Shirley Williams

(1930-2021) – Politician and academic

Shirley Williams (Catlin) grew up in London. Her mother was the writer and Somervillian Vera Brittain. Williams came to Somerville in 1948 to read PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) and was the first woman Chair of the Oxford Labour Club. After graduation, she won a Fulbright scholarship to Columbia University in New York, later returning to the UK to work as a journalist, and then as General Secretary of the Fabian Society.

Williams’ political career took off when she was elected Labour MP for the constituency of Hitchin in 1964, and she rose to become shadow Home Secretary in 1971. When Labour returned to power in 1974, she was promoted to Cabinet, becoming Secretary of State for Education and Science in 1976. She lost her seat in 1979. With the Labour party becoming increasingly left wing, she joined with fellow senior labour MPs Roy Jenkins, David Owen and Bill Rodgers to form the Social Democratic Party in 1981. In the same year following a by-election, she became the country’s first SDP MP. Following a split in the SDP in 1987, the majority of its members voted in favour of a merger with the Liberals which become the foundation of the Liberal Democrat party. In 1993 she took her seat in the House of Lords as Baroness Williams of Crosby and was leader of the Liberal Democrats in that House from 2001 to 2004. Williams was the only British member of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND) and was advisor to Prime Minister Gordon Brown on nuclear proliferation from 2007-2010.

Alongside her political career, Williams also worked as an academic. In 1987, she became Professor of Elective Politics at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. She also served on the Senior Advisory Committee of Harvard’s Institute of Politics and was involved in the development of emerging democracies in Eastern Europe.

Read our obituary for Baroness Williams here.

Shirley Williams on Somerville ‘An Oxford education is, at its best, a fine training for the mind, but a Somerville education brings something else over and above that: a tenacity and persistence that gets things done… For me, the lessons of a childhood shared with a great Somervillian, and of a life lived and shaped by Somerville, are these: think, write and read, always; live and work vividly, and bring your mind to bear on everything, from the tiniest practical problem to the widest social issue; respect the views of others, and of the past, but don’t let that stop you being awkward when you need to be. Argue for what you believe, and do it well.’

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