Shirley Williams: British Pol Comes to America

In the intellectual reaches of the Kennedy School of Government, there's a politician News week once called "a frumpy reformer with a common touch."

One of Harvard's emigre British scholars, Professor of Electoral Politics Shirley Williams--a veteran of 30 years of government service--has taken a hiatus from the rollercoaster of British politics to accept an appointment at the Kennedy School.

Williams, who was touted 10 years ago as a candidate to become Britian's first female prime minister, has held two different Parliament seats, several appointments in the British Cabinet and the presidency of an important political party.

Although she is taking a break from politics, Williams says she intends to remain abreast of developments in England and looks ahead to the next general election in 1991 or 1992. "I don't see myself as having left home, and I will return to England at least once a month," she says.

Williams, who was a fellow at the K-School's Institute of Politics in 1979-1980, says she hopes her current appointment as professor of electoral politics will give her an opportunity to "work on a new agenda for the opposition parties...and sit down and look at our problems with people from other countries." She says, "The Kennedy School is quite a good place to do it." She also covered this fall's American presidential election for the BBC and may write a book.


Williams has seen her share of success and failure in British politics. After three tries, she won a seat in the House of Commons in 1964 as a member of the Labour Party. Fifteen eventful years later, Williams was ousted in Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Party landslide. "It is a difficult thing, the British system of politics," she says. "The party is terribly important. You go up and down with it."

And two years after that, Williams defected from the Labour Party to co-found the Social Democratic Party, becoming the first person to win a seat in Parliament as a member of the new party. She served as president of the Social Democrats until the party formally merged with England's Liberal Party.

But Williams lost her seat in the 1983 general election when redistricting made her region "unwinnable" for a Social Democrat, another episode in what she calls a "snakes and ladders" political career. "There was always an element of risk," she says of her two stints in Parliament as a liberal representing marginal to conservative districts.

In 1983, the alliance of the Social Democrats and Liberals saw their representation in Parliament shrink from 25 to six. Although "people liked our policies," Williams says, "we tried to fight with two leaders [and two parties]." The Conservative Party swept to a majority in Parliament in 1987, and against a divided opposition, Thatcher won reelection to Prime Minister with only 43 percent of the popular vote.

When the Social Democratic Party and the Liberal Party formally merged this January, the new party elected a new leader and a new president. Though Williams could have sought election in the new party, she opted "for something new." She says, "Given the new [leadership]. I thought it would be much easier for them to take over if I wasn't around."

In addition. she says she was interested in visiting the United States because her new husband, Richard E. Neustadt, is Harvard's Dillon Professor of Government.

Looking ahead to the next British general election in 1991 or 1992, Williams says, "Certainly I will go back." Though she has no definite political plans, she says that someone of her seniority would normally qualify for appointment to the House of Lords. But she observes with amusement that since it is the Prime Minister who decides on such appointments, an invitation to join the House of Lords "would take an excess of benevolence" on Thatcher's part.

William's entire political career has been characterized by risks; and yet one Labour member was moved to comment, "Acknowledging Mrs. Williams' extraordinary ability to walk spotless through the minefield of party politics requires neither graciousness nor chivalry. It is a simple fact."

"You need to like people, and I do a lot," Williams says of politics. Whether campaigning from door to door or traveling to work by public transportation, "you learn a hell of a lot. There is nothing like it." She adds, "That is what I love about politics and what I most miss by being in these hallowed portals."