Liberal Democrat Voice pays tribute to Shirley Williams

Members of the Liberal Democrat Voice team pay tribute to Shirley Williams

Paul Walter:
I took the (rather fuzzy) photo of Shirley (above) at the Spring Conference in Brighton in 2013.

My mother is not “Political” although she has a great political understanding, with a small “p”.

Back in the late 1960s, she saw Shirley Williams as her favourite politician. Simply because she was, in my mother’s words, “so sensible”,

I knew what she meant. There was always something about how Shirley spoke.

In debates she would never get heated or involved in “argy-bargy”. She would listen carefully to the opposing views, with her head slightly leaning to one side, and take notes. (In fact, reviewing photos of Shirley over the years, I see that she often had her head leaning slightly to one side as if to emphasise that she was listening). When it came to her turn to speak, she would be absolutely devastating (to the opposition) because she would be composed, informed, “as sharp as a tack” and take down the opposing view with extreme precision. In doing so, she always appeared to be totally calm but absolutely precise.

I saw her once when an audience member, in the Q&A, challenged her on one of the things she had said during her speech. She had said the actual words, referred to by the audience member, about 30 minutes previously. The audience member had wrongly interpreted her words and, indeed, misquoted her. Shirley replied by correcting the audience member and perfectly quoting, word for word, exactly what she had said – even though she said it 30 minutes beforehand and was, by then, well into her eighties. Let’s just say that the audience member was put very firmly in their place – with great politeness but with unyielding accuracy.

As Tim Farron said in his Twitter tribute to Shirley, they say you should never meet your heroes and that Shirley was an exception to the rule.

That was absolutely true in Shirley’s case.

I was once a conference steward in the main fringe meeting hotel. My job was to answer queries about the whereabouts of the meetings and point in the right direction and, if there was enough time, actually walk with the person to the room. This was because the hotel was an absolute rabbit warren. It was easy to get lost.

Of course, I saw Shirley walking towards me (again, well into her eighties) and thought “now’s my chance to bask in her reflected glory”. I was delighted when she asked me where the meeting for XYZ was being held. Of course, I said “I’ll show you”. She, of course, replied “I think I can find it by my self”. I replied “But I would like to show your very good self to it”.

Bless her, she said “OK then”. I then had the privilege and the pleasure of escorting her up several flights of stairs, through several corridors and down a ramp. She was very chatty and friendly, talking about how she got up at 5am to catch the train from London. They were a few moments that I will always treasure.

At the Q&A referred to above, I asked Shirley whether it was true that she was auditioned for a part in the film “National Velvet”. She proceeded to tell us the amusing story.

Another little amusing anecdote was when she took her small daughter into the Department of Education in the 70s. She remarked about the reaction of the civil servants: “You would have thought they had never seen a child before”. We should remember that Shirley was a real trail-blazer. Her and Barbara Castle were, more or less, the first high profile female ministers in this country. And both of them had more column inches written about their hair than what they said and did. But Shirley bore this all with great grace.

We’ll never see the like of Shirley again. An absolutely brilliant mind, a brilliant communicator and a remarkably self-effacing and friendly person.

Mary Reid:

Shirley Williams was my personal political inspiration, dating back to long before she left Labour. Along with Roy Jenkins, she talked more sense, and brought in more liberal legislation, than any of her contemporaries, of any party. She was  intelligent, perceptive, gently challenging and decisive. And a lovely person.

In my memoirs I have written:

In the summer of 1996 I found myself sitting next to Shirley Williams. I had been invited as Mayoress to a women’s lunch by the local Chamber of Commerce, so I grasped the opportunity to chat with her about the difficulties of combining career, family and a political life.

She was very encouraging and said “Just do it”.

So the next day I put my name forward to the local party as a candidate for Kingston Council.

I didn’t have to wait long. Sadly, Ian’s fellow councillor for Hook ward at the time suffered a stroke and she decided to stand down, and I was selected as the candidate.

I have much to thank her for.

Caron Lindsay:

They say you should never meet your heroes because you will be disappointed.

That was never the case with Shirley Williams. She was everything you wanted her to be and more. When I shyly approached her to ask her to sign her book when I was a teenager, she took time to talk to me and I no doubt made her characteristically late for her next meeting.

She was unfailingly kind, and she had this knack of making you feel special. She would remember who you were, no mean feat for someone who met a lot of people.

She was the reason so many people of my generation got involved in politics. Her passion to tackle inequality, to banish unemployment, to bring people together motivated and invigorated us.

She’s been a key influence on my politics and my way of thinking and I owe her an awful lot for that.

She has also been open about the rampant sexism and sexual harassment women MPs of her generation faced and did so much to get more women elected.

My personal Shirley highlight came in 2014, when she came to Dunfermline during the last week of the independence referendum campaign.  People were queuing up to talk to her, including young people. It was an incredible reception for someone who had last held Government office 35 years before. One particularly touching moment came when a Yes campaigner came to talk to her about how she has always admired her. Shirley talked to her for a good ten minutes, holding her hand. It was a rare moment of harmony in what had been a horribly divisive campaign.

She was my hero and her loss really hurts.


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This entry was posted in Obituaries.


  • Helen Dudden 13th Apr '21 - 9:03pm

    I admire the courage of a woman who stood for what she believed in.
    May she rest in peace, and her family have long life.

  • Peter Martin 14th Apr '21 - 5:18am

    It is interesting to look at the voting figures of the Hertford and Stevenage constituency during the time Shirley was the MP there. In the three elections between 1974, when the seat was formed, and 1979 when she lost to the Tories, her vote stayed remarkably steady at around the 30k mark.

    On the other hand, the Liberal vote halved from its initial 15k+ as the Tory vote increased from 22k to overtake Shirley’s 30k in the 1979 election.

    So does this mean that even when Labour fields a candidate that Liberals supposedly like, they would still rather vote Tory to get them out?

  • @ Peter Martin Interesting you say that, Peter, because it’s certainly what happened historically in the 1924 General Election with Reds under the bed.

    Equally it could be that a number of former Labour voting Alf Garnett/the only way is Essex type characters moved out of London to Stevenage and thought a change of voting habit would match their new ‘status’.

    Here’s what Shirley thought : BBC Rewind: Shirley Williams loses Hertford and Stevenage … › news › uk-politics-29932215
    Robin Day interviews Shirley Williams in the wake of her shock defeat in the 1979 general election.

  • Peter Martin 14th Apr '21 - 10:39am

    @ David,

    Yes Shirley, in a very gracious interview in which she rightly ignores Robin Day’s sexist comments, mentions the decline in the Liberal vote which the Tories then picked up as a significant factor.

    Often, the assumption is that the LibDems are part of an anti-Tory alliance. I’ve always thought they were more part of an anti-Labour allaince. Shirley’s comments support this view. It’s better for Labour if the Libs do well. This splits the anti-Labour vote in our FPTP system.

  • Hertford is a well to do rural Tory Shire. It used to be that you would be taking your life in your hands as a stranger walking into a pub in the new town of Stevenage, but is has mellowed these days.
    The Liberal Vote declined nationally from 1974 to 1979 (during the Jeremy Thorpe affair) – Feb 74 (19.3%), Oct 74 (18.3%), 1979 (13.8%) and much of it went to Thatcher in 1979 after the Lib/Lab pact. The new constituency of Hereford and Storford has been solid Conservative since formation. LibDems overtook Labour in 2nd place in 2010, but dropped back to 3rd in 2015. The SDP challenged the Conservatives in Stevenage in the 1980s (maybe Shirley’s legacy). Labour took the seat in their 1997 Landslide, but it went Conservative in 2010. UKIP garnered 14.5% of the vote in 2015 when the LibDem vote collapsed, but the seat remained a Conservative one, as it does to this day.
    I think Shirley was one of those politicians that could appeal across party lines and always garnered a strong personal vote.

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