Baroness Shirley Williams dies at the age of 90

12 April 2021, 16:04 | Updated: 12 April 2021, 16:11

The former cabinet minister and Liberal Democrat peer, Baroness Williams of Crosby, has died aged 90
The former cabinet minister and Liberal Democrat peer, Baroness Williams of Crosby, has died aged 90. Picture: PA

By Kate Buck

The former cabinet minister and Liberal Democrat peer, Baroness Williams of Crosby, has died aged 90, the Liberal Democrats have said.

Baroness Williams - better known as Shirley Williams - was one of the disenchanted ex-Labour Cabinet ministers who became the Gang of Four founders of the breakaway and short-lived Social Democratic Party.

Throughout her political career, both in the Labour Party and subsequently the SDP and then the Liberal Democrats, Williams was a passionate pro-European.

She was a busy, breathless, tousle-haired intellectual who acquired an unwanted reputation for missing trains or going to the wrong venue for meetings. That was how she became affectionately known as Shilly Shally Shirley.

Once Lady Astor told her: "You will never get anywhere in politics with hair like that."

And although in her early political life she surprisingly regarded herself as left-of-centre in Labour terms, she came to be reviled by the party's left who denounced her as a traitor to the movement after her defection to the SDP.

This was when, along with scores of other Labour Party members, she became appalled at the leftward lurch of the movement, and quit to help form what was dreamed of as the all-conquering party of the centre ground.

She is largely remembered for her period as Education Secretary in the years before Margaret Thatcher swept to power. She is blamed to this day as the architect of the controversial comprehensive system.

At one time, there was serious talk of Williams becoming Britain's first woman Prime Minister, but it was not to be. She herself outwardly showed no ambition in this direction and she was anyway viewed, in political terms, more as a perpetual lieutenant rather than a general.

Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey said: "This is heartbreaking for me and for our whole Liberal Democrat family.

"Shirley has been an inspiration to millions, a Liberal lion and a true trailblazer. I feel privileged to have known her, listened to her and worked with her. Like so many others, I will miss her terribly.

"Political life will be poorer without her intellect, her wisdom and her generosity. Shirley had a limitless empathy only too rare in politics today; she connected with people, cared about their lives and saw politics as a crucial tool to change lives for the better.

"As a young Liberal, Shirley Williams had a profound impact on me, as she did on countless others across the political spectrum. Her vision and bravery, not least in founding the SDP, continues to inspire Liberal Democrats today.

"Rest in peace, Shirley. My thoughts and prayers are with your family and your friends."

Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle said Baroness Williams was a "trailblazer" for women.

He said: "Baroness Shirley Williams enjoyed politics massively - it meant the most enormous amount to her - and if she felt she could do some good in the world, she was happy.

"She loved elections - and continued campaigning long after she ceased to be an MP - liking nothing better than engaging in debate with people and politicians.

"She was a trailblazer for women and education, one of the first women to sit in Cabinet and the only female member of the 'Gang of Four'.

"Without doubt, she was one of a kind, and a character we all shall miss."