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David Steel

The Lord Steel of Aikwood
Official portrait, 2020
Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament
In office
12 May 1999 – 7 May 2003
MonarchElizabeth II
Preceded byOffice established
Succeeded byGeorge Reid
Leader of the Liberal Democrats
In office
3 March 1988 – 16 July 1988
Serving with Robert Maclennan
Preceded by
  • Himself (Lib.Tooltip Liberal Party (UK))
  • Robert Maclennan (SDPTooltip Social Democratic Party (UK))
Succeeded byPaddy Ashdown
Leader of the Liberal Party
In office
7 July 1976 – 16 July 1988
Preceded byJo Grimond (acting)
Succeeded byPaddy Ashdown (Leader of the Social and Liberal Democrats)
Chief Whip of the Liberal Party
In office
18 June 1970 – 7 July 1976
Preceded byEric Lubbock
Succeeded byCyril Smith
Parliamentary offices
Member of the House of Lords
Life peerage
6 June 1997 – 27 March 2020
Member of the Scottish Parliament
for Lothians
(1 of 7 Regional MSPs)
In office
6 May 1999 – 31 March 2003
Member of Parliament
for Tweeddale, Ettrick, and Lauderdale
Roxburgh, Selkirk, and Peebles (1965–1983)
In office
25 March 1965 – 8 April 1997
Preceded byCharles Donaldson
Succeeded byMichael Moore
Personal details
David Martin Scott Steel

(1938-03-31) 31 March 1938 (age 86)
Kirkcaldy, Scotland
Political partyIndependent (since 2020)
Other political
Judith MacGregor
(m. 1962)
ParentDavid Steel
Alma materUniversity of Edinburgh

David Martin Scott Steel, Baron Steel of Aikwood, KT, KBE, PC (born 31 March 1938) is a retired Scottish politician.[1] Elected as Member of Parliament for Roxburgh, Selkirk, and Peebles, followed by Tweeddale, Ettrick, and Lauderdale, he served as the final leader of the Liberal Party, 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.[1]

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 was a member of the House of Lords as a life peer from 1997 to 2020. Steel resigned from the House of Lords after the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse accused him of an "abdication of responsibility" over his failure to investigate allegations of child sex abuse against the former Liberal MP Sir Cyril Smith.[2]

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 Gillespie's Boys' School, Edinburgh; the Prince of Wales School, Nairobi; and George Watson's College, Edinburgh,[3] 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,[4] and graduated in Law. Steel was president of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement campaign from 1966 to 1970.[5][6]

Political career

This section of a biography of a living person needs additional citations for verification. Please help by adding reliable sources. Contentious material about living persons that is unsourced or poorly sourced must be removed immediately from the article and its talk page, especially if potentially libelous.Find sources: "David Steel" – news · newspapers · books · scholar · JSTOR (January 2023) (Learn how and when to remove this message)

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, just before his 27th birthday, 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.[7][8]

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).[9] He also became the Liberal Party's spokesman on employment, and, in 1970, its Chief Whip.

Leader of Liberal Party

In 1976, following 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.[10]

Steel was 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, Chancellor and Home Secretary 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 since 1945. 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!"[11] In the wake of the 1981 Croydon North West by-election, where Liberal candidate Bill Pitt came from third position to easily gain the Alliance's first by-election victory, Steel's reaction to the result was to state that his belief "that we are now unstoppable."[12]

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.[13] 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.[14]

Shortly afterwards, the former Labour Foreign Secretary 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.[15] 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 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. 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 the 1989 election as a Pan-European gesture, but was not elected.[16]

Steel became President of the Liberal International in 1994, holding the office until 1996.[17]

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.[18] 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.[19]

In this role, he used the style "Sir David Steel", despite his peerage. He suspended his Liberal Democrat membership for the duration of his tenure as Presiding Officer, believing that the post, like the Speaker of the UK House of Commons, should be strictly nonpartisan. All subsequent Presiding Officers have followed this practice.

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.[citation needed]

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.[20] On 14 May 2019, the Liberal Democrats ruled that there were "no grounds for action" against Steel and reinstated him to party membership.[21]

On 25 February 2020, Steel announced his resignation from the Liberal Democrats and subsequently his position as a member of the House of Lords, after admitting that during his leadership of the Liberal Party he "assumed" that Smith had been a child abuser, and failed to investigate claims made by Private Eye against Smith, dating from before Smith was a party member.[22] This came about after the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse accused Steel of an "abdication of responsibility" over allegations against Smith. He retired officially from the House of Lords on 27 March 2020.[23]

Honours and awards

Coat of arms of David Steel
A jaguar salient Proper
Azure in chief two furisons Or in base a tower Argent port and windows Sable on a chief Argent dexter on a gonfannon Purpure a saltire equisee Argent the gonfannon pendent from a pole fessways Purpure between two chords each Purpure and Argent and sinister a portcullis chained Sable.
Dexter a Masai warrior sinister a border reiver Proper.
Vir Taman Aurum Est (The Man's The Gold For A'That)[24]
Steel's stall in the Thistle Chapel, St Giles' Cathedral, Edinburgh. His arms can be seen on the right, with the crest of a springing jaguar.

Steel was appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE) in the 1990 New Year Honours for political and public service.[25] On 30 November 2004, Queen Elizabeth created Lord Steel a Knight of the Order of the Thistle, the highest honour in Scotland.[26]

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.[27]

Steel has received a number of Honorary Doctorates from many universities including Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Stirling.[28][29]

Personal life and family

Steel married fellow law graduate Judith Mary MacGregor in October 1962. They resided at Aikwood Tower in the Borders of Scotland for twenty years, but now live in Selkirk. They have two sons and a daughter, and nine grandchildren.[4] In 1995, his elder son Graeme was convicted for growing cannabis at his house, and sent to prison for nine months.[30] One of his granddaughters, Hannah, was elected to Scottish Borders Council (representing the Galashiels and District ward) in the 2022 Scottish local elections.[31]

His recreations are angling and classic car rallying: he won the bronze medallion in 1998 for London to Cape Town. He is a member of the National Liberal and Royal Over-Seas League clubs.[1]

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)


  1. ^ a b c "Steel of Aikwood, Baron, (David Martin Scott Steel) (born 31 March 1938)". WHO'S WHO & WHO WAS WHO. 2007. doi:10.1093/ww/9780199540884.013.u36053. ISBN 978-0-19-954088-4. Retrieved 6 May 2021.
  2. ^ "David Steel quits Lib Dems after child abuse inquiry report". The Guardian. 25 February 2020. Retrieved 11 September 2020.
  3. ^ "Liberal Democrat History Group". Archived from the original on 13 January 2014. Retrieved 19 September 2013.
  4. ^ a b "David Steel: Lord Steel of Aikwood". Liberal Democrats. 22 January 2014. Retrieved 16 May 2014.
  5. ^ "Anti-Apartheid News Summer 2009 - ACTSA" (PDF). Anti-Apartheid News. Summer 2009. p. 9. Archived from the original (PDF) on 3 October 2012. Retrieved 16 May 2014.
  6. ^ Henley, Jon (13 March 2014). "The Anti-Apartheid Movement goes online: a unique archive of the struggle". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 25 July 2016.
  7. ^ "Anti-Apartheid News Summer 2009 - ACTSA" (PDF). Anti-Apartheid News. Summer 2009. p. 9. Archived from the original (PDF) on 3 October 2012. Retrieved 16 May 2014.
  8. ^ Henley, Jon (13 March 2014). "The Anti-Apartheid Movement goes online: a unique archive of the struggle". The Guardian. Retrieved 25 July 2016.
  9. ^ Bowditch, Gillian (17 January 2016). "Why we need to rethink outdated laws on abortion". The Sunday Times.
  10. ^ "BBC Politics 97". 3 May 1979. Retrieved 19 September 2013.
  11. ^ Stone-Lee, Ollie (10 September 2003). "Conference season's greatest hits". BBC News. Retrieved 7 April 2010.
  12. ^ Parkhouse, Geoffrey (23 October 1981). "Alliance triumph at Croydon". The Glasgow Herald. p. 1. Retrieved 13 January 2022.
  13. ^ "Top Ten: Lib Dem 'breakthrough moments'". 24 April 2010. Archived from the original on 12 May 2010. Retrieved 19 September 2013.
  14. ^ "1983: Thatcher triumphs again". BBC News. 5 April 2005.
  15. ^ 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.
  16. ^ "Europee 18/06/1989". Eligendo (in Italian). Retrieved 2 May 2024.
  17. ^ "Liberal Democrat History Group". Archived from the original on 16 July 2010. Retrieved 11 June 2010.
  18. ^ "No. 54812". The London Gazette. 20 June 1997. p. 7187.
  19. ^ "Previous MSPs: Session 1 (1999-2003): Sir David Steel". Scottish Parliament. 8 April 2011. Retrieved 17 January 2015.
  20. ^ Syal, Rajeev (14 March 2019). "David Steel suspended from Lib Dems over Cyril Smith revelation". The Guardian. Retrieved 15 March 2019.
  21. ^ "Lib Dems find 'no grounds for action' against Sir David Steel". BBC News. 14 May 2019. Retrieved 16 August 2019.
  22. ^ Former leader Lord Steel quits Liberal Democrats BBC News 25 February 2020. Retrieved 25 February 2020
  23. ^ "Parliamentary career for Lord Steel of Aikwood - MPs and Lords - UK Parliament". Retrieved 13 February 2021.
  24. ^ Debrett's Peerage. 2019. p. 4455.
  25. ^ "No. 51981". The London Gazette (Supplement). 30 December 1989. p. 7.
  26. ^ "No. 57482". The London Gazette. 1 December 2004. p. 15127.
  27. ^ "". Retrieved 16 August 2019.
  28. ^ "Blue Planet Financials Growth and Income Investment Trusts PLC:David Steel". Reuters. 2012. Archived from the original on 20 December 2016. Retrieved 7 December 2016.
  29. ^ "Heriot-Watt University Edinburgh: Honorary Graduates". Archived from the original on 18 April 2016. Retrieved 4 April 2016.
  30. ^ Arlidge, John (28 October 1995). "David Steel's son jailed over drugs". The Independent. Retrieved 24 December 2019.
  31. ^ Rocks, Chelsea (11 May 2022). "Council elections: The stories behind some of Scotland's new councillors". BBC News. Retrieved 11 May 2022.
Parliament of the United Kingdom Preceded byCharles Donaldson Member of Parliament for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles 19651983 Constituency abolished New constituency Member of Parliament for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale 19831997 Succeeded byMichael Moore Preceded byTeddy Taylor Baby of the House 1965–1966 Succeeded byJohn Ryan Preceded byOtto Graf Lambsdorff President of the Liberal International 1994–1996 Succeeded byFrits Bolkestein Party political offices Preceded byEric Lubbock Liberal Party Chief Whip 1970–1976 Succeeded byCyril Smith Preceded byJo Grimond Leader of the Liberal Party 1976–1988 Party merged with SDP New political party Leader of the Social and Liberal Democrats 1988with Robert Maclennan Succeeded byPaddy Ashdown Scottish Parliament New creation Member of the Scottish Parliament for Lothians 1999–2003 Succeeded byMark Ballard Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament 1999–2003 Succeeded byGeorge Reid Academic offices Preceded byAnthony Ross Rector of the University of Edinburgh 1982–1985 Succeeded byArchie Macpherson Orders of precedence in the United Kingdom Preceded byThe Lord Howell of Guildford GentlemenBaron Steel of Aikwood Followed byThe Lord Alton of Liverpool
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David Steel
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