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Shirley Williams R.I.P., Christian and Catholic

23 April 2021

Richard Harries tells of his admiration for the veteran politician

WHEN the Social Democratic Party (SDP) bubble burst, it was said that the Church of England — once the Conservative Party at prayer, then the Labour Party at the parish eucharist — had now become the SDP at a house group. This may have been because members of the Church of England like to think of themselves as reasonable people, and, as has been well said, Shirley Williams had “become everyone’s idea of a reasonable person in politics” (Obituary, The Times, 13 April).

Her faith as a Christian and a Roman Catholic was an entirely natural and fundamental part of her being. This faith entranced her senses when she was taken to mass as a young child, as described in her autobiography Climbing the Bookshelves: “The insistent rise and fall of Gregorian chant and the smell of incense infused my being, and became the sensual context of the Sabbath.”

It was through her father, Sir George Catlin, that the faith entered her mind. He had become a Roman Catholic as a result of reading Newman, a faith later deepened after he survived being torpedoed in the Atlantic. After mass, he took his daughter to the Pier Hotel, Chelsea, for coffee and an hour or more of discussion on philosophy and theology.

Although Baroness Williams got her political passion and campaigning zeal from her famous mother, Vera Brittain, the feminist and pacifist, it was her father who shaped her intellectual outlook. Her parents, wanting to leave the choice to her, did not have her baptised as a child. This she chose to do later.

Unlike Chris Patten, her contemporary as a prominent RC politician, Shirley Williams did not have a close relationship with either the English hierarchy or the Vatican. This was, no doubt, partly because of her views. She opposed the Vatican ban on contraception, and supported the idea of both married and women priests. She refused to sign up for the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC), and generally kept a low profile on the issue of abortion.

She also disagreed with a committee that I chaired over the issue of stem-cell research, which involves the destruction of fertilised eggs up to the age of 14 days. She believed that the same results could be achieved by other means.

At St Paul’s School, she was part of a rebellious trio with Gillian Ayres and Helen Meyer, who went on to become artists. Once, they climbed over the roof of the school, only just avoiding expulsion as a result. Perhaps this rebellious streak was part of her popular appeal, which was huge, as indicated by the way in which she turned a 19,000 Conservative majority into a lead of 5000 for the SDP in the 1981 Crosby by-election.


BECAUSE she became so involved with talking to people, the stories about her being late for events were legion. But, once she was on a platform, and without notes, beautifully formulated sentences followed one after another in a fusion of passion and intelligence which was mesmerising. When she lost her seat in Hitchin, in 1979, it was almost as if a national day of mourning had been declared, so fulsome were comments from all political parties.

Many people hoped that she would be our first woman Prime Minister. Since her death, the papers have been full of the reasons that this did not happen: bad luck, a wrong judgement, a lack of confidence, and so on. All of them miss the two fundamental points. First, she was completely given over to the issues that she cared about, which included getting her party elected. Unlike too many politicians, she did not spend time plotting her own path to the top.

Second, the men around her were so intent on pursuing their own leadership hopes that they were unwilling to acknowledge that Shirley, with her great popular appeal, might actually be the better contender. They wanted her as an ally, and they wanted her followers, but could not put themselves in the position of seeing her as their leader. “Shirley I regarded as a great prize,” Roy Jenkins wrote in his autobiography A Life at the Centre.


SHE was as unostentatious in her religion as she was in her person. But it was none the less very real. On her walks in the Chilterns, she always liked to get back in time to drive back home and take her grandchildren to Saturday-evening mass.

When her first husband, the distinguished philosopher Bernard Williams, went off with another woman, this was a great source of sadness to her. So, too, was the fact that, as a result of not being able to obtain an annulment, she did not feel free to marry Anthony King, with whom she had later fallen in love.

From her earliest days at school, Shirley Williams wanted to change the world for the better, and she never gave up working to that end, always exuding a sense of conviction that things could be different.

At the same time, it was based on a sober realism. A glimpse of that is revealed in her words: “I think that the appropriate prayer for our times is, ‘Lord have mercy,’ because, over and over again, I feel the desperate need for mercy, as human behaviour is so unreasonable: it hasn’t improved.”


Baroness Williams of Crosby died on 11 April, aged 90. The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford, and an Hon. Professor of Theology at King’s College, London. His latest book is Seeing God in Art: The Christian faith in 30 images (SPCK, 2020) (Books, 9 April 2020).

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