David Steel

David Steel
The Right Honourable
The 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 Social and Liberal Democrats
In office
3 March 1988 – 16 July 1988
Serving with Robert Maclennan
Preceded by Party Created
Succeeded by Paddy Ashdown
Leader of the Liberal Party
In office
7 July 1976 – 16 July 1988
Preceded by Jo Grimond
Succeeded by Paddy Ashdown
Liberal Chief Whip
In office
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 – 1 May 2003
Preceded by Constituency Created
Succeeded by Mark Ballard
Personal details
Born 31 March 1938 (1938-03-31) (age 73)
Kirkcaldy, Fife
Political party (1) Liberal Party
(2) Liberal Democrats
Alma mater University of Edinburgh
Religion Church of Scotland[1]

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 Parliament (MP) 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

David 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 the Prince of Wales School, Nairobi (now Nairobi School), and George Watson's College in Edinburgh.

Member of Parliament

He first took an active part in Liberal politics at the University of Edinburgh, and after graduating in Law 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 a 1965 by-election, becoming the "Baby of the House". He represented this seat until 1983, when he was elected in Tweedale, 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 (see Abortion in the United Kingdom). 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 fellow MP 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" by which they agreed to keep the Labour government, whose narrow majority since the general election in October 1974 had been gradually eroded and left them as minority government, in power in return for a degree of prior consultation on policy. This pact lasted until August 1978[2]

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 Callaghan. The unpopularity of the Labour government impaired the Liberals' performance, and Steel's first election as leader, the 1979 general election, saw a decline in Liberal fortunes.

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's leadership, the SDP joined the Liberals in the SDP-Liberal Alliance, an electoral alliance that was so promising in its early days that Steel felt able to tell delegates at the Liberal Assembly that year to

"go back to your constituencies and prepare for government."

Steel had genuine hopes at this stage that the Alliance would win the next general election and form a coalition government. Opinion polls were showing Alliance support as high as 50% by late 1981.

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.[3]

The Alliance secured more than 25% of the vote at the 1983 general election, almost as many votes as Labour, but it won very few seats and Steel's dreams of a big political breakthrough were left just that - a dream.[4]

Shortly afterwards David Owen replaced Roy 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.[5] 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 merger

Steel addressing the Liberal Party assembly in Harrogate on merger in 1987

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. Steel 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. Steel's colleagues rejected it immediately and demanded a re-draft, fatally wounding his authority.

Steel was briefly joint interim leader of the Social and Liberal Democrats (as the new party was at first called) before elections in which he did not stand, before becoming the party's Foreign Affairs spokesman. He was knighted and received the KBE in 1990. In 1994 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 became President of the Liberal International in the same year, holding the office until 1996.[6]

Retirement and Life Peer

He 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 in the same year, residing at Aikwood Tower. 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. In this role, he used the style "Sir David Steel", despite his peerage, and had no party allegiance. 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, the Queen created Lord Steel of Aikwood a Knight of the Order of the Thistle – the highest honour in Scotland.


Steel and his wife, Judith (known as Judy), have three children: Graeme, Catriona and Rory. He has seven grandchildren: India, David, Caledonia, Hannah, Persia, James and Rio.

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)

See also

  • General Mediterranean Holdings owned by Anglo-Iraqi billionaire Nadhmi Auchi. Lord Steel was a director of it, and was pressured to quit it.


External links

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
1965 – 1966
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
1970 – 1976
Succeeded by
Cyril Smith
Preceded by
Jo Grimond
Leader of the Liberal Party
1976 – 1988
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
1999 – 2003
Succeeded by
Mark Ballard
Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament
1999 – 2003
Succeeded by
George Reid
Academic offices
Preceded by
Anthony Ross
Rector of the University of Edinburgh
Succeeded by
Archie Macpherson

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