David Martin Scott Steel

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David Martin Scott Steel

The British politician Sir David Martin Scott Steel (born 1938) was a Scottish member of Parliament and leader of the Liberal Party beginning in 1976.

David Steel was born on March 31, 1938, in Kirkcaldy, Scotland. His father was the Very Rev. Dr. David Steel, a Calvinist minister. From the age of 11 to 15 Steel was with his family in Kenya, Africa where he developed a sympathetic understanding of the plight of Black Africans. (He was president of the Anti-Apartheid Movement of Great Britain from 1966 to 1969.) He was educated at the Prince of Wales School in Nairobi, and afterwards, back in Scotland, at George Watson's College and at Edinburgh University, where he earned an M.A. in 1960 and an LL.B. in 1962.

At Edinburgh University he joined the Liberal Party, and it provided him with a career for life. He was not able to join the Labour Party because he did not feel "socialist" enough; and he could not accept the Tory Party for its going to war with Egypt over the Suez Canal in 1957. He joined the Liberals, knowing that it was a small party and was unlikely to win electoral votes. The Liberals were strong in Wales and Scotland (the so-called "Celtic fringe") and weak in heavily-populated areas.

As a student he became good friends with Jo Grimond, the leader of the Liberal Party, and managed his election as rector of Edinburgh University. Upon graduation in 1960 Steel was chosen as assistant secretary of the Liberal Party.

He married Judy MacGregor, a college contemporary, in 1962, and when he was elected to a seat in the House of Commons in 1965 they lived in Ettrick Bridge in the Scottish Borders country. At 26, he was the youngest member of Parliament. Steel was organized, hard-working, even-tempered, and rational, which showed up in his work in the House of Commons. The first legislation for which he gained a distinct recognition was his Private Member's Bill to reform the out-of-date abortion law. The law was enacted in 18 months, and it took political skill and very hard work on Steel's part (1967).

Jo Grimond was weary of his job as leader of the party and resigned in 1967; Jeremy Thorpe took his place. The Liberal Party of Gladstone, Asquith, and Lloyd George now experienced a leader—Thorpe—who came to grief on a sordid scandal involving his liaison with a male model and his misuse of party funds (1976). Steel, who had been chief whip and the effective second man in the party, was a candidate for leader to replace Thorpe; he fought a bitter election for that post against John Pardoe and won.

During Steel's early days in the job of leader of the Liberals, the prime minister was James Callaghan (Labour, 1976-1979). Steel struck an understanding with Callaghan ("the Lib-Lab Pact," as some unhappy Liberals called it), about how the Liberals would react to the Conservative (Margaret Thatcher's) motion of no-confidence in Callaghan's government. The Liberals would support the Labour government, provided that they had some say over policy. For instance, there was to be no more nationalization of industry. The experiment lasted 18 months; Steel ended it in the autumn of 1978.

In May 1979 the Conservatives, under Thatcher, swept the board in the election. During the next few months, private conversations between Steel and his friend Roy Jenkins (home secretary in Labour governments of the 1960s and 1970s and president of the European Community in 1979) explored how to form a new party—the Social Democrats—which Jenkins would lead. The Social Democratic Party (SDP) emerged 15 months later, in March 1981, when the "Gang of Four" (ex-Labour ministers) combined: Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams, and William Rodgers. Reputedly, the "Fifth Wheel" was Steel who encouraged the rest to escape from the Labour Party.

In a previous meeting with Jenkins, Steel promised to form an "alliance" between his Liberals and the new party, the Social Democrats. At one time Steel looked for an outright merger of the Social Democrats and the Liberals to form a third party opposing the Conservative and Labour parties. A large segment of the British electorate wanted that too, he thought.

The election of June 1983 was disappointing for the SDP and for Steel's Liberals. Thatcher and her Conservative Party were triumphant in the Falklands War (1982), and that victory over Argentina carried the Tories to victory at election time. SDP strength dwindled to six members of Parliament (at the outset there were 26 members). The Liberals, in contrast, stood at a steady 17 members, but were chagrined at the loss by the SDP. Maybe the British electorate did not want a third party at all.

Two of the Gang of Four lost their seats in Parliament, leaving David Owen (foreign secretary under Callaghan, 1976-1980) and Jenkins. Owen replaced Jenkins as Social Democratic leader, much to Steel's surprise.

The "two Davids"—Steel and Owen—were facing each other. Which would be leader of the merged parties, if they did in fact merge? David Owen had more ministerial ("front-bench," as the English say) experience, and he had more ideas than Steel. David Steel had more members of Parliament behind him and was a television professional (he had been a broadcaster). Perhaps Steel was the first British politician of the television era.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party was not finished. Neil Kinnock, a Welshman, emerged at the leader of the Labour Party (1983). Like Steel, he had an accent that exempted him from any note of class in the class-ridden English society. The leaders of both the Labour and the Liberal parties were from the "Celtic fringe" now—Wales and Scotland. Kinnock's rise in the public-opinion polls was at the expense of David Owen and the Social Democratic Party, not at the expense of David Steel and the Liberals. In the 1987 parliamentary election Thatcher's Conservatives won 376 seats, Kinnock's Labourites 229, and the "Alliance" only 22 seats—17 Liberals and 5 Social Democrats. Both minor parties then voted to work out a merger. David Owen resigned in protest, leaving David Steel the clear leader in the merged party.

In 1990 Steel became a "Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire" (KBE). The next year, Sir David Steel was awarded the title "Her Majesty's Deputy Lieutenant (DL) for Roxburghshire, Ettick and Lauderdale." He held the post as joint Chairman of the Scottish Constitutional Convention from 1991-1993. An Honorary Doctorate of Merit was bestowed on Steel by the President of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1992.

Further Reading

Additional information on David Steel and the political climate in which he functioned can be found in Hugh Stephenson, Claret and Chips: the Rise of the SDP (London, 1982); Cyril Smith, Big Cyril (London, 1977); and John Newhouse, "Profiles: David Steel," New Yorker (May 21, 1984). David Steel, High Ground of Politics (London, 1979) and A House Divided (London, 1980) provided insights on Steel's philosophy and politics. Steel's autobiography Against Goliath was published in 1990 and as a paperback in 1991. □

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David Martin Scott Steel

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