13 April 2021

Professor the Baroness Shirley Williams of Crosby

27 July 1930 – 12 April 2021


About twenty years ago, when I first organised an event that included Shirley Williams as a speaker, I called her office to check how she would like to be listed.  The first surprise was, ‘Hello, Shirley speaking. How can I help?’  I learned quickly that a call to her office was likely to be picked up by the then Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords herself.  The second surprise was that she wished her listing on our event information to recognise her place as a professorial colleague among her fellow academics; she did not mind whether the Baroness bit was mentioned or not.

Shirley Williams’ association with Harvard University began in 1979 when, still a member of the Labour Party, she first accepted a Fellowship at the Institute of Politics at the John F Kennedy School of Government.  Almost a decade later, having played a key part in the contemporary reconfiguration of UK political parties, Shirley took up a professorship at the Kennedy School, served for some time as Acting Director of the Institute of Politics, and, after 2001, continued as the Public Service Professor of Electoral Politics Emerita.

Shirley Williams and her husband Professor Richard Neustadt were both interested in the work of the American Politics Group and generous in the attention that they afforded to us and our occasional partners in promoting events.  In 2005 Shirley spoke on a panel that we sponsored jointly with the Academy of Social Sciences and the Eccles Centre for American Studies.  She arrived clutching a scrap of paper noting a small number of points jotted down during her journey on the Underground.  Alongside the academics with their prepared papers, she spoke eloquently, and the transcribed text was published in the launch issue of the Academy’s journal.

I had experience of her speaking style from a couple of years earlier when she had delivered the Eccles Centre’s annual Douglas W. Bryant Lecture.  This time when I called the office it was one of her excellent staff who picked up the phone.  Having checked that they had all the event details I reminded them that the lecture would be published, so we would appreciate a copy of her text at some point.  There was a brief silence, ‘Shirley doesn’t speak from texts.’  The discussion that ensued, around the likelihood of producing something publishable from whatever notes she made for the occasion, was inconclusive.  On the evening we thought for some minutes that we had lost our speaker altogether, until she was persuaded to finish an engrossing conversation with an audience member that they were conducting in the Ladies toilets.  We recorded the event, a colleague carefully transcribed Shirley’s words, and we discovered that one reason Shirley Williams was such an engaging speaker was that even without a text in front of her she spoke in erudite, meaningful paragraphs, apparently effortlessly.

In November 2013 I was on a train leaving Waterloo to reach Runnymede for an event to mark the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s death.  A substantial proportion of the train’s passengers that day were on the same errand.  As the train pulled away, Shirley stepped into the carriage (my experience of her timekeeping was that she generally arrived with nerve-jangling accuracy).  Half the carriage looked her way, said ‘Shirley…’  She surveyed the assembled crowd and announced, ‘I’ll sit with Phil.  It’s a day for American politics and discussing that is always so interesting.’  Her continued interest in American politics, and in the academics who research it, was also evidenced by her repeated attendance at many of the American Politics Group’s colloquia, hosted annually in recent years by the Eccles Centre at the British Library and previously at the US Embassy.  She always tried to attend in order to present the APG’s annual Richard Neustadt Book Prize.  She invariably requested a copy of the winning book, and always had something interesting to say about the book, and its connections to her late husband’s work.  Sometimes this appointment was fitted tightly into a busy day, sometimes there was time to spare, and we might end the day going out for a pizza to talk some more, and somehow there was always more that was interesting to talk about.

Professor Shirley Williams last joined the members of the American Politics Group at the November 2019 colloquium.  She presented the Richard E. Neustadt Book Prize to Barbara Allen (Carleton College, Minnesota) and Daniel Stevens (Exeter University) for their volume Trust in Advertising: Lies in Political Advertising and How They Affect the Electorate.  Professor Allen flew from the USA especially to receive the award personally from Baroness Williams.  As always, Shirley spoke with great feeling and from a depth of knowledge and experience.  I recalled the title of her Bryant Lecture, almost 20 years before, a phrase she had chosen from the US Declaration of Independence: ‘A Decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind…’: it seems to encapsulate what she looked for both in political and academic life.


Philip John Davies