The leader of the Liberal Democrats has paid tribute to Baroness Shirley Williams as a “Liberal lion” and “true trailblazer” after the former UK cabinet minister and peer died on Monday aged 90.
Williams was a leading figure fighting on the centre-left of British politics for more than half a century, most dramatically when she joined the “Gang of Four” former ministers who quit a leftward lurching Labour party in 1981 to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP).
Ed Davey, speaking after the Liberal party announced on behalf of her family that Williams had died peacefully in the early hours of Monday morning, said the announcement was “heartbreaking” for him and “the whole Liberal Democrat family”.
“Shirley has been an inspiration to millions, a Liberal lion and a true trailblazer,” Davey said. “Political life will be poorer without her intellect, her wisdom and her generosity.”
Sir Lindsay Hoyle, Speaker of the House of Commons, called Williams a “trailblazer for women and education”. He pointed out she was one of the first women to sit in the Cabinet, appointed by Harold Wilson in 1974.
“Without doubt, she was one of a kind, and a character we all shall miss,” Hoyle said.
The tributes followed a parliamentary career that saw her serve in both chambers of parliament and three parties, as well as pursuing a considerable academic career.
Williams was first elected as a Labour MP for Hitchin in 1964 and represented the Hertfordshire seat until she was defeated in the Conservatives’ election victory in 1979 that brought Margaret Thatcher to power.
She served in Labour cabinets from 1974 until 1979, mostly notably as education secretary, where she oversaw the completion of the 15-year process of turning most English state secondary schools into non-selective comprehensives.
However, her most significant political role was as one of the leaders of the breakaway of the social-democratic right of the Labour party then under the leadership of Michael Foot.
Williams — who formed the “Gang of Four” along with David Owen, Roy Jenkins and Bill Rodgers — won the Crosby by-election for the SDP in 1981. She was one of the most prominent public faces as the party briefly looked set to fulfil its promise to “break the mould” of British politics, touching 50 per cent support levels in opinion polls.
After the party’s initial promise faded, she helped to lead most of the party into the merger with the Liberal party that in 1988 formed the Liberal Democratic party. She sat in the House of Lords as a peer for the Liberal Democrats from 1993 until retiring in 2016.
Dick Newby, leader of the Liberal Democrats in the Lords — a position Williams held from 2001 to 2004 — called her a “charismatic, committed and fearless politician”.
Williams lived in the US from 1988 to 2001, teaching as a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. She retained links with the institution after returning to the UK.