Steel to leave Lords for seat in Scots Parliament

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LORD Steel of Aikwood, last leader of the old Liberal Party, yesterday announced that he would be standing for election to the Scottish Parliament.

As one of those who co-chaired the cross-party constitutional convention which drew up plans for Scottish devolution, he could be a prize contender for the Speakership of the new Parliament. Yesterday, he said that since last year's referendum vote, he had been "like a man with a pair of whispering birds perched on each shoulder" - one telling him to stay in the Lords; the other urging him to see out his dream of devolution and stand for the Scottish Parliament. "The second bird has won," he said. "Tomorrow, I shall lodge my application to go on the Liberal Democrat list for the Lothian Region."

Lord Steel, who once urged the old Liberal Party to prepare itself for general-election victory, also predicted success for the Liberal Democrats in the Scottish elections. "The beauty of a proportional system is that every vote counts," he said. "There is no such thing as a so-called wasted vote. We should be able to gather a harvest in hitherto infertile territory. For Scottish Liberal Democrats the opportunities in the new Parliament are especially exciting.

"We are likely to experience consensus and coalition politics rather than a replication of the Westminster adversarial system. So what are the likely coalitions? Labour and Tory? Labour and SNP? Tory and SNP? It is surely more likely that the Lib Dems will be part of any equation." Lord Steel, 60, said Scotland was about to redress a wrong committed in 1707 when, in entering the Union, the Scottish Parliament was abolished.

"Gladstone's vision of home rule all round is coming nearer. Our hour has at last come."

Other parliamentarians who have said they will switch from Westminster to Holyrood include Donald Dewar, Secretary of State for Scotland, Henry McLeish, the Scottish home affairs minister, and the six-strong SNP contingent at Westminster, led by Alex Salmond.

Lord Steel's announcement boosts the Scottish Liberal Democrats, who go into the elections as third-place also-rans according to the latest System Three opinion poll in last Wednesday's Glasgow paper, The Herald. It put Labour and the SNP level-pegging at 40 per centage points, with the Liberal Democrats on 10, and 8 for the Tories. Those figures would leave Labour six seats short of a majority in the 129-seat legislature, but if the Liberal Democrats won the basic 10 seats they would get from the System Three polling result, they could hold the balance of power - blocking the Scottish Nationalists' plan to hold a further referendum on complete independence in the event of an SNP majority in the new Parliament.