With the exception of H. H. Asquith, David (now Lord) Steel has been the longest serving leader of the Liberal Party. During his twelve-year tenure of the leadership, the party enjoyed the highest share of the popular vote cast for a third party in half a century and won more seats in Parliament and in local government than it had held since the Second World War. In taking his party into the Lib-Lab agreement with the minority Callaghan administration in 1977 and in allying the Liberals with the Social Democratic Party during its seven-year life, he made his party once again a powerful third force in British politics and restored its credibility as a potential party of government.
Yet Steel’s leadership was not uncontroversial. His wide popular appeal in the country was never reflected in support from all of the party’s activists. He was rarely in sympathy with the growing local government section of the Liberal Party. The distrust, often scorn, was mutual. Active opposition to his belief that it was not necessary for the Liberal Party to fight every parliamentary seat – a central tenet of Steel’s strategy of making the Liberal Party a tool for the radical realignment of British politics – was a constant feature of his time at the helm. It reflected what some of his more fundamentalist colleagues saw as a distressing tendency to see allies across party boundaries and to be driven less by partisan politics than by broad issues.
David Martin Scott Steel was born on 31 March 1938 in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, the son of a Church of Scotland minister (and later Moderator). The eldest of five children, he attended Dumbarton Academy; James Gillespies Boys’ School, Edinburgh; the Prince of Wales School, Nairobi; and George Watson’s College, Edinburgh. He was a reserved pupil, but with a mind of his own and a morality shaped by an upbringing as a son of the manse in Scotland and by four years in Kenya at the time of the Mau Mau uprising, in the dying years of colonial administration.
Steel’s failure to shine academically owed more to his energetic pursuit of wider interests than to any lack of intellectual capacity. At Edinburgh University, from which he graduated with an MA in 1960 and a law degree in 1962, Steel joined the Liberal Club and the Scottish Liberal Party, was elected Chairman of the Students’ Representative Council, and ran a successful campaign to make Liberal Party leader Jo Grimond the university’s rector. Some months before leaving university he was adopted as the Liberal candidate for the Edinburgh Pentlands constituency and shortly afterwards took his first job, as the Scottish Liberals Assistant General Secretary. In October of the same year he married fellow law graduate Judy MacGregor, by whom he has three children.
In the winter of 1963-64 a vacancy arose for a Liberal candidate in the much more winnable Scottish Border seat of Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles, where the Liberals were second behind the Conservative incumbent, C. E. M. Donaldson. Steel jumped at the chance to move and in January 1964 was adopted as the Liberal candidate. He failed to win the seat from the Conservatives at the general election of that year, but nonetheless moved his home to the Borders and took a short-lived job in television with the BBC. The unexpected death of Donaldson in December 1964 gave him his opportunity. Steel won the byelection in March of the following year with a handsome majority. He held the constituency (subsequently re-drawn and re-named Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale) at the eight general elections from 1966 to 1992 before bequeathing the seat in 1997 to Michael Moore after more than thirty years in Parliament.
In spite of his championship of Scottish Home Rule and his greater ease in Scottish society, Steel – like his Welsh predecessor Lloyd George – chose to work essentially within the British system and yet managed to remain free of snobbery and side. That his main contribution to political life has been in UK domestic affairs and social policy is the product of a wider ambition and a keen eye for the main chance. Equally, his problems with Liberal Party activists south of the border stemmed partly from his not being one of them or seeking to identify himself with their concerns.
In the House of Commons, Steel was the Party’s employment spokesman (1965-67), spokesman on Commonwealth affairs (1967-70), Chief Whip (1970-74) and foreign affairs spokesman (1974-76 and 1989-94). His main legislative achievement of note was the introduction in July 1966 of a controversial private members bill to permit legal abortion in the UK in defined circumstances. The measure, which passed into law on 26 October 1967 with Government assistance, was recognised as a major social reform and earned Parliament’s youngest MP a reputation for hard work, affability and an effective grasp of parliamentary tactics.
In July 1976, in the wake of Jeremy Thorpe’s resignation, Steel was elected Leader of the Liberals in a contest against John Pardoe. He positioned his party firmly on the progressive wing of British politics on all the major issues of the day. His search for political realignment was to be the constant theme of his leadership and was eventually achieved, though in a rather pyrrhic victory over his rival David Owen, in the merger of the Liberal Party and the SDP in 1988. Having achieved that task and given birth to the successor party – the Social and Liberal Democrats – he resigned the Liberal leadership and decided not to stand for the leadership of the new party.
The personal chemistry between David Steel and the so-called Gang of Four – Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen and Bill Rodgers – was vital to the creation of the SDP (well chronicled in the book SDP by Ivor Crewe and Anthony King) and its eventual merger with the Liberal Party. Instrumental in urging Jenkins to launch a new party, Steel blamed himself for the events of the Ettrick Bridge meeting (at which a Liberal attempt to depose Jenkins from the leadership of the Alliance 1983 election campaign was bungled) and Owen’s subsequent assumption of the SDP leadership. He was never to enjoy the friendship and mutually beneficial working relationship with David Owen that he had enjoyed with the other three. His goal became that of seeing off an SDP leader who was hell-bent against Steel’s strategy of merger.
A constant feature of Steel’s leadership was an ability to keep his eye on the big picture, to an extent that bemused and infuriated those who sought in him a greater interest in the detail of policy. Combined with considerable stamina, it lent him great popular appeal among the electorate. For a number of years opinion polls showed that he was one of the UK’s most popular politicians.
In 1989 Steel became a co-chair of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, which laid the groundwork for the formation of the Scottish Parliament, and returned to play a greater role in Scotland’s affairs. He nonetheless maintained wider interests, including his controversial chairmanship of the Countryside Movement (1995-97) and defence of the hunting of wild animals during the fissiparous political debates of the mid 1990s.
Following his elevation to the peerage in June 1997, as Baron Steel of Aikwood, of Ettrick Forest in the Scottish Borders, Steel became Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords. His role in the Lords was limited, however, as a result of his election to the Scottish Parliament for the Lothians region in 1999. He served for four years as the first Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament, playing a major role in launching the Parliament as an effective and durable institution. He took part in debates, for example on African issues, during his term in the Scottish parliament, but his contribution to the Lords increased when he stood down in 2003.
Steel has travelled widely and taken a keen interest in democracy and human rights in developing countries, where he has promoted the monitoring of elections by international observers. His main concern has been for Africa. From 1966-69 Steel served as president of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement. He has been a frequent visitor to Africa and a tireless campaigner against racial injustice, to the extent of jeopardising his own re-election in 1970 through his opposition to the South African rugby tour and in particular the fixture scheduled in his own rugby-loving constituency.
Throughout his career, including during his time as party leader, he has participated eagerly in international political affairs. He was an active campaigner in the European referendum campaign of 1975. He has been a regular attender at (and organiser of) meetings of Liberal leaders from across the world. In the 1989 European election campaign he stood as a candidate in the Liberal-Republican interest in Italy, in protest against the UK’s refusal to hold European elections on the British mainland by proportional representation. From 1994 to 1996 he served as President of Liberal International.
Steel’s strategic contribution to UK politics lay in convincing others that cooperation between liberals and social or christian democrats could provide stable government capable of commanding majority support in the country and an alternative to the Conservative hegemony of the twentieth-century. He argued that the way to power for a small party in a first-past-the-post electoral system was in cooperation with one of the major parties and that the logic of their espousal of a system of proportional representation was support for multi-party government of the kind found in other western European countries. In leading his party into an agreement with the Labour government in March 1977 and in sustaining the agreement in the face of opposition from his own ranks until September 1978, he achieved a goal which had eluded both his immediate predecessors. He also paved the way for the formation of the Social Democratic Party (1981-88), the eventual creation of the Liberal Democrats and their subsequent cooperation with the Labour government of 1997.
Friend and mentor Ludovic Kennedy once wrote perceptively that ‘although Steel does not possess the commanding Olympian presence of Asquith or Grimond, nor the ego of Lloyd George or Thorpe, his success and longevity are founded in his reasonableness and a cool control of his emotions’. Steel’s durable telegenic appeal undoubtedly gives rise to the view that his political talent might in other circumstances have been more adequately fulfilled.
Steel has written seven books to date. These are No Entry (1968), A House Divided (1980), David Steel’s Border Country (with Judy Steel, 1985), Partners in One Nation (1985), Mary Stuart’s Scotland (with Judy Steel, 1987), The Time has Come (with David Owen, 1987) and an autobiography, Against Goliath (1989). A collection of speeches, Decade of Realignment, was published in 1986. A biography of David Steel, David Steel – his life and politics, was written by Peter Bartram in 1981.
Graham Watson was head of David Steel’s private office from June 1983 to September 1987. He is currently a Liberal Democrat MEP for the South West.