David Steel: Liberal conscience

Most politicians don't leave much behind. Few can rival Aneurin Bevan's National Health Service or David Lloyd George's old-age pension scheme or the collection of ideas and values that make up Margaret Thatcher's eponymous "ism". Even past giants can be sometimes be remembered only by the relatively trivial; Harold Macmillan's Premium Bonds scheme is still with us, though it's doubtful that it would have been top of his preferred list of epitaphs. Much the same might be said of Harold Wilson's abiding monument, the Open University. Tony Blair? One's tempted to think of the Dome, but it is perhaps too early to judge.

All of which puts the achievement of David Steel's Abortion Act into sharper perspective. The abortion legislation celebrates, if that's the right word, its 40th birthday today. The anniversary and the looming prospect of further reform have put the 68-year-old Steel back into the centre of national debate. Although it's since been amended (in 1990 Parliament reduced the legal limit for termination from 28 weeks to 24 weeks, in line with medical progress), Steel's Act remains the nearest thing we have to an ethical map for this difficult territory.

It was, as Steel put it at the time, a "relatively minor but significant social reform in our country". He was too modest about that; it was quite something for a 28-year-old Liberal backbencher with barely 18 months' parliamentary experience behind him – and it ended a good deal of human suffering. His campaign established him as a national figure. The exposure it gave him did him no harm when he became leader of his party less than a decade later (when he was not quite 40). And the experience of working with MPs from all sides – notably Roy Jenkins, then the Labour Home Secretary – gave him a tastes for cross-party activity that found its apogee in his role as neutral Presiding Officer (Speaker) of the Scottish Parliament, his last major political job, which he relinquished only in 2003.

Steel's act famously set down the principal criteria for a termination, testing whether the risks to a woman's health and that of her foetus will be greater if she continues with the pregnancy than if she ends it. The Human Tissue and Embryology Bill now offers "pro-life" and "right to choose" lobbyists the chance once again to amend the Steel Act and intimidate everyone with their adamantine righteousness.

For Steel, there is the worry that abortion may have become another form of contraception, much as the critics insisted it would when he brought in his private member's Bill in 1966. More teenagers are having abortions, with the total number exceeding 200,000 in 2006, about 10 times the number immediately after Steel's legalisation. "I accept that there is a mood now which is that if things go wrong you can get an abortion, and it is irresponsible, really," he said. "I think people should be a bit more responsible in their activities, and in particular the use of contraception."

Steel says that he did not foresee "anything like" current levels of terminations, though he adds, "But when people say there are 'too many' I say 'all right, you give me the right figure'. An d of course nobody can."

Always emotive, the debate has become still more highly charged by the development of 3D foetus imaging. Steel remains the rational, empirical, dispassionate voice in the argument he has always been. Last week he said: "My view is it should stay at 24 weeks unless there is compelling evidence to the contrary. There maybe I am reasonably open minded about I, but I don't start from the position that it should be changed." Then as now he puts hi s faith in the considered judgement of bodies such as the British Medical Association.

In 2007, so it was in 1967. In a speech in the Commons at that time, Steel was open about the essentially pragmatic nature of the judgement he was asking Parliament to make, despite the many appeals around the chamber and elsewhere to the Almighty. "The report of the Social and moral Welfare Board of the Church of Scotland quotes a German theologian as stating that human life in every form is sacrosanct, but that we have to ask ourselves what quantitative item of sancrosanctity may be attached to each form of life – the ovum fertilised, the moving embryo, the born child and the mother. He said a paper-thin wall separates us from sacrilege. All such decisions can be made only under saving grace; such dangers always go with freedom. Those who want to avoid the dangers only do so by setting up a rigid dogma... So there is obviously no perfect solution. The decision has to be taken in the light of God's understanding of our human frailty."

But Steel was conscious of the limits of his law. "We want to stamp out the backstreet abortions, but it is not the intention of the promoters of the Bill to leave a wide-open door for abortion on request."

Even so he was disappointed to see that the Church of Scotland opposed him. This was poignant because Steel is a "son of the manse", his father a minister in the Church of Scotland. Like that other famous son of the manse, Gordon Brown, Steel and his progressive politics seemed to have been shaped by both his father's beliefs and by first-hand evidence of poverty and social need. In Steel's case, the racism he witnessed when his father was posted to Kenya, just as the sun was setting on the empire, was added to the mix.

"One of the remarkable features of colonial education was that it was completely segregated," Steel has said. "Most of the European children had no social contact with African or Asian children – they may have met one of the farm-workers' children, but not socially – and that was one of the things that made me political."

It left Steel with lifelong link to Africa and he came a major figure, alongside the even more youthful Peter Hain, in the anti-apartheid movement. The campaign against South African rugby tours almost lost Steel his rugger-loving Borders seat at the 1970 election. As with the 3,000 Catholics in his constituency, Steel took a calculated and risk and won, just.

Had he, in 1967, chosen instead to sponsor a bill on homosexual law reform, as was suggested by Roy Jenkins, his majority of 550 might well have evaporated. His constituency officers made it clear to him that anything on the gay front was unacceptable in Roxborough, Selkirk and Peebles (and the Scottish law remained unreformed for some years after the English law was changed). He didn't go for it.

His precociousness marks Steel as something of a prototype for the modern career politician, as does the fact that he has had only one full-time job not connected with politics – as a presenter on current affairs with the BBC, for less than six months. Becoming an MP at 26 via a spectacular by-election, the "Boy David" was a phenomenon. Now, the cult of youth has spread to such an extent that most of the Cabinet seems to have spent their brief lives cocooned in Westminster.

Equally conventional has been Steel's family life, and he is now a grandfather. His wife Judy he met at university, via Liberal politics, and they have three children: Graeme, 41, Catriona, 39, and Rory, 34. Catriona became deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats for the Scottish Borders council, and hinted in an interview at some of the sadness that lay behind some tabloid headlines about the Steels' adopted son Billy and the absence of their politician dad. "He'd be off to London on a Sunday night, then back on Friday. Successful men say they wish they'd spent more time with their families – but if they had, they wouldn't be successful men.

"We had an adopted brother, Billy. He'd had a disturbed background. After school, he went to London to go to drama school, and my parents haven't heard from him since. They did their best, and that's as far as Billy wanted it to go."

The other key to Steel's long political career is his quiet, intense reasonableness, expressed in that soft Scottish accent. It was the mainstay of the appeal of his party and its alliance with the SDP during the 1970s and 1980s. That nice, earnest, decent Mr Steel and his moderate friends Roy Jenkins, David Owen and Shirley Williams were contrasted with the harsh dogmas of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Benn.

In an era of social discord – the Brixton riots, the miners' strike, three million unemployed – the appeal of such a party was real. However, Steel's determination to get his way was always there behind the scenes. Fond as he was of his mentor, Roy Jenkins, he was prepared to push him out of the way during the 1983 campaign. David Owen said, "I had never seen such a savage and ruthless deed." Others have attested to Steel's tendency to "aloofness" and "arrogance".

Maybe ambition went to his head around then. For it's impossible to write about Steel without mentioning that other thing he will always be remembered for: his unfortunate peroration at his party's assembly in Llandudno in 1981. "I have the good fortune to be the first Liberal leader for over half a century who is able to say to you at the end of our annual assembly: go back to your constituencies and prepare for government." It has been endlessly replayed, yet at the time the alliance was riding high on 50 per cent in the opinion polls. However, unlike Steel's abortion law reform, it was not to last.

When Steel became Liberal leader in 1976, Michael Foot teased: "He has gone from rising hope to elder statesman without any intervening period whatsoever!" Foot spoke too soon. Only now, three decades later, is Lord Steel settling into his seniority, the boyishness wearing off. And to think he is only three years older than Ming Campbell...

A Life in Brief

Born David Martin Scott Steel, 31 March 1938, Kirkcaldy, Scotland.

Education Prince of Wales School, Nairobi, and George Watson's College, Edinburgh University. Became president of Edinburgh University Liberals.

Career Became an MP in 1965 after a by-election. First worked as an employment spokesman for the Liberal Party, becoming its chief whip in 1970. Introduced the Abortion Act 1967 as a private members' bill. Became the party's leader in 1976, serving until 1988. Under his leadership, the party enjoyed the highest share of the popular vote for a third party for more than 50 years. Served as the presiding officer of the Scottish Parliament between 1999 and 2003.

He says "I accept that there is a mood now which is that if things go wrong you can get an abortion, and it is irresponsible, really. I think people should be a bit more responsible in their activities, and in particular in the use of contraception."

They Say "A politician who passed from rising hope to elder statesman without any intervening period." Michael Foot, former Labour leader

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