SDP founder and ‘true trailblazer’ Shirley Williams dies aged 90

  • Watch an ITV News Anglia report from 2010 to mark the 80th birthday of Baroness Shirley Williams

Shirley Williams, the former Labour cabinet minister who broke away from the party to form the SDP, has died, her current party, the Liberal Democrats, has said. She was 90.

In a statement Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey paid tribute to Baroness Williams of Crosby as a “true trailblazer” who had inspired millions.

As a Labour minister, Lady Williams, served in the governments of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan in the 1970s rising to become education secretary. She was the MP in Hertfordshire from 1964 until 1979.

After losing her seat in Stevenage in the 1979 General Election she became disillusioned with Labour’s drift to the left under Michael Foot and in 1981 she was one of the original “Gang of Four” to leave the party to form the new centrist SDP.

  • Baroness Williams of Crosby talking about her career in politics in 2010.

Sir Ed said that her bravery continued to inspire Liberal Democrats to this day.

“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,” he said.

“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.”

Shirley Williams first tried to enter parliament in Harwich in Essex in a 1954 by-election but had to wait until the 1964 General Election to win in Hitchin in Hertfordshire.

She was the town's MP for ten years until boundary changes moved her constituency to Hertford & Stevenage. She lost that seat in the 1979 election when Margaret Thatcher swept Labour out of power.

Picture from 1985 of Shirley Williams speaking at the SDP conference

Sir Lindsay Hoyle, Speaker of the House of Commons, 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.’