David Steel

David Martin Scott Steel, Baron Steel of Aikwood, KT, KBE, PC (born 31 March 1938) is a British Liberal Democrat politician. He began his career in the Liberal Party, serving as the party's final leader from 1976 to 1988. His tenure spanned the duration of the alliance with the Social Democratic Party, which began in 1981 and concluded with the formation of the Liberal Democrats in 1988. Steel served as a Member of the UK Parliament for 32 years 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. He has been a member of the House of Lords since 1997 as a life peer.

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 byOffice created
Succeeded byGeorge Reid
Leader of the Liberal Democrats
In office
3 March 1988  16 July 1988
Serving with Robert Maclennan
Preceded byHimself (as Leader of the Liberal Party)
Robert Maclennan (as Leader of the Social Democratic Party)
Succeeded byPaddy Ashdown
Leader of the Liberal Party
In office
7 July 1976  16 July 1988
Preceded byJo Grimond (acting)
Succeeded byPaddy Ashdown (as Leader of the Social and Liberal Democrats)
Liberal Chief Whip
In office
18 June 1970  7 July 1976
LeaderJeremy Thorpe
Jo Grimond
Preceded byEric Lubbock
Succeeded byCyril Smith
Member of the Scottish Parliament
for Lothians
In office
6 May 1999  31 March 2003
Preceded byConstituency created
Succeeded byColin Fox
UK Parliament Representation
Member of the House of Lords
Lord Temporal
Assumed office
6 June 1997
Life peerage
Member of Parliament
for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale
In office
9 June 1983  8 April 1997
Preceded byConstituency created
Succeeded byMichael Moore
Member of Parliament
for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles
In office
24 March 1965  13 May 1983
Preceded byCharles Donaldson
Succeeded byConstituency abolished
Personal details
David Martin Scott Steel

(1938-03-31) 31 March 1938
Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland
Political partyLiberal Democrats (1988–)
Other political
Liberal (Before 1988)
Judith MacGregor (m. 1962)
ParentsDavid Steel
Alma materUniversity of Edinburgh

Early life and education

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] followed by the University of Edinburgh, where he first took an active part in Liberal politics, and was elected Senior President of the Students' Representative Council,[2] and graduated in Law. Steel was president of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement campaign from 1966 to 1970.[3][4]

Political career

After university, Steel 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.

From 1966 to 1970, Steel was president of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement campaign.[5][6]

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).[7] 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.[8]

Steel has been criticised both then and since for not driving a harder bargain. However, Steel's defenders contend 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!"[9]

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.[10]

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.[11]

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.[12] 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 became President of the Liberal International in 1994, holding the office until 1996.[13]

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.[14] 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.[15] 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.

Cyril Smith child sex abuse scandal

On 14 March 2019, Steel was suspended by the Liberal Democrats after an admission that discussions he had conducted in 1979 with the then Liberal MP for Rochdale Cyril Smith, at a time when Steel was leader of the Liberal Party, had led him to conclude that Smith had been a sexual abuser of children in the 1960s and that Steel nonetheless failed to instigate any assessment by the party of whether Smith was an on-going risk to children. Richard Scorer, representing victims at the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, called for him to be stripped of his peerage.[16] On 14 May 2019, the Liberal Democrats ruled that there were 'no grounds for action' against Steel and reinstated him to party membership.[17]

Honours and awards

Steel was appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE) in 1990.[18] On 30 November 2004, Queen Elizabeth created Lord Steel a Knight of the Order of the Thistle, the highest honour in Scotland.[19]

He has also received numerous foreign honours, including: Commander's Cross of the Order of Merit (Germany) in 1992; Chevalier in the Légion d'Honneur (France) in 2003; and Honorary Knight of the Order of St. George (Habsburg-Lorraine) in 2016.[20]

Steel has received a number of Honorary Doctorates from many universities including Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Stirling.[21][22]


Steel married fellow law graduate Judith Mary MacGregor in October 1962. They reside at Aikwood Tower in the Borders of Scotland, and have two sons and a daughter. They also have nine grandchildren.[2] His oldest son Graeme was convicted for drugs offences in 1995 and sent to prison for 9 months. A 44-year-old mother was found dead in Steels hot tub after a 48-hour marathon party in September 2018, police later confirmed she died of a cocaine overdose. Graeme Steel made no comment when asked about her death.

Titles and styles

  • David Steel (31 March 1938 to 24 March 1965)
  • David Steel MP (24 March 1965 to 1977)
  • The Right Honourable David Steel MP (1977 to 29 December 1989)
  • The Right Honourable Sir David Steel KBE MP (29 December 1989 to 8 April 1997)
  • The Right Honourable Sir David Steel KBE (8 April 1997 to 6 June 1997)
  • The Right Honourable The Lord Steel of Aikwood KBE PC (6 June 1997 to 6 May 1999)
  • The Right Honourable The Lord Steel of Aikwood KBE MSP PC (6 May 1999 to 1 May 2003; used "Rt Hon Sir David Steel KBE MSP" in Holyrood despite peerage)
  • The Right Honourable The Lord Steel of Aikwood KBE PC (1 May 2003 to 30 November 2004)
  • The Right Honourable The Lord Steel of Aikwood KT KBE PC (30 November 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. "David Steel: Lord Steel of Aikwood". Liberal Democrats. 22 January 2014. Retrieved 16 May 2014.
  3. "Anti-Apartheid News Summer 2009 - ACTSA" (PDF). Anti-Apartheid News. Summer 2009. p. 9. Retrieved 16 May 2014.
  4. 13.22 EDT (13 March 2014). "The Anti-Apartheid Movement goes online: a unique archive of the struggle". The Guardian. Retrieved 25 July 2016.
  5. "Anti-Apartheid News Summer 2009 - ACTSA" (PDF). Anti-Apartheid News. Summer 2009. p. 9. Retrieved 16 May 2014.
  6. "The Anti-Apartheid Movement goes online: a unique archive of the struggle". The Guardian. 13 March 2014. Retrieved 25 July 2016.
  7. Bowditch, Gillian (17 January 2016). "Why we need to rethink outdated laws on abortion". The Sunday Times.
  8. "BBC Politics 97". Bbc.co.uk. 3 May 1979. Retrieved 19 September 2013.
  9. Stone-Lee, Ollie (10 September 2003). "Conference season's greatest hits". BBC News. Retrieved 7 April 2010.
  10. "Top Ten: Lib Dem 'breakthrough moments'". ePolitix.com. 24 April 2010. Archived from the original on 12 May 2010. Retrieved 19 September 2013.
  11. "1983: Thatcher triumphs again". BBC News. 5 April 2005.
  12. Verkaik, Robert (20 February 2006). "Politicians beware! 'Spitting Image' set to return". The Independent. London. Archived from the original on 22 November 2008. Retrieved 11 May 2010.
  13. "Liberal Democrat History Group". Liberalhistory.org.uk. Archived from the original on 16 July 2010. Retrieved 11 June 2010.
  14. "No. 54812". The London Gazette. 20 June 1997. p. 7187.
  15. "Previous MSPs: Session 1 (1999-2003): Sir David Steel". Scottish Parliament. Retrieved 17 January 2015.
  16. "David Steel suspended from Lib Dems over Cyril Smith revelation". The Guardian. 14 March 2019. Retrieved 15 March 2019.
  17. "Lib Dems find 'no grounds for action' against Sir David Steel". bbc.co.uk. 14 May 2019. Retrieved 16 August 2019.
  18. "No. 51981". The London Gazette (Supplement). 30 December 1989. p. 7.
  19. "No. 57482". The London Gazette. 1 December 2004. p. 15127.
  20. "www.dodspeople.com". Retrieved 16 August 2019.
  21. "Blue Planet Financials Growth and Income Investment Trusts PLC:David Steel". Reuters. 2012. Retrieved 7 December 2016.
  22. "Heriot-Watt University Edinburgh: Honorary Graduates". www1.hw.ac.uk. Retrieved 4 April 2016.
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
Orders of precedence in the United Kingdom
Preceded by
The Lord Howell of Guildford
Baron Steel of Aikwood
Followed by
The Lord Renton of Mount Harry
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