Baroness Williams of Crosby, Shirley Williams, who died on April 11 at the age of 90, was closely associated with the Council for Education in the Commonwealth (CEC) for over 50 years.
Her support for the Council and its work spanned her whole Parliamentary career which began as Labour MP for Hitchin in 1964, continued through two periods of Labour Governments when she held senior ministerial posts in education, succeeded by a decade in the Social Democratic Party as one of the ‘Gang of Four’ and in her final three decades as a Liberal Democrat Peer in the House of Lords
Shirley Williams joined CEC in 1964 as a newly elected Labour MP and soon found herself taking the Chair at meetings after our Labour Party co-founder George Thomson was appointed to ministerial office in the new Wilson Government. However Shirley herself soon had to leave our active ranks on being appointed as Minister of State for Education in the Wilson Government of 1966-70. During the 1970s she took a close interest in international student issues and CEC’s campaigning to maintain access for Commonwealth students. When James Callaghan succeeded Harold Wilson in 1976 he soon appointed her to be Secretary of State of Education and she found herself having to take difficult decisions to contain the public subsidisation of overseas students by increasing differential fees for international students and introducing quotas. On at least one occasion she received a CEC delegation at Elizabeth House to discuss this and other issues. (Her period as Secretary of State is perhaps best remembered, however, for completion of the conversion of the secondary education system to comprehensive schooling).
Shirley Williams briefly re-entered Parliament for the Crosby constituency as a Social Democrat (a party that George Thomson also joined) but lost her seat in 1983 and only re-engaged in Westminster affairs after being made a Liberal Democrat peer in 1993 – she remained in the House of Lords until 2016. From that position she championed socially liberal causes and internationalism abroad, especially UK membership of the European community. She retained her interest in CEC, attending our meetings in Parliament whenever she was able, asking questions in the Lords about Commonwealth educational co-operation and Commonwealth Scholarships, and attending CEC’s annual Parliamentary Tea Receptions for Commonwealth Scholars held every summer in the Palace of Westminster.
Shirley Williams was a true friend of CEC and we shall miss both her helpfulness and informality, her strong commitment to equality and the extension of educational opportunities for all, and her passionate advocacy of international friendship and cooperation. We extend our deep condolences for their loss to her daughter and other family members.