised in support of Asian workers. So it must be counted as a victory in the Long term.

    The Asian women who worked at Grunwick were largely from Uganda. They were well educated and articulate but at the time working in low paid jobs was all that was available to them. So it was must have been a huge culture shock for them.

    So good on Shirley Williams for appreciating the significance of all that. She was the only one of the Gang of Four that most Labour Party members regretted losing.


  • neil sandison 27th Jul '20 - 12:45pm

    Shirley Williams was the reason I joined the SDP stayed with the Liberal Democrats at the merger and I believe she is the embodiment of modern day social liberalism . articulate ,thoughtful ,with principles, respectful of others and always late as people thronged to meet her in her walkabouts in town centres . One of the first politicians to recognise even in the 80s That a new underclass was developing of the left behind . That education and training was likely to be their only real escape route from poverty and neglect . Happy Birthday Shirley you are still a beacon of hope

  • Lorenzo Cherin 27th Jul '20 - 1:13pm

    Happy Birthday to a great politician, and a truly good person, who, if I agree or disagree with, I always like and respect.

    She, like some today, does not need to be the leader of a party, to have a role at the heart of it.

    We need to know that leadership is often about more than a position. We have two excellent candidates who both have a lot in common with Shirley, in values, if not always, views.

    Anybody can see that she was and is a woman of principle. She took a stance that was important.

    Praise to Chukka and Lucianna who also did, and have lost their careers in our national political arena, but won the respect of those of us who can see that the example of Shirley lives on in her and us.

    Something to celebrate .

  • Yeovil Yokel 27th Jul '20 - 2:11pm

    My mother is also 90 this year and, although a lifelong Tory, I remember her expressing grudging admiration for Shirley Williams during the 1970’s. Perhaps this rubbed off on me because when I joined the party 6 years ago it was Shirley’s image I chose to have on my membership card.

  • Peter Martin 27th Jul '20 - 3:16pm

    I notice that Shirley’s Wiki entry mentions losing in the 1979 election and having participated on the Grunwick picket line in the same sentence.

    Do you think that means she lost even though she stood on the picket line?

    And would she have lost if one B Rigby of the Liberal Party hadn’t picked up 7660 votes in the same contest? Or would those 7660 have never voted for anyone who had stood on a picket line? The swing against her was 8.1% and so much higher than the National average.

  • John Marriott 27th Jul '20 - 3:29pm

    And, as Secretaries of State for Education, she and Margaret Thatcher signed more orders that led to the abolition of selective education at secondary level than any others. That’s probably the only thing they share.

    Shirley Williams, like her mother, Vera Britain, after WW1 was prepared to speak out against injustice and, as was said, had she had a ‘safe’ parliamentary seat, she might, as SDP leader, have made the merger with the Liberal Party less traumatic.

    I also wish her many happy returns.

  • Christopher Haigh 27th Jul '20 - 9:42pm

    Many happy returns to Shirley Williams. Same age as Clint Eastwood !

  • Peter Martin 28th Jul '20 - 3:44pm

    Is there any particular reason why no-one wants to acknowledge that Shirley Williams stood up for the rights of Asian women on the Grunwick picket line?

    There ‘s no mention in the OP. There’s no mention on any of the four links, included in the OP, which give an account of her life and work. There’s no mention in any of the comments apart from my own.

    It reminds me of family situations, years ago, where everyone knew that Aunt Ethel’s parents weren’t married, to each other that is, but it was just never mentioned at all, except in private and in very hushed tones!

  • Peter Martin 30th Jul '20 - 8:17am

    @ George,

    “Also that I know relatively little about the Grunswick (sic) dispute.”

    That’s not a good admission from a member of a party which supposedly places an emphasis on the equality of all UK citizens regardless of race and gender.

    Especially as you consistently get the spelling wrong!

  • Peter Martin,

    I think your expectations regarding the authors of the pieces linked to are unreasonable. I think George is a few years younger than me. I was studying for my A levels in 1976-78 and George I expect would have been studying for his O levels. I watched the TV News nearly every night, but the Grunwick dispute does not feature in my memories of the news during the 1970’s. (Also while not living in London the regional new was London based and would I expect have covered the dispute as well.) While I do recall there was a dispute at Grunwick, I don’t recall it featuring on the news every night and I don’t recall it being pointed out at the time that it was “first dispute where the majority of strikers were from an ethnic minority and still received widespread support from the labour movement” (Wikipedia) unlike “previous disputes involving immigrant workers”. Perhaps the other authors were of similar ages at the time.

    I wonder how old you were to be on the picket line in Willesden. I also wonder if it was the first picket line you joined.

    Also I think is unreasonable to expect Liberal Democrats to know much Trade Union history even if they joined the SDP in 1981 as the majority of SDP members unlike their MPs had not been a member of any political party before joining the SDP.

  • Peter Martin 30th Jul '20 - 7:17pm

    @ Michael BG,

    I wonder how old you were to be on the picket line in Willesden. I also wonder if it was the first picket line you joined.

    I was 25. Yes, it was the first time I’d been on a picket line.

  • Peter Martin 31st Jul '20 - 6:26am

    @ George,

    The facts of the Grunwick dispute are simple enough. On one level, It was just another workers’ strike over worker dismissals, working conditions and wages.

    Its historical significance arises from with the added complication of accusations of racism and sexism. And not just against their employers. They were against wider British society, including the TU movement’s previous attitudes, too.

    Since when have Lib Dems declined to comment on that because they weren’t “experts” and “didn’t know enough about it”?

  • Peter Martin,

    Thank you for letting us know how old you were I assume in 1976. I can understand why this dispute is important to you. Do you understand that for me it doesn’t have any great importance? I don’t know about the Hertford and Stevenage constituency. I also don’t know if Shirley Williams being on the picket line two years before the general election was a factor in her loss. Michael Mullaney states that the biggest factors were her seat being marginal and within south-east England where Labour lost most of their seats in 1979. You mention the 7660 votes for the Liberal candidate, this was 7.3% down on October 1974, which was down 4.5% on February 1974. There is no way of knowing how many of those who voted Liberal would have voted Labour in this seat in 1979. There is a belief that few Liberal voters would vote Labour if there was no Liberal candidate instead a majority would vote Conservative. I know this was a position taken by Labour councillors when we once discussed if we should stand or not stand in Conservative-Labour marginal wards.

  • Peter Martin 31st Jul '20 - 11:39pm

    @ Micheal BG,

    So you’re saying that anything which happened before about 1980 doesn’t for you, “have any great importance”?

    OK. I see. On that basis the Grunwick dispute doesn’t! There’s no arguing with that!

  • Peter Martin,

    You write “good on Shirley Williams” and point out that she “stood up for the rights of Asian women on the Grunwick picket line”. No one disputes this, but you criticise the writers of the four articles for not pointing this out. And you criticise the readers of this thread for not commenting on it. Having read all four pieces now the only one where mention of the Grunwick dispute would make sense I think is in the Michael Mullaney one, which I referred to above.

    While I accept that the Grunwick dispute does have historical significance I question if it was significant in the loss of the Hertford and Stevenage constituency by Shirley Williams in 1979.

    You spoke of your own involved in the Grunwick dispute, which I was interested to read and which you have put in some context within your life by saying how old you were and that it was the first picket line you joined. I think it was legitimate to compare your personal involvement with my own lack of involvement or memory of it. I do remember news items from the 1970s, but as I said not the news coverage of this dispute.

    The industrial disputes of the 1970s which I do recall are the miners’ strike of 1974 and the winter of discontent 1978-79.

    Whether I remember something taking place at the time is of no importance when considering its historical significance, but the discussion here was not about the historical significance of the Grunwick dispute, but whether the four pieces should have mentioned it. All four pieces were personal reflections of Shirley Williams and none of them tried to set out a history of her political career, therefore I think it was justified to raise my own experience of the news in the 1970s as evidence why when considering Shirley Williams these four writers did not mention Grunwick. It was not my aim to belittle the historical significance of the Grunwick dispute, just point out why knowledge of it by some people might be very limited.

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