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David Martin Scott Steel, Baron Steel of Aikwood, KT, KBE, PC (born 31 March 1938) is a British and Scottish politician and a Liberal Democrat member of the UK House of Lordsmarker. He was leader of the Liberal Party from 1976 until its 1988 merger with the Social Democratic Party that formed the Liberal Democrats, and was briefly joint interim leader of the new party, then known as the Social and Liberal Democrats. He was also the first Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliamentmarker, holding that post between 1999 and 2003.

Early life

David Steel was born in Kirkcaldymarker, Fifemarker, Scotland, the son of a Church of Scotlandmarker minister also called David Steel, who would later serve as Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotlandmarker. He was brought up in Scotland and Kenyamarker, and educated at the Prince of Wales School, Nairobi, and George Watson's Collegemarker in Edinburghmarker.

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 Commonsmarker at the Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles by-election of 1965, becoming the "Baby of the House". He represented this seat until 1983, when he became Member of Parliament for 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 1977, he led the Liberals into the "Lib-Lab pact" by which they agreed to keep the Labour government in power in return for a degree of prior consultation on policy. Steel has been criticised both then and since for not driving a harder bargain; the opposing case is that the ongoing 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."
However, the beginning of the Falklands War radically shifted the attitude of the electorate, and the Conservatives regained the lead in polls from the Alliance. Though the Alliance still secured more than 26% of the popular vote at the 1983 general election - only just behind Labour - its reward in terms of seats was derisory and Steel's hopes of a big political breakthrough were dashed. 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. [31194] This portrayal of Steel as weaker than Owen was also present in other satires, such as Private Eyemarker'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 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. In 1994 he accepted an invitation from Italian liberals to stand for the European Parliamentmarker in that year's elections as a Pan-European gesture. Although not elected he polled very well. He was knighted and received the KBE in 1990.

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. He campaigned for Scottish devolution, and in 1999 was elected to the Scottish Parliament as a Liberal Democrat Member of Scottish Parliament 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.


Lord Steel is a patron of the Burma Campaign UK, the London based group campaigning for human rights and democracy in Burmamarker.

He is also a Vice President of the Friends of the British Library, a charity which provides funding support for the British Librarymarker.

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


External links

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