Shirley Williams: Liberal Lion and Trailblazer

When Shirley Williams died in April 2021, Sir Ed Davey paid tribute to a “a Liberal lion” and remembered her as a “trailblazer” and an “inspiration to millions”. 

There were many other affectionate tributes. Unusually for a politician, Shirley was widely loved during her lifetime. David Steel once described her as “a national treasure, rather like the late Queen Mum”. As a Liberal Democrat icon, she stood alongside Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy.

Shirley Williams was, after all, the most popular of the “Gang of Four” who broke away from Labour in 1981 and formed the Social Democratic Party (SDP). Roy Jenkins and David Owen provided the political weight and gravitas, but Shirley provided the personal warmth and empathy. With her stunning victory at the Crosby by-election in November 1981, she was the first candidate to be elected as an MP under the new party’s banner. “Shirl the Pearl”, as she was known, later became the first president of the SDP. 

Even so, her broad and enduring popularity was, in some ways, remarkable. Shirley last held government office in 1979 –as education secretary in Jim Callaghan’s ill-fated Labour government, from when she was best remembered for expanding the comprehensive school system. She passed up the chance to contest the SDP’s first leadership election in 1982 and lost Crosby the following year, a victim of adverse boundary changes, and never returned to the Commons. 

So, how do we explain Shirley’s lasting adoration? Part of was due to her ubiquity in the media. She appeared on the BBC’s Question Time a record 58 times and wrote regular columns for The Guardian and other publications. Then there was the range of progressive causes she championed: civil liberties, political reform, multilateral nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation and, of course, Britain’s destiny as part of the European Union. 

But what made Shirley Williams so special was the way which she articulated her political views. She always spoke clearly and directly, combining charm and eloquence. She came across as thoughtful and logical, as well as authentic and sincere. With her passionate advocacy of a fair and tolerant society Shirley energised liberals over many years. 

At our Spring Conference fringe meeting, the Liberal Democrat History Group will assess the life and legacy of Shirley Williams. Our guest speakers will be Mark Peel (author, Shirley Williams: The Biography), Lord Tom McNally and Baroness Julie Smith. The meeting will take place on Friday 17th March 2023 at 8:15 p.m., in Meeting Room 3 & 4, Novotel York Centre, Fishergate, York YO10 4FD. We look forward to seeing you there.


* Neil Stockley works as a communications and policy strategist focused on energy, transport and the digital economy. He has chaired policy working groups on climate change and net zero for the Liberal Democrats.

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