Shirley Williams – a tribute

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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 was passionate about the things she believed in – principally social justice and Europe. She was fearless in advocating these things and was prepared to take political hostility head on to promote them.

But what set Shirley apart from any other politicians 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.

One episode sums this up for me. 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 – 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.

Leaving the Labour Party was particularly hard for Shirley, because she always remained popular within its ranks and could have expected further promotion – and possibly the leadership. But having done so, she 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. And her eloquence, directness and popularity gained the new Party regular media appearances which were part of the oxygen necessary for our future successes.

Shirley gained 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 impossible 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.

In an era when politicians are widely distrusted, Shirley was the antithesis of this popular view. She was trusted and admired by millions. As I write this, my phone has rung with someone who had never met Shirley but wanted to express his condolences for someone he described as a “legend”. He was right. She was. And we will miss her.

* Dick Newby is the Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords.

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3 Comments

  • Peter Martin 13th Apr '21 - 1:40pm

    I liked Shirley too. A lot. I first met her on the Grunwick picket line when I was working in London and she was involved in that struggle too. She chatted freely to us all. It can be pretty boring on a picket line so there is usually plenty of time to have a good discussion.

    I mentioned this on LDV not too long ago and was surprised to find that hardly anyone knew or remembered the struggle of a group of Asian women to be treated with some respect in the workplace. To me, as a socialist, it was clearly a matter of class solidarity at the time. To Liberals it should have been about support for an ethnic minority. But there were no Liberals there on the line. Probably, for Shirley it was about both. She was still in the Labour Party at the time.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grunwick_dispute

  • John Littler 2nd May '21 - 4:54pm

    RIP Shirley
    There will be no more like that original. Shirl was a Class Act

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