David Steel

The Right Honourable
The Lord Steel of Aikwood
Official portrait of Lord Steel of Aikwood
1st Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament
In office
12 May 1999  7 May 2003
Preceded by Office created
Succeeded by George Reid
Leader of the Liberal Democrats
In office
3 March 1988  16 July 1988
Serving with Robert Maclennan
Preceded by Himself (as Leader of the Liberal Party)
Robert Maclennan (as Leader of the Social Democratic Party)
Succeeded by Paddy Ashdown
Leader of the Liberal Party
In office
7 July 1976  16 July 1988
Preceded by Jo Grimond (acting)
Succeeded by Paddy Ashdown (as Leader of the Social and Liberal Democrats)
Liberal Chief Whip
In office
18 June 1970  7 July 1976
Leader Jeremy Thorpe
Jo Grimond
Preceded by Eric Lubbock
Succeeded by Cyril Smith
Member of Parliament
for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale
In office
11 June 1983  1 May 1997
Preceded by Constituency created
Succeeded by Michael Moore
Member of Parliament
for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles
In office
24 March 1965  11 June 1983
Preceded by Charles Donaldson
Succeeded by Constituency abolished
Member of the Scottish Parliament
for Lothians
In office
6 May 1999  31 March 2003
Preceded by Constituency created
Member of the House of Lords
Lord Temporal
Assumed office
6 June 1997
Life Peerage
Personal details
Born David Martin Scott Steel
(1938-03-31) 31 March 1938
Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland
Political party Liberal Democrats (Since 1988)
Other political
Liberal (Before 1988)
Judith MacGregor (m. 1962)
Children 3
Parents David Steel
Alma mater University of Edinburgh

David Martin Scott Steel, Baron Steel of Aikwood, KT, KBE, PC (born 31 March 1938) is a British Liberal Democrat politician who served as the Leader of the Liberal Party from 1976 until its merger with the Social Democratic Party in 1988 to form the Liberal Democrats. He served as a Member of the UK Parliament from 1965 to 1997, and as a Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) from 1999 to 2003, during which time he was the parliament's Presiding Officer. Since 1997, he has been a member of the House of Lords.

Early life

Steel was born in Kirkcaldy, Fife, the son of a Church of Scotland minister also called David Steel, who would later serve as Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. He was brought up in Scotland and Kenya, and educated at Dumbarton Academy; James Gillespies Boys' School, Edinburgh; the Prince of Wales School, Nairobi; and George Watson's College, Edinburgh.[1] Steel was president of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement campaign from 1966 to 1970.[2][3]

Member of Parliament

He first took an active part in Liberal politics at the University of Edinburgh, and was elected Senior President of the Students' Representative Council.[4] After graduating in Law, he worked for the Scottish Liberal Party and then the BBC before being elected to the House of Commons as the MP for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles at the 1965 by-election, becoming the "Baby of the House". He represented this seat until 1983, when he was elected in Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale, a new constituency covering much of the same territory.

As an MP, he was responsible for introducing, as a Private Member's Bill, the Abortion Act 1967, and has argued for greater liberalisation of this legislation in recent years (see Abortion in the United Kingdom).[5] He also became the Liberal Party's spokesman on employment, and in 1970 its Chief Whip.

Leader of Liberal Party

In 1976, after the downfall of Jeremy Thorpe, and a short period in which Jo Grimond acted as caretaker leader, he won the Liberal leadership by a wide margin over John Pardoe. At only 38 years old, he was one of the youngest party leaders in British history. In March 1977, he led the Liberals into the "Lib–Lab pact." The Liberals agreed to support the Labour government, whose narrow majority since the general election in October 1974 had been gradually eroded and left them as a minority government, in power in return for a degree of prior consultation on policy. This pact lasted until August 1978.[6]

Steel has been criticised both then and since for not driving a harder bargain; the opposing case is that the continuing scandal surrounding Thorpe left the party in a very weak state to face an early general election and Steel was wise to buy himself some time from Prime Minister James Callaghan. At the same time, the growing unpopularity of the Labour government impaired the Liberals' performance, and Steel's first election as leader, the 1979 general election, saw a net two-seat loss for the Liberals.

SDP–Liberal Alliance

In 1981, a group of Labour moderates left their party to form the Social Democratic Party. They were joined by the former Labour deputy leader Roy Jenkins, who had previously had discussions with Steel about joining the Liberals. Under Jenkins' leadership, the SDP joined the Liberals in the SDP–Liberal Alliance. In its early days, the Alliance showed so much promise that for a time it looked like the Liberals would be part of a government for the first time in over half a century. Opinion polls were showing Alliance support as high as 50% by late 1981. Steel was so confident that he felt able to tell delegates at the Liberal Assembly that year, "Go back to your constituencies, and prepare for government!"[7]

Steel had genuine hopes at that stage that the Alliance would win the next general election and form a coalition government. However, the beginning of the Falklands War the following spring radically shifted the attitude of the electorate, and the Conservatives regained the lead in polls from the Alliance by a wide margin.[8]

The Alliance secured more than 25% of the vote at the 1983 general election, almost as many votes as Labour. However, its support was spread out across the country, and was not concentrated in enough areas to translate into seats under the first past the post system. This left the Alliance with only 23 seats—17 for the Liberals and six for the SDP. Steel's dreams of a big political breakthrough were left unfulfilled.[9]

Shortly afterwards David Owen replaced Jenkins as leader of the SDP, and the troubled leadership of the "Two Davids" was inaugurated. It was never an easy relationship—Steel's political sympathies were well to the left of Owen's. Owen had a marked antipathy towards the Liberals, though he respected Steel's prior loyalty to his own party contrasting it with Jenkins' lack of interest in preserving the SDP's independence. The relationship was also mercilessly satirised by Spitting Image which portrayed Steel as a squeaky voiced midget, literally in the pocket of Owen. Steel has often stated that he feels this portrayal seriously damaged his image.[10] This portrayal of Steel as weaker than Owen was also present in other satires, such as Private Eye's Battle for Britain strip. The relationship finally fell apart during the 1987 general election when the two contradicted each other, both on defence policy and on which party they would do a deal with in the event of a hung parliament.

Two parties merge

Steel was convinced the answer to these difficulties was a single party with a single leader, and was the chief proponent of the 1988 merger between the Liberals and the SDP. He emerged victorious in persuading both parties to accept merger in the teeth of opposition from Owen and radical Liberals such as Michael Meadowcroft, but badly mishandled the issuing of a joint policy document. Steel had often been criticised for a lack of interest in policy, and it appeared he had agreed to the document – drawn up by politically naive SDP advisers – without reading it. His colleagues rejected it immediately and demanded a redraft, fatally wounding his authority.

Steel was briefly joint interim leader of the Social and Liberal Democrats (as the new party was at first called) in the run-up to elections in which he did not stand, before becoming the party's foreign affairs spokesman. In 1989, he accepted an invitation from Italian Liberals to stand for the European Parliament in that year's elections as a Pan-European gesture. Although not elected, he polled very well. He was appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE) in 1990.[11] He became President of the Liberal International in 1994, holding the office until 1996.[12]

Steel has also received a number of Honorary Doctorate from many universities including Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Stirling.[13][14]

Life peerage and Scottish Parliament

Steel retired from the House of Commons at the 1997 general election and was made a life peer as Baron Steel of Aikwood, of Ettrick Forest in the Scottish Borders on 6 June 1997.[15] He campaigned for Scottish devolution, and in 1999 was elected to the Scottish Parliament as a Liberal Democrat MSP for Lothians. He became the first Presiding Officer (speaker) of the Scottish Parliament on 12 May 1999.[16] In this role, he used the style "Sir David Steel", despite his peerage. He suspended his Lib Dem membership for the duration of his tenure as Presiding Officer; that post, like the Speaker of the UK House of Commons, is strictly nonpartisan. He stepped down as an MSP when the parliament was dissolved for the 2003 election, but remained as Presiding Officer until he had supervised the election of his successor George Reid on 7 May of that year. He was appointed Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in both 2003 and 2004.

On 30 November 2004, Queen Elizabeth created Lord Steel a Knight of the Order of the Thistle, the highest honour in Scotland.[17]


Steel married fellow law graduate Judith Mary MacGregor in October 1962. They resided at Aikwood Tower in the Borders of Scotland, and have two sons and a daughter. They also have nine grandchildren.[4]

Titles and styles

  • David Steel (31/03/1938 to 24/03/1965)
  • David Steel MP (24/03/1965 to 1977)
  • The Right Honourable David Steel MP (1977 to 29/12/1989)
  • The Right Honourable Sir David Steel KBE MP (29/12/1989 to 08/04/1997)
  • The Right Honourable Sir David Steel KBE (08/04/1997 to 06/06/1997)
  • The Right Honourable The Lord Steel of Aikwood KBE PC (06/06/1997 to 06/05/1999)
  • The Right Honourable The Lord Steel of Aikwood KBE MSP PC (06/05/1999 to 01/05/2003; used "Rt Hon Sir David Steel KBE MSP" in Holyrood despite peerage)
  • The Right Honourable The Lord Steel of Aikwood KBE PC (01/05/2003 to 30/11/2004)
  • The Right Honourable The Lord Steel of Aikwood KT KBE PC (30/11/2004 to present)

Further reading

  • Peter Bartram, David Steel: His Life and Politics (W.H. Allen, 1981)
  • David Steel, A House Divided (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1980)
  • David Steel, Against Goliath: David Steel's Story (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989)
  • David Torrance, David Steel – rising hope to elder statesman (Biteback, 2015)

See also


  1. "Liberal Democrat History Group". Liberalhistory.org.uk. Archived from the original on 13 January 2014. Retrieved 19 September 2013.
  2. "Anti-Apartheid News Summer 2009 - ACTSA" (PDF). Anti-Apartheid News. Summer 2009. p. 9. Retrieved 16 May 2014.
  3. 13.22 EDT (2014-03-13). "The Anti-Apartheid Movement goes online: a unique archive of the struggle". The Guardian. Retrieved 2016-07-25.
  4. 1 2 "David Steel: Lord Steel of Aikwood". Liberal Democrats. Retrieved 16 May 2014.
  5. Bowditch, Gillian (17 January 2016). "Why we need to rethink outdated laws on abortion". The Sunday Times. (Subscription required (help)).
  6. "BBC Politics 97". Bbc.co.uk. 1979-05-03. Retrieved 2013-09-19.
  7. Stone-Lee, Ollie (10 September 2003). "Conference season's greatest hits". BBC News. Retrieved 7 April 2010.
  8. "Top Ten: Lib Dem 'breakthrough moments'". ePolitix.com. 24 April 2010. Archived from the original on 12 May 2010. Retrieved 2013-09-19.
  9. "1983: Thatcher triumphs again". BBC News. 5 April 2005.
  10. Verkaik, Robert (20 February 2006). "Politicians beware! 'Spitting Image' set to return". London: The Independent. Archived from the original on 22 November 2008. Retrieved 11 May 2010.
  11. "No. 51981". The London Gazette (Supplement). 30 December 1989. p. 7.
  12. "Liberal Democrat History Group". Liberalhistory.org.uk. Archived from the original on 16 July 2010. Retrieved 11 June 2010.
  13. "Blue Planet Financials Growth and Income Investment Trusts PLC:David Steel". Reuters. 2012. Retrieved 7 December 2016.
  14. webperson@hw.ac.uk. "Heriot-Watt University Edinburgh: Honorary Graduates". www1.hw.ac.uk. Retrieved 2016-04-04.
  15. "No. 54812". The London Gazette. 20 June 1997. p. 7187.
  16. "Previous MSPs: Session 1 (1999-2003): Sir David Steel". Scottish Parliament. Retrieved 17 January 2015.
  17. "No. 57482". The London Gazette. 1 December 2004. p. 15127.
Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Charles Donaldson
Member of Parliament for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles
Constituency abolished
New constituency Member of Parliament for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale
Succeeded by
Michael Moore
Preceded by
Teddy Taylor
Baby of the House
Succeeded by
John Ryan
Preceded by
Otto Graf Lambsdorff
President of the Liberal International
Succeeded by
Frits Bolkestein
Party political offices
Preceded by
Eric Lubbock
Liberal Party Chief Whip
Succeeded by
Cyril Smith
Preceded by
Jo Grimond
Leader of the Liberal Party
Party merged with SDP
New political party Leader of the Social and Liberal Democrats
with Robert Maclennan
Succeeded by
Paddy Ashdown
Scottish Parliament
New creation Member of the Scottish Parliament for Lothians
Succeeded by
Mark Ballard
Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament
Succeeded by
George Reid
Academic offices
Preceded by
Anthony Ross
Rector of the University of Edinburgh
Succeeded by
Archie Macpherson
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