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David Steel, Liberal Party (UK) Leader

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David Martin Steel was born in Kirkcaldy, Fife in 1938, a child of the manse1; his father, also called David, was a Minister of the Church of Scotland (and later he became Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland from 1974-5). From the ages of 11 to 15, young David attended school in Nairobi, Kenya where his father (who famously had a quarrel with the colonial government during the Mau-Mau rising) was located as a missionary.

When the Steel family returned to Scotland, David completed his education at George Watson's College, Edinburgh before studying law at Edinburgh University2. David first become involved with the Liberal Party at this time, where he was President of the University's Liberal Club and also served as senior president of the Students' Representative Council. He graduated in 1960 and entered broadcasting as a journalist for BBC Scotland. He first stood for Parliament in 1964, aged 25, in the year that the Conservative majority decreased from several thousand to only 1700.

Youngest Member of the House

In 1965, the young broadcaster won a by-election (caused by a Conservative MP's death during an operation) to enter Parliament as the representative for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles3 for the Liberal Party; he became the youngest member of the House of Commons at the time. He was to represent this constituency until 1997.

His first major breakthrough in the House of Commons was not, however, in his role as employment spokesman, but his steering of a private members bill4, which reformed the law on abortion following the 1966 election. This passed into law as the 1967 Abortion Act, which legalised abortion in the UK for the first time.

For the general election of 1970 the youngest member of the house came up with an innovation for his campaign - the day of poll leaflet. Early in the morning the party activists in the constituency (which it has to be noted is quite large), delivered a leaflet through every door saying 'Good Morning, vote today for David Steel'. it was the first time such a leaflet was used in the UK as part of an election day campaign.

Liberal Leader

In 1970, during Edward Heath's administration, David Steel became Liberal Whip under the leadership of Jeremy Thorpe. Then in 1976, following Thorpe's resignation as leader (due to the accusations that he had been involved in an attempted murder), former Liberal leader Jo Grimmond stepped in as caretaker leader while a leadership election took place. Steel eventually emerged as the new leader of the Party.

When James Callaghan later headed a Labour Government in the mid-1970s (the last Labour Government in the UK for 18 years), he did so with just a small minority in the House of Commons. Britain was facing a tough time politically. Recognising how a governmental crisis might be catastrophic for the country, Labour and the Liberal party entered into the 'Lib-Lab' pact. Although not a true coalition, the agreement, which Steel led his party to accept, managed to save Labour from collapse for a few more years until the Conservatives, led by Margaret Thatcher, finally defeated the struggling Labour Party in the 1979 General Election. This period of history is still held up by some, especially by Conservatives, as an argument against Proportional Representation5, as they believe it would lead to a coalition government that would weaken the British government.

Following Margaret Thatcher's election victory and the establishment of the Social Democratic Party in 1981, Steel led his own party in a battle to maintain the middle ground. One of the steps he took was to get alongside the SDP's leadership Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers to forge an alliance to fight the two main parties on the Democracy programme that was common to the SDP and Liberals. A formal alliance was entered into between David Steel and Roy Jenkins in the autumn of 1981, with the parties fielding a candidate of one or the other party in the general election of 1983. However, despite having 25% of the vote (only 2% less than the Labour opposition) they only returned 23 MPs. In the run-up to the election, with the alliance polling up to 50% in opinion polls, David Steel famously told a party conference to return to their constituencies and 'prepare for Government'.

In 1987, under the leadership of the two Davids (Owen and Steel) - evilly portrayed in the satirical TV puppet show Spitting Image as Steel sitting in Owen's pocket - the parties managed 23% of the vote and 22 seats. However, after the election, the feeling was largely felt in both parties that the duality of leadership had been a hindrance and calls were made for a formal union. This formally happened in 1988 when David Steel stood aside, making him the last leader of the Liberal Party. As the two parties formally amalgamated, Paddy Ashdown was elected as the first leader of the new Liberal Democrats.

European Politician

In the early 1970s, a referendum was held on whether Britain should join the EEC. David Steel took a leading role in the campaign, in support of the pro-European lobby which ultimately was victorious. He continued to show a close interest in European affairs even though the Liberals and later the Liberal Democrats did not have a member in the European Parliament until the 1984 elections.

Following rule changes before the 1989 European Parliamentary Elections, which allowed any citizen of the European Economic Community (EEC) to stand for election in any EEC state, Steel stood for election in Italy. He was the first person to stand for a country other than his own and showed the commitment of the Liberal Democrats to European politics and integration. Although he only came fourth in this election, the result was not a disappointment, as Steel had taken this stance more for the precedent it would set than for a possible victory.

Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament6

In 1999 Sir David Steel returned to elected politics when he was elected as Liberal Democrat Member of the newly-created Scottish Parliament on the Lothian list. However, he was also duly appointed as the first Presiding Officer of the Scottish House and so, as the post is non-political, he had to sever his ties with the party he has represented at some level of Government for 34 years.

In this role he had to establish the procedures and practices of the first Scottish Parliament in almost 300 years. He was also head of the committee overseeing the new Parliament Building that was being built at Holyrood. In 2003, he retired from Parliament to spend more time with his wife, Judy, his collection of vintage cars and his fishing line. However, at the time of writing, he is expected to return to the Scottish Parliament's first home, Church House, as Presiding Officer for the General Assembly.


David Steel has also written a number of books, mainly on a political theme, such as No Entry (1969), A House Divided (1980) and The Time Has Come (with David Owen, 1987). He has also collaborated with his wife on a couple of books about Scotland, Scotland's Border Country (1985) about the area he represented in Parliament, and Mary Stuart's Scotland (1987) about the people of Scotland under their most famous Queen. In 1989, having resigned as leader, he wrote his autobiography, Against Goliath. A further volume is predicted to be on the cards once he retires as Speaker in the Scottish Parliament.


He was made a Knight Commander of the British Empire (KBE) in the 1990 New Year's Honours list. In 1992, he was awarded the Commander's Cross of the Order of Merit (Germany) as well as receiving prestigious awards for international political service in the Netherlands and Catalonia, Spain. In 1997 upon his retirement from the House of Commons he was elevated to the Lords and took the title Lord Steel of Aikwood7.

His constituency has honoured him in many ways: in 1990 he was made a Deputy Lieutenant for Ettrick, Lauderdale and Roxburgh, and he was created an honorary freeman of Tweedale, in 1987, and of Ettrick and Lauderdale in 1989. Scotland's educational institutes have heaped awards on one of their prominent sons. The University of Edinburgh conferred on him an Honorary LL.D in 1997, and the Alumni of the Year Award. He holds further honorary degrees from the Universities of Stirling (D. Univ), Heriot-Watt (D. Univ), Strathclyde (LL.D), Buckingham (D. Litt), The Open University (D. Univ) and Aberdeen (LLD).

Further Reading

Useful Links

1Being a child of the manse means being born and raised within the family of a Church of Scotland minister, the manse being the home supplied by the church for their minister.2David later served as Rector of the University from 1982-85.3In 1983 this constituency became Tweedale, Ettrick and Lauderdale after boundary changes.4This is a bill not sponsored by the government but by an individual MP. Very few of these make it into the statute books.5The idea that each party gets the same percentage of seats as they got votes, as some constituencies can be won with less majority votes than others.6The role of Presding Officer is similar in many ways to that of the Speaker at the House of Commons.7After the 16th Century Peel Tower, which he has restored and made his main residence.

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