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Shirley Williams

(b. 1930)


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(b. London, 27 July 1930)

British; Secretary of State for Education 1976–9; Baroness (life peer) 1993 Shirley Williams's parents were both involved in public affairs. They were the political scientist Professor George Catlin and the writer Vera Brittan. She was educated at Oxford and Columbia universities and her first employment was as a journalist. She was elected Labour MP for Hitchin in 1964 and held the seat until 1974, when she moved to Hertford and Stevenage and held the seat until 1979.

Mrs Williams was on the right of the Labour Party, a supporter of Hugh Gaitskell. She favoured liberal social policies, the mixed economy, and redistribution. But, unlike Gaitskell, she was a pro-European. She held junior posts towards the end of Harold Wilson's 1966–70 government. In Opposition she was elected to the shadow Cabinet in 1971. As a member of Wilson's 1974–6 Labour government she was Cabinet Minister for Prices and Consumer Protection. At the time the government had a ‘social contract’ with the trade unions, a key part of the government's anti-inflation policy. In this post she pressed for government subsidies to moderate increases in council house rents and food prices.

Under Wilson's successor, James Callaghan, she was moved to Education and Science and continued to implement the party's policy of comprehensive education. But this was also a time when the political right made issues of educational standards and parental choice.

Labour lost the 1979 election and as the party moved to the left she was one of the original Gang of Four, along with Owen and Jenkins, who left Labour to form the Social Democratic Party. She was elected president of the new party in 1982. In 1981 she returned to parliament by capturing the safe Conservative seat of Crosby for the SDP at a by-election. She lost the seat in the 1983 general election. She supported the merger of the Liberals and SDP to form the Liberal Democrats.

Subsequently, Shirley Williams took an academic post at Harvard University, USA, which she held until 2000, when she became emeritus professor of elective politics. She entered the House of Lords in 1993 and led the Liberal Democrats there from 2001 to 2004. In 2007, she accepted an invitation from Gordon Brown to be an adviser to him on nuclear proliferation, a step criticized by some Liberal Democrats. She continues to lecture and to speak out on the political concerns of the day.

Subjects: Politics.


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