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Never Underestimate An July Old Lady Who Loves Cats Shirt, hoodie, tank top
Shirley Williams, Lady Williams of Crosby, who has died aged 90, was one of the most influential figures in British social democracy in the latter half of the 20th century. The former Labour cabinet minister who defected to co-found the Social Democratic party, of which she then became president, later served as leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords after the merger between the SDP and the Liberal party. Never Underestimate An July Old Lady Who Loves Cats Shirt, hoodie, tank top
A dedicated egalitarian, she was the minister responsible for the abolition of the socially divisive 11-plus examination in most education authorities. She was an internationalist with a distinguished academic record, and in her later years spent more than a decade as professor of elective politics at the John F Kennedy school of government, Harvard University.
Although one of the most highly achieving women in British politics and one of the most popular with the electorate, Williams was self-deprecating about her suitability for the top posts, something she ascribed to a lack of self-belief, common among women of her generation and earlier ones. While still a cabinet minister, she ran against Michael Foot for the deputy leadership of the Labour party in 1976 (after Harold Wilson stood down) but never stood as a candidate for the top job.
She was the first member of the SDP to be elected as an MP – at the Crosby byelection in November 1981, when she sensationally overturned a Conservative majority of 19,727 to win by 5,289 – but then in effect conceded the leadership of the new party to her co-founder, Roy Jenkins. Refusing to stand for the post of parliamentary leader herself, despite strong indications that she would have won against Jenkins, instead she nominated David Owen for the contest and accepted the role of president.
Williams’s biggest political mistake, by her own admission, came earlier. The SDP had been launched by the so-called Gang of Four, Williams, Jenkins, Owen and Bill Rodgers, in January 1981 in protest at the Labour party’s leftward drift. The new party attracted great public support, much of it from people who had not previously belonged to a political party, and the hope was that it might “break the mould” of British politics. But in July 1981 Williams refused an invitation to fight as the SDP candidate in a byelection at Warrington, Cheshire, a moderate Labour seat with a sizeable Catholic community reflecting both her own religious and political commitments.