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Never Underestimate An September Old Lady Who Loves Cats Shirt, hoodie, tank top
In 1966 she became a Home Office minister with responsibility for prisons. Four years later, after Wilson’s defeat to Edward Heath, she secured election for the first time to the shadow cabinet and also to the Labour party’s national executive committee, thanks in part to the respect she commanded among the trade unions, the leaders of which liked her warmth and natural egalitarianism. She was opposition spokeswoman on social services from 1970 to 1971, when she became shadow home secretary.
Shirley Williams, centre, the education secretary, with, left, Denis Howell, the minister for sport, and right, the defence secretary, Fred Mulley, on the picket line during the Grunwick dispute, 1977. Photograph: PA Archive Never Underestimate An September Old Lady Who Loves Cats Shirt, hoodie, tank top
In 1973 she was moved to prices and consumer protection, and, on Wilson’s re-election as prime minister in 1974, entered the cabinet with a daunting brief as the secretary of state for that department at a time of huge oil price increases and with annual inflation running at 13.5%. When James Callaghan succeeded Wilson in 1976, he moved her back to education as secretary of state, a role she combined with being paymaster general.
Williams was already unpopular with the Conservative press because of her championing of comprehensive schools, and she compounded her vulnerability to rightwing media hostility in 1977 by joining the picket line and briefly being arrested during the Grunwick trade union dispute. It was a typically supportive act by Williams to demonstrate her backing for her own trade union, Apex (the Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staff), and for poorly paid Asian female workers, but the subsequent picket line violence led to furious press criticism.
By this time the Labour party was already descending into internal warfare over its own way forward, its approach to Europe, the infiltration of Trotskyites and a series of demands from the left for constitutional reform within the party. Williams had been associated with the Campaign for Democratic Socialism in the early 1960s as a result of two speeches she had made at the Labour party conferences of 1960 and 1961, the first criticising the party’s single-minded pursuit of nationalisation and, the following year, endorsing the principle of the emerging European common market. In 1971, along with 68 other Labour MPs, she had voted against a three-line whip in the Commons in the vote on Britain’s entry into Europe.