Lord Steel, who was born in 1938, served as leader of the Liberal Party from 1976 until its merger with the Social Democratic Party in 1988 to form the Liberal Democrats.
He was a Member of Parliament from 1965 to 1977, and a Member of the Scottish Parliament from 1999 to 2003 – during which time he was Presiding Officer.
Since 1977 he had been a Member of the House of Lords.
In the spring of 2000 I interviewed him at his Scottish home for three hours, and in view of the forthcoming referendum as to whether Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom many readers will find the interview of great interest.
Here is the full text of our encounter.
In your wildest dreams of political life, did you ever see yourself as you are now, literally presiding over a devolved parliament in your native Scotland?
No, although I was actually a campaigner for a Scottish parliament from my early days as a student at Edinburgh University. The person who influenced me more than anybody in this respect was Jo Grimond. He and the Liberals were consistent advocates of a Scottish parliament over many years, in fact from the days of Gladstone. As a student I used to take part in the debates about a Scottish parliament but I never really thought that it would happen. I suppose as a congenital Liberal, and therefore part of a minority, you don’t actually expect your policies to come to fruition. I retired from the Commons in ’97, and although I took part in the referendum campaign I still wasn’t contemplating coming out of semi-retirement. The Labour government introduced the legislation very quickly after the referendum and then, oddly enough, the newspapers started to say that if there was going to be a Scottish parliament, then someone like David Steel should preside over it. Before long people in my own party started to suggest it, and I began to think that it would be a very nice way to finish off a political career. So I put my name in for selection in the Lothian region, and when I was voted in the members elected me as Presiding Officer.
It might have been very different – it could have been a quiet retirement to your family home in Selkirk, but instead you are absolutely at the centre of power in the land. Have you taken it in your stride, or has it been a bit of a shock to the system?
I think I have taken it in my stride, but that is not to say it hasn’t been a shock to the system. My wife would readily tell you that she has been amazed at how demanding it all is. She thought it would be a nice sort of semi-retirement job, but it’s not. I’m actually working harder now than I ever have done, because the responsibility is so great and the projection of the parliament outside Scotland, in the rest of the UK and indeed internationally, adds significantly to the demands of the post. It is fundamentally a management job, like being chairman of the board, but not at all like the Speaker of the Commons who has a sergeant-at-arms to run the administration while the Leader of the House runs the business. Basically the Presiding Officer in Scotland has three jobs rolled into one, which is very challenging. But I have never regretted taking it, not for a second.
Sons of the manse have traditionally made very effective politicians. Do you think there is something specifically about the Scottish Presbyterian upbringing which invites this, or encourages it?
Yes, I think so. For a start the innate democracy of the Scottish Church seeps through into society in Scotland in a way that it does not south of the border. It has a great many defects, and I’m not saying it’s the best system, but it is the one under which we are brought up. And those of us who are brought up in a manse inevitably have certain advantages. We get to meet all sections of society in a way that children of other parents do not. Normally children tend to mix with only the narrow groove in which their parents circulate. But the son of the manse may be meeting a troubled family of a miner one minute and the lord lieutenant the next; it’s a very extraordinary position to be in. And you’re right, it’s amazing how many sons and daughters of the manses come into political life.
The children of clergymen are always assumed to have been deeply affected by their religious upbringing and you, briefly, considered following your father into the ministry. Were you considering it only in career terms, or did you have at any time a sense of vocation?
I had a sense of vocation, but I also had a sense of anxiety about the limitations and structure of the church as an organization. I just somehow felt that I wouldn’t necessarily be a good parish minister, but it could be said that the same concept followed through into my work as a member of parliament, possibly because of my Borders constituency. Not only was I the youngest MP at the time, but I was also the only member of the House of Commons whose constituency covered three counties. I had eight town councils and three county councils, so in a sense it was a parish, and my role in relation to it was much more a parochial role in the true sense of the word than, say, an MP in the city of Edinburgh or London. And the thing that I enjoyed most throughout my life in the House of Commons was the role of keeper of the parish, the person looking after the interests of his constituency, not just in policy terms, but in terms of helping individuals who had problems of whatever kind. The reality was that two times out of three I probably couldn’t do anything, but maybe one time out of three I could, and then it was immensely satisfying.
Do you miss not being in the House of Commons?
I don’t miss it now. I thought at first I might, but then in a way I was very lucky because I was made a peer in John Major’s dissolution list which meant that I still had access to the Commons. I did very occasionally go back and have dinner with my colleagues in the members’ dining room or sit in the peers’ gallery looking down. The first couple of times I did that, I thought, well maybe I am missing out. There was the excitement of a change of government, and a much bigger party on my own benches than I had experienced myself, and I did sometimes think it was a shame not to be part of it. But that passed very quickly.
Would you say the Commons has changed much since you first entered it as a young MP?
It has changed very much in composition compared with the time when I was first in. There is now almost a professional intake of members of parliament in all parties, people who have been research assistants or worked in the party machine. And it is no longer possible to tell just by looking at them which party they belong to. When I arrived in the late 60s there were people in the Commons who had actually served down pits in their earlier lives, or people on the Conservative side who were knights of the shires, owning large acres of England. That sort of thing has disappeared. We now have more or less identikit members of parliament. Whether that’s better or worse, I don’t know, but certainly the character of the place has changed immensely.
You have said that your own Christianity is encapsulated in a quote from your father’s address as Moderator to the General Assembly, to the effect that the church cannot be taken seriously until it practises the ethic of ‘New Testament communism according to which possessions and goods are given to all men as every man has need’. Do you seriously believe that to be possible in the modern world? Was it ever practised even by early Christians?
I think some have tried to practise it, but I don’t think it has ever been successfully applied. We call ourselves a Christian society but the greatest single social problem, which I see in Scotland, and which applies throughout Britain, is the growing number of people who are just cut off below an acceptable standard of living. They are herded into what we now called sink housing estates, where there are high levels of marriage breakdown, illegitimacy, drug taking, crime, vandalism and unemployment. And if you look at the people who are caught in those traps you can’t say that we have succeeded in applying the doctrine you have just enunciated.
Can we ever succeed?
We ought at least to make a greater effort, and I’d like to think that’s one of the things the Scottish parliament will do. It won’t happen immediately, but it’s perhaps closer to the ground than the House of Commons, and I’m hoping that over time there will be a determination amongst the Scottish politicians to address these really quite deep seated problems. Of course, you’re right to raise the question of whether we’ll actually succeed, but the least we can do is to make the effort.
Did the Presbyterian ethic stay with you through your adult life, would you say?
Yes. What influenced me in particular was that my father for a time was minister in East Africa, and although I was only there for four years as a boy, the whole ethos of the church in campaigning against privilege, was an important part of my makeup. When I came back to Scotland and went to university, I was involved very early on in the anti-apartheid movement, later on becoming president. This interest had been built into me through my experience as a boy in East Africa where I was at a whites only school and it was very difficult to make friends with either the Asian or the African community. Subsequently I did, and I have a lot of friends now in many different parts of Africa, mainly among the African population.
In your autobiography you tell us very little about your mother’s influence on your life. What qualities have you inherited from her?
I hope a certain calmness and serenity. My mother was an amazing person – able, intelligent, well organized and serene. She had a first class degree in languages and yet she spent her whole life, apart from early on, as a wife and mother, helping my father in his parish work and raising five children. It must have been difficult for her moving from one place to another as my father moved parish, but she managed to run an extraordinarily happy and successful home as well as supporting my father in his work.
I couldn’t help noticing in your autobiography – maybe because I only have sisters in my family – that your sisters are not mentioned beyond the recording of their births. Did your sisters fail to impinge?
The fact is our family was split, because after the first four years of my father’s service in Africa he decided to do another four year term, and so my brother, the next one to me, and I came to school in Scotland, and the other three children went back to Kenya. So for four years I never saw my sisters or my younger brother, and that division in the family remained, because when the others came back my brother and I were already at university, and so that extraordinary cleavage persisted. It was nothing to do with them being sisters; it was to do with the age factor. I think you will find that my younger brother doesn’t get much of a mention either.
When your father was called to St. Andrews Church in Nairobi, was it traumatic to be uprooted from Scotland at that time of your life?
Yes, it was. I had just got a scholarship to go to George Watson’s school and there was quite a debate in the family about whether I should be left behind. I was eleven years old and I felt very torn; the idea of being suddenly taken away from all my friends and from a pattern of life in Edinburgh which I was familiar with was quite upsetting. I dithered about it and so did my parents, but eventually we all agreed that I would go with the rest of the family. If the decision had gone the other way, maybe my life would have been different. I wouldn’t have had the four years in Nairobi which proved to be deeply formative of my political thinking.
When you and your brother Michael came back to Scotland, you saw your mother only once during that time and your father not at all. That situation would be almost unimaginable nowadays … did you not feel bereft and neglected?
Bereft yes, neglected no. You are of course right to say it would not happen today; nowadays arrangements are always made for children to be flown out at holidays or parents to come back, no matter what line of work is involved, the church included. But in those days there were no such arrangements, and my parents could not afford the air fares to come back on their own and the church wasn’t going to pay for us to go out there. So it was purely for financial reasons that we never saw our parents; in fact it was a friend of the family who paid for my mother to come back and visit us once during the four years. But we were a very close family and never felt neglected. We had two sets of grandparents and also my father’s sister, who was a teacher in Edinburgh. We would go and spend Saturdays with her, and she’d take us out to museums or the botanic gardens. So it wasn’t a question of just being dumped in a boarding school – we had a lot of family around.
You repeatedly accuse yourself in your autobiography of having been an absent father to your own children, and bearing a burden of guilt for any ill effect this may have had on their upbringing. Did the fact that your own parents had been absent make the guilt harder or easier to bear? After all, you seem to survive…
[laughter] Yes, I did survive, but I think there was a difference. Because I was in a boarding house I had to find my own pastimes and that’s how I got involved in the school debating society, for example. I would never have spent my Friday evenings doing that if I had had a normal family life. But as far as my own children were concerned it was different, because our home was in a lovely part of Scotland, yet I was away in London during the week. And the real difficulty was that when I was supposedly at home at weekends I was out and about in the constituency, on a perpetual round of events and commitments. During the 12 years in which I was party leader a lot of these weekends were taken up with engagements elsewhere in the country, so my children experienced a very different kind of separation. In theory I was at home but in practice I did not have the time to attend to the needs of the children. I left their upbringing to my wife and I have always felt guilty about that. I missed out on their growing up, and in fact now that they are adults, I actually engage with them more than I did when they were children.
Obviously you job made full time parenting impossible, but you travelled abroad a great deal. Looking back do you think that all these absences were strictly necessary?
No, I don’t suppose they were all strictly necessary, but I became deeply involved in the whole process of trying to establish proper democratic conditions in difficult parts of the world, and it’s something I’m still involved in. I suppose I could have said no, but I found that kind of work so absorbing and meeting people in very different parts of the world absolutely fascinating. I have a global network of friends and political colleagues with whom I keep in touch. I don’t want to be cut off and marooned in a rural part of Scotland; and I never have been.
You rightly pay tribute to your wife Judy who brought up the children almost single-handed. She also supported you politically and canvassed for you and gave hospitality. Does your sense of guilt ever extend to her as well as the children?
No, I don’t think so. She has enjoyed political life, and she continues to enjoy it. She’s always been more zealous than I have on the subject of the Scottish parliament; in fact she was a Scottish Nationalist at university, so she is very pleased at what is happening now. She also has her own interest in the arts network in Scotland, and she has been running her own theatre company, and she feels very fulfilled in the work that she does, as well as being associated in my work. So, no, I don’t think I need feel any guilt about Judy, except insofar as I have landed her with more domestic chores than is reasonable in a balanced marriage, but that’s coming back to the children rather than her.
There is a notoriously high rate of marital breakdown amongst politicians, often attributed to the stress of the job and enforced absences. Some people would say that your own marriage has been successful more because of those factors than in spite of them. Is there any truth in that?
There is some truth in it. For our silver wedding we had a party in the village hall and one of my close friends who made the speech said that the whole thing was a complete fraud because we’d only been together about seven years rather than 25. And there is a grain of truth in that. I mean, I can’t judge other people’s marriages, but I think that it’s important that married couples give each other a certain amount of space, and Judy and I have certainly had an excess of space. I have been pursuing my interests, while my wife has pursued hers, and I believe that has worked very well for us. Maybe it wouldn’t work well for other people, but I sometimes wonder if we would have had such a successful marriage if I had been doing a 9 to 5 job and been here every single evening. Maybe it wouldn’t have been so good, I don’t know. My only criticism of colleagues, I suppose, with regard to the high rate of marital breakdown is that some of them don’t work very hard at marriage. It isn’t always plain sailing and I often think people take marriage a bit too lightheartedly these days. There is also a huge increase in the number of people who simply live together and don’t bother with the commitment to marriage. I think that is sad, but that’s my own perspective.
At Edinburgh University you were signed up into the Liberal Party during your first week. Did you actually inherit liberalism from your parents?
Not politically. I think I did philosophically, but my parents were never involved in party politics. The only political paper which came into the house was the New Statesman as it was called, so if anything it was more left wing than a Liberal household.
Most of your university friends were Labour voters. Were you never tempted to turn to the left?
Yes, I was. I remember a particular episode in 1962 when Hugh Gaitskell came to speak at the university, and I went along, as everybody did, to hear him. George Mackintosh, one of my lecturers who later became a good friend and MP for the next door constituency, tried to persuade me that really I should be sensible and join the Labour Party. I thought perhaps he was right. But the very next day Gaitskell was speaking in Glasgow where he was shouted down by his own party, and I remember thinking that I wouldn’t really feel comfortable in the Labour Party if I had to spend all my time fighting colleagues. I was happy in the Liberal Party even though I didn’t imagine it had any political prospects for me. In any case I was intending at that time to go to the bar in Scotland.
No matter what else you have achieved in your life, you are fated to be remembered as the MP who chose as his Private Member’s Bill the legalization of abortion. Whatever one’s opinion of abortion, this showed an incredible degree of courage and strength and character for a young – and at the time inexperienced – politician. Where did it come from, the strength to do this, and to see it through?
First of all it was very much a team effort; it could not have been done by, as you say, a young inexperienced MP on his own. I had a very good team of cross party people, and we worked very closely together to get the legislation through. I also had powerful backers where it mattered: Roy Jenkins as home secretary, John Silkin as government chief whip, whose father had piloted the legislation through the Lords, Richard Crossman as Speaker of the House, and Kenneth Robinson as minister of health.
What led you to choose this particular bill?
Apart from reading a book called Law for the Rich by Alice Jenkins, what really convinced me was a report produced by a committee of the Church of England under Bishop Ian Ramsey. This was called Abortion: An Ethical Discussion, and it was in fact the most analytical discussion of the ethics of abortion that I have read before or since. I was also greatly assisted by the support I got from the Church of Scotland, the Methodists, and indeed the bishops in the House of Lords.
Did you fully realize how you would be vilified?
No, I didn’t. I suppose I was young and naive in that sense. When you are elected to the Commons you are lobbied by different organizations, asking if will you support x, y or z, and I had simply ticked the box saying, yes, I would support abortion law reform. I didn’t know a great deal about it at the time, and I certainly didn’t realize until I got started the strength of opposition, albeit a minority opposition, that existed and has continued ever since. But in the many debates that I have had both locally and nationally on the subject, I simply say that if people believe that from the moment of conception a human life exists, then they cannot accept abortion. However, the fact is that the majority of people do not accept that point of view, including the majority of the medical profession, and the majority of Christians. The law of the land has to reflect what most people think, not what the tiny minority would uphold. We also amended the bill as it went through to include what I call the conscience clause, to make it quite clear that nobody who had a conscientious objection to abortion would ever be required to participate as a nurse or a doctor at a termination. I think that was the right compromise.
Your fellow Liberal, David Alton, is a passionate opponent of the legalization of abortion. How did this affect his relationship with you?
It didn’t, oddly enough. David Alton and I were very good friends, and in fact he worked as my chief whip at one point, and I saw a lot of him. We simply agreed to differ on this issue. Strangely enough he fell out more with my successor than with me on the issue because the Liberal party later adopted a conference resolution on the subject. I had resisted this. I had always said that issues like capital punishment and abortion and divorce must be left to the conscience of individual members. The party took a different view and after my time as leader they did pass resolutions. David Alton fell out quite severely with Paddy Ashdown on the subject, much more than he ever did with me. We used to argue about it, and I remember once visiting the Catholic Archbishop in Liverpool with him. If we ever got on to the subject of abortion we would always have a vigorous discussion, but usually we just agreed to differ and concentrate on the issues where we were in agreement.
‘The woman’s right to chose’ on the one hand, and ‘it’s always murder’ on the other, are two extremes which you’ve always stood firmly against. What you envisaged was a legal right to terminate a pregnancy in certain circumstances approved by the medical profession. How painful is it for you, therefore, to be faced with the reality – hundreds of foetuses aborted daily, mainly for social reasons?
I have never accepted the phrase ‘social reasons’. The act states that two doctors have to give their opinion formed in good faith – and these words are in the act – and make a judgement that in any given situation terminating a pregnancy is the lesser of two evils. They have to certify that the stress of whatever damage would be caused if the pregnancy continued has to be greater than the process of terminating the pregnancy. That is the judgement which the law requires medical practitioners to take. Now you can say that different doctors interpret situations differently, and that is of course true, human nature being what it is. But I as the author of the legislation cannot sit in judgement and say that there are too many, that there should be 200 rather than 300, or 50 rather than a hundred. Every individual case has to be looked at; there is no way round this. You have to rely on the good side of human nature and the wisdom to make the right decisions.
Would you not accept, however, that what we have today is virtually abortion on demand, which is presumably very far from what you originally envisaged?
I’m not sure that what we have got is abortion on demand. If you talk to the people who monitor the availability of abortion in different areas of the country, they will point out that in some parts of the country it is extremely difficult to secure a termination of pregnancy on the National Health Service. So it’s certainly not abortion on demand. However, I suppose if a woman is sufficiently determined to secure a termination of pregnancy she can find ways of doing it, so to that extent we are getting closer. But I still maintain that the ethical basis on which the law is based is the correct one; that you are having to make a judgement between one course of rather undesirable action and another course of undesirable inaction, and that’s not the same as a woman’s right to choose.
Do you ever feel a degree of personal responsibility for the huge number of abortions … does it weigh heavily with you ever?
No, it doesn’t. People write to me in exactly that vein, quoting statistics and asking me to search my conscience. But I always say that if the law has been carried out properly, it has brought tremendous relief to thousands of women in difficult circumstances over the years. Indeed, when the last general secretary of the British Medical Association retired he made a speech saying that there was no doubt in his mind that the greatest medical social advance in his time in medicine had been the 1967 Abortion Act. Why? Because no longer can you find women in hospital with septicaemia or complications due to incomplete abortions, nor do the home office statistics record between 30 and 50 women a year being killed through illegal abortion. And I believe that is a healthier state of society than what existed before my Abortion Act. I’m not saying it’s perfect, but it’s better than what it was before.
It came as news to me to read in your book that the Catholic Church does not regard all abortion as murder, and that a Catholic doctor would be permitted to abort a pregnancy where the unborn child had no brain, for example. Does Cardinal Winning know about this?
Funnily enough I have never discussed abortion with Cardinal Winning. Whenever we meet it has either been on a parliamentary occasion or to do with some issue on which we do agree, like Shelter, or overseas development. So although I have met him many times we have always avoided the subject on which we know we would disagree. I can’t tell you whether he is aware of this or not, but what I can tell you is that historically the Catholic Church was not always against abortion. There was a long period in its history during which the theory of quickening was accepted; in other words a termination of pregnancy was permissible in the early stages of pregnancy before the foetus was developed around mid-term. So the Catholic Church does not have a historically consistent record on this subject.
Do you ever wish you had made another choice for your Private Member’s Bill back in 1966, or do you think, as many people do, especially women, that it is your greatest achievement?
I have never looked back and wished I had done something else, but I don’t think of it as my greatest achievement. Obviously there are people, whether in the medical profession or individual women themselves, who may well take that view; but then that is balanced by others who say that I am a latter-day King Herod. I just have to put both in the scales and continue with life.
Tony Blair got into trouble with Cardinal Winning for saying that while he personally was against abortion he did not believe that as a legislator he had the right to impose his views on women. You say in an interview in the Sunday Telegraph that you didn’t understand his position at the time. What was it you did understand?
I can’t remember saying that, because I think I do understand his position. Obviously he wasn’t around in 1967 to vote on my bill, but I think if he felt strongly about it as an individual he would have been entitled to vote against it. On the other hand, I have some Catholic friends in parliament who have told me that although they personally were opposed to abortion and could never accept it, say, in their own family, they nevertheless took the view that the law of the land should reflect the wishes of the majority. They therefore did not oppose the bill, nor did they later support David Alton’s campaigns to try and reverse the bill.
But do you think a prime minister should be able to pass legislation on something which goes against his own conscience?
Ah, that’s a very interesting question, but the fact is a prime minister has only one vote, just like every other MP.
Except that he is more influential.
I don’t believe the prime minister has influence on an issue like this. People make up their own minds, though unfortunately both in the Labour party and in my own party there has been some pressure on members at the party conferences. If Tony Blair’s conscience has led him to the view that whatever his private feelings he must act in the interests of the majority, then that is completely understandable, and I do accept that.
As a small child at school in Dumbarton you quickly learned to take part in the stone throwing battles with the children at the nearby Catholic school. Such sectarianism was the culture, you say. Would you not agree that it still is to some extent?
Yes, unfortunately. It’s a strange thing but it occurs only really in the West of Scotland, as it does in places like Liverpool, where there were previous generations of Irish immigration. It’s very regrettable, and it leads me to the view that separate schools are not a good idea, another issue on which I quarrel with Cardinal Winning. I genuinely don’t think it is healthy to have separate Catholic and Protestant schools and I would like to see them gradually disappear. I wouldn’t be so draconian as to say that they should be abolished by the state, but I believe it would be preferable to have ready access to Catholic teaching for Catholic pupils within a single unitary system of schooling. And I am not the only one who thinks this. James Macmillan, the composer, was talking recently about the same kind of thing from the Catholic viewpoint, and I just wonder whether the Catholic Church is right to keep insisting on having their own schools.
Would you encourage any move in the Scottish parliament to desegregate schools?
I am in the happy position of not being allowed to encourage anything in the Scottish parliament [laughter]. My standard position on every subject from Clause 28 to foxhunting is that I now have no views.
But if you were allowed to have views, would you encourage it?
Yes, on balance. If I were a private member I would vote for desegregation, but I don’t think it will ever happen, because we are a free society. And as long as the Catholic Church as a minority wish to maintain their own schools, then I think we have to respect that.
Catholic schools, as you must know, are overwhelmed by applications from non-Catholics of all denominations, and from non-Christians, especially Muslims, because they are deemed to be better disciplined and to offer an ethos less imbued with materialism and the sex-culture of the age. How would you answer that?
What you say is true. I know this because my own daughter has been contemplating sending my granddaughter to the local Catholic school for exactly those reasons. I think it is to the credit of the Catholic schools that they have that reputation. Well, why don’t they amalgamate with the state schools and bring those qualities into the general school system, rather than keeping them in their own little corner, with the resultant division in society where Catholics throw stones at Protestants and vice versa?
Just to get all the Catholic matters out of the way … the Catholic Church is also worried about the increasing support for the idea of euthanasia. Would you be as liberal about that as you are about abortion?
No. I think we’ve got it about right now. The courts have clearly demonstrated in various cases that where the medical profession eases the passing of a patient that is not regarded as something terrible. If you try to legislate for euthanasia it can be open to abuse and it can be open to objection in principle, and I’m not sure that any country has actually succeeded in doing it, I believe we should leave the doctor-patient relationship as it is; 99 percent of doctors are eminently sensible on this issue, as are the patients and the relatives. I think we should leave well alone.
Would you consider signing a living will yourself?
I haven’t done so, but probably if someone put one in front of me I would sign it, yes.
Is the spiritual dimension important in your life? Do you still have core Christian beliefs?
Yes, I do, but the answer to the first part of your question is that, sadly, the spiritual dimension is not important enough in my life. I was thinking about it the other day, and thought maybe when I retire I shall spend some more time contemplating these things than I do now. There are certain aspects of my life that I just shut out because I haven’t the time or relaxation to deal with them. My spiritual life ought to have much greater importance, but I find that I live such a hectic and busy life that I just leave it to one side. I still attend church, not as regularly as I should, and I enjoy a really good sermon, but I don’t spend a lot of my time in contemplation or prayer. Perhaps I should, and perhaps I will as I get older.
Do you believe in an after life?
Yes. Don’t ask me what it is, because I don’t know. But I don’t believe we are jest here as a casual depository on this earth.
Devolution for Scotland and Wales was thought to be the best way of defeating extreme nationalism and preventing the ‘Balkanisation’ of the UK. Yet many see it as only a staging post before complete independence. Do you remain unattracted by the idea of Scottish independence within Europe?
Yes, because I don’t think it is necessary. In a real sense we in Scotland have our cake and eat it. We have our own domestic arrangements, we have our own legal system to protect and develop, and we also have the advantage of the unitary United Kingdom and all which that brings. I see no reason to alter it. The idea that we should take a step further and become a supposedly independent country is not wanted by the great majority of Scots, and I certainly don’t agree with the fashionable London view, what I call the John Major view. I was talking to him about it only last week and he still believes we are on a slippery slope to separation and independence. Well, time will tell. But I think some people will settle for what we have got, and indeed the polls show something like 80 percent of Scots now look to their own parliament rather than Westminster as being the thing that affects their live. The idea that we should have our own foreign policy, our own army and navy and air force, and our own embassies around the world is just nonsense.
According to Neil Ascherson, the idea that Great Britain is not a happily united kingdom but a multi-national state has been hammered into the skull of British intellectuals by the writer Tom Nairn and is now practically uncontested by anyone with political nous. Nairn equates this with ‘the buckling of confidence in the survival of the UK as a state, let alone as a monarchy’. How do you react to that idea?
Nairn sees the development of a separate Scotland as being the last dismemberment of the British Empire. I don’t share that view. The demands by the Scots to see their self-confidence restored, their parliament restored, their distinctive way of life looked after by a parliament closer to them, is all perfectly natural. There is really no appetite for saying, let’s cut ourselves off and go our own way. Even the breakdown of SNP voters, which must be a little uncomfortable for their leaders, shows that only about half of them would actually support independence if it came to the crunch. So you’re talking about a small minority of Scots who actually hold this view.
Nairn is worried that this may result in English Nationalism. Would you say that this is already happening, at least in some sections of the Tory opposition?
Yes. Actually I have always regarded Mrs Thatcher as an English nationalist, in the true sense of the word. She flaunted English nationalism against Europeans and foreigners of every variety, and that was one of the reasons why she became so unpopular in Scotland, with the result that the Conservative party lost every single seat in Scotland. The legacy of Thatcherism was deeply inimical to what most Scots felt instinctively. English nationalism does exist, and to some extent it is justified, because the government did not think through the consequence of devolution for Westminster. I have always argued that the demand for a process of English legislation which excludes the Scottish MPs in Westminster is a perfectly legitimate demand, given that we have our own parliament. But what I found curious was that the English members sitting there in their great majority object to 73 Scots having a role in their legislation. When it was the other way round – and I was an MP at that time – we had all the English members having a say in Scottish legislation, and they had the overwhelming say. It was a far worse anomaly the other way round that it is now. However, the House of Commons has got to adapt and I have some sympathy with the view that there should be an English chamber of some kind.
Going back some years in your political career to 1983 … at that time you threatened to resign as leader of the Liberals. This was during your struggle to force an alliance with David Owen’s SDP, and you were deeply hurt by accusations of being a dictator. Why did this hurt so much? In the modern trading of insults it seems quite mild…
I don’t know that I was particularly hurt. The 1983 election was rather disappointing, because although we got the biggest vote we ever had in the Alliance, even bigger than the Liberal Democrats get now, it didn’t feed its way through to success in parliamentary terms. Of course the SDP itself was particularly badly hit when Roy Jenkins lost his seat, so it was an extremely difficult period. And also, right at the end of the campaign, I got a very severe attack of flu and I was ill in the period immediately after the election, and not in a robust mood to deal with criticism of colleagues regarding the conduct of the campaign and so on. I was pretty fed up and I thought, well, I’ve done this job for five or six years, and if they want somebody else they can have somebody else. I was very tempted just to chuck it in, but I was persuaded to take the summer off and relax. That’s what I did, and I was able to come back fighting in the autumn.
Yes, I was going to say that what defines a real dictator is his lust for power, and most people would agree that if it is power you are after you don’t join the Liberals since real power lies elsewhere. Or do you see it differently?
No, you’re absolutely right. I didn’t join the Liberals to seek power; I would have been certifiable if that had been the case. I joined a party which had only six members in the House of Commons. I remember once having a slight argument with my wife and when I accused her of being peculiar, she said, ‘How can you say that I am peculiar? There are 50 million people in this country, only 630 are members of parliament, only 10 of those are Liberals, and you’re one of them. You can’t get much more peculiar than that.’ It’s actually quite interesting comparing the life of a Liberal or a Liberal Democrat MP with the others. Over the long period of Conservative rule, for example, when I talked to my friends in the Labour party, they were genuinely very frustrated that they were constantly in opposition, and I used to ask them, ‘Well, what do you think it is like for us?’ but the difference was that I never expected anything else, and indeed it was one of the criticisms made of me that I never portrayed to the public that the Liberals were going to win the election. I felt I couldn’t do that because it was obviously ridiculous. But there was definitely a temperamental difference between me and someone like John Smith, whom I knew quite well. He chafed at the fact that he wasn’t actually in power and was wasting his time on the opposition benches.
Was there really never a time when you thought the Liberals could win?
If we go back to the time we are talking about, 1983, I do think that the success of the Alliance between myself and Roy Jenkins, which had great popular appeal, was only prevented by the Falklands War. That was an accident of history which no one could have guessed at. Before the Falklands War the Conservative Party was becoming extremely unpopular, and we were at one point in the opinion polls up to something like 50 percent, which was ridiculous. Certainly, that was not typical, but the fact is we were unstoppable – we were winning every by-election from Labour and Conservative. Then suddenly we went to war and it was Rule Britannia and all the rest of it, and we never really recovered from that. Now, if General Galtieri had not existed, and those remote islands had not existed, maybe history would have been different. I certainly had hoped and planned that it would be.
Would you have liked to be prime minister?
I’m not sure that I would. I was with Tony Blair when he came to Scotland recently and I watched him at close quarters for an hour or so and thought that I really wouldn’t want his job. He is constantly pushed from one thing to another, he has so many decisions to take, he gets vilified in the press, and he’s wound up like a coiled spring. I think it is a terrible job. So I have no regrets about not being prime minister. If it had come my way I like to think I would have made a descent job of it, but I never really sat there thinking, ‘One day I must be prime minister’.
Everybody asks you about your allegedly ‘spiky’ relationship with David Owen, which you always deny…
I have never denied that it was spiky … [laughter]
Well, nobody reading your autobiography would be in any doubt at all that it was very fraught. Your frequent ironic references to him as ‘the good Doctor’ speak for themselves … what was the basis of your difficult relations?
The basic problem was that we were exactly the same age. I mean, the relationship with Roy Jenkins as leader of the SDP was a lot easier, because he had been the home secretary, he had been Chancellor of the Exchequer, the president of the European Commission, and he was 20 years older than me. The trouble with the relationship between David Owen and me was that we were portrayed all the time as rivals. He felt threatened by me in a way that Roy Jenkins obviously could never be, because he had such standing. But also, the truth of the matter was- as we’ve learned more in recent times – he was out of kilter with the other three in the Gang of Four, and he was never enthusiastic about the link-up with the Liberals. He would much have preferred the SDP to smash the Liberal Party on the way to being the new centre party, which was not a view shared by the other three, and all of that made it quite a difficult relationship. But although you use the word spiky, and that’s fair, it was never acrimonious at all. We always tolerated each other very well, and he was very helpful to me on occasions when I needed political help, as I like to think I was to him. But we were not soul mates as Roy Jenkins and I were, and still are.
Now that Doctor Death, as he is sometimes called, is unlikely to arise from his political grave, can you tell me your opinion of him?
I think he was very talented, but too individualistic. The word ‘dictator could be used more justifiably about him than about me, since he was quite autocratic in his handling of his own party, more so than I was, and that was in his nature.
Isn’t an autocratic Liberal something of an oxymoron?
[laughter] Yes, but if you can be a liberal autocrat or an autocratic Liberal, I think on the whole I would rather be an autocratic Liberal.
Towards the end of Against Goliath you quote Alan Massie who writes of you: ‘The conviction that the world is moving his way, that he represents the future, is strong in Steel, but his grasp of what he sees as the logic of circumstances, as the inexorable moment of history, has something of Calvinistic certainty in it.’ Do you plead guilty to the charge of Calvinistic certainty?
[laughter] Alan Massie is a near neighbour of mine, so I have to plead guilty to whatever he says about me. And there is a grain of truth in it. But Alan is an unreconstructed Conservative Unionist.
You also quote Geoffrey Smith commenting on your threat to resign: ‘Mr David Steel’s leadership of the Liberals has been characterized both by his remarkable success in guiding the party in the direction he has always intended, and by his autocratic methods … he has not always paid sufficient regard to the sensitivities of his party.’ How do you react to that?
I suppose I have to say it’s a fair comment. A lot of people would have agreed with him. On the other hand, I argued from the moment I became leader that there’s no point in being leader of the party if you don’t actually lead it, and that may mean pulling people in a direction that they don’t particularly want to go. I remember my very first speech as leader at the conference, where there was a standing protest, led by a young David Alton and others, against the idea that we should engage in the politics of cooperation with others. That has been one of the themes of my political life: cooperation with others led to the alliance with the SDP, it led to my act of participation in the constitutional convention here, the referendum campaign and the establishment of the Scottish parliament. And if you want to look for proof that it can work I point to the Scottish parliament, which couldn’t have happened if we hadn’t engaged in cooperation with other parties.
In your book you devote a chapter to the most extraordinary and traumatic episode in the Liberal Party – the Jeremy Thorpe affair. Several books have been written on the subject and I don’t want to rake over it, but there is one thing I have always wanted to know. What were your feelings when Jeremy Thorpe’s close friend and co-defendant, David Holmes, claimed after the not-guilty verdict that Thorpe had indeed incited him to kill Norman Scott, and moreover that if he, Holmes, had been called to the witness box he would have had to tell the truth under oath?
My reaction was the same as my reaction to the whole episode, namely that Jeremy was a very bad chooser of his friends. Having friends like David Holmes and Peter Bessel was very strange considering that Jeremy was a man of considerable gifts and talents and upbringing. I am in no better position than anyone else to judge whether Holmes was telling the truth or not. But what I would say is that Jeremy chose to rely on the wrong people, and that struck me as the hallmark of his downfall.
Could it have been the case that Thorpe’s friends simply misunderstood his wishes? Could friendship have gone that far?
Well, as I say, his friends were a pretty rum lot. Your question is a justifiable one, but all I would say is that if you had met some of them as I did, you would have the answer to your question. Could friends have gone that far? Yes, those friends could.
Didn’t politics seem rather dull after all that was over?
No, it was a mighty relief, I can tell you. It didn’t seem dull at all.
You have never enjoyed an easy ride in politics, and even now when you should be enjoying the rewards of all your efforts, you are once again involved in a controversy and at the receiving end of blame. I’m referring of course to the mounting costs of building a permanent home for the new Scottish parliament. Is blame justified in any degree?
I don’t accept the word blame, but I do accept responsibility. The fact is that on the 1st of June last year the whole thing landed in my lap. I am chairman of the corporate body which consists of five members who are responsible for seeing this through to its completion. I had dinner the other night with the two architects on their own and I have some sympathy with them because I think we are very difficult clients. We keep making changes in our requirements for the building, and that alters the size of it, the cost of it, and the length of time it will take to build. There are certain people in the parliament trying to have it both ways. They say that we must have a building of prestige and quality, that it mustn’t be el cheapo hotel, as somebody called it; and yet when they see the mounting costs they say that this is terrible and David Steel or Donald Dewar must be to blame. I still hope that we will come out of it with a building that is distinctive and a great addition to the city of Edinburgh. My regret is about the way the whole thing is set up so that a capital expenditure for the next 100 or 150 years is having to be paid for out of the taxpayers’ pockets during next year and the year after. There is something wrong in that system. After all, when you buy a house you expect to get a mortgage and pay for it over a long time.
The Sunday Times reports that there is ‘growing enmity between Donald Dewar’s executive which still has to find extra cash to meet the spiralling costs and David Steel’s parliamentary corporate body which has had the day-to-day responsibility for the project since last summer. Steel is said to be angered by claims that the overspend is his fault. But let’s be quite clear about this, Steel is the key men.’ Can we have your views on that?
The press love to try and pick a quarrel, either personally between me and Donald Dewar or between his executive and my corporate body. But the fact is that we are having none of it. Donald Dewar and I meet regularly to discuss the building project and the difficulties on it. I value his insights and his background knowledge of it because he is the one who set the ball rolling. And I am always frank with him about the difficulties we are facing now. So we are not going to allow the press to divide us in this way, even if it makes a very good political story.
Do you get on well with Donald Dewar?
We get on extremely well. Again, what the press don’t understand is that Scotland is really one big village. Donald Dewar and I have known each other since we were students, even though we were in different universities. We went to Russia together in 1959, together with my deputy, George Reid, so there you have a Labour politician, a Liberal Democrat, a Scottish Nationalist, all in this close knit group. Although we have different political views and different political careers, we are very strong in our own relationships.
How do you answer the charge that you and your corporate body have simply agreed to request for more and more space for everything and everybody?
Well, that’s not true. We haven’t agreed to every request, but with the best will in the world, the design brief given to the architects before the parliament came into being was like everything else before the parliament came into being; it was only intelligent guesswork. Now we know what the parliament requires, we know what the staffing arrangements are, and we have to adjust to the realities, and if that means that the building is going to be larger than was originally planned, well that’s what the parliament needs. We would be open to the severest criticism if we were to go ahead with the building as it was, and take the attitude that if it turns out in three years’ time to be far too small, then that’s just too bad. That would be totally irresponsible, and we’re not going to do it.
Is it true that Donald Dewar found out about the 100 percent cost overrun from the newspapers?
No, I went and saw him. I told him that we were in difficulties and that I had come bearing bad news. I just heard some of the figures which the architects had given us.
If anything, Donald Dewar’s problems are even more serious than yours since he is the chief minister and he is criticized from all sides, and not only about this. There have already been calls for his resignation. Do you see the possibility of the calls becoming louder and more insistent? Can you foresee circumstances in which Donald Dewar would be faced with a no-confidence vote?
Well, that can always happen – it happened in Wales. But I think Donald Dewar is a very able straight politician, and I don’t see it actually happening. I am not saying it is impossible, because he has no majority in the parliament. The Labour party is a minority; they knew that from the beginning, which is why they formed a coalition. So long as that coalition holds I don’t see any possibility of a no-confidence vote, but I am not now able to give insights into how strong or how weak the coalition is.
Putting it another way, would an early departure by the chief minister be calamitous, not just for him, but for the whole credibility of the Scottish parliament and the great hopes on which it was founded?
You’re asking me dangerous questions. I have to preserve my neutrality. I would simply say from an objective point of view, looking at the parliament as a whole and its image in Scotland, your hypothesis would be a pretty disastrous one for the whole venture.
You are said by the Sunday Times to have reached the nadir of your relationship with Donald Dewar. Even if that were true, which it probably isn’t, are you surprised that it is being reported in this way?
It is not true, and I have read so many things in the papers that are not true. I’ve read that I’ve had ferocious rows with Donald Dewar, whereas the truth is that we have never had a row. We’ve had some straight talking as you would expect from old colleagues and friends, but we have never had a row or an argument. We meet over dinner every few months to resolve any outstanding issues and we get on well, so there is no question of having reached the nadir of our relationship. I can get exasperated, but we both live with the system. I’ve also read in the papers that I am to have a private dining room when everybody else is going to slum it in the canteen. Absolutely untrue. I’ve read that we have ordered eight chairs per MSP at a cost of £500 each, whereas the truth is that we haven’t even costed a single chair. I have read that we are cancelling a £700,000 arts project – we’ve never even commissioned a £700,000 arts project, never mind cancelled it. I sympathize with some of Tony Blair’s caustic remarks about journalists, because they pick up a story in one paper and print it in another, and the minute it appears in more than one paper it’s gospel. The drip drip drip of nonsense which appears in some papers is very dispiriting for those of us who are trying to do a decent job.
You accused the editor of the Daily Record of ‘bitch journalism’…
No, I didn’t single him out. I was referring generally to a certain style of journalism.
Well, other newspapers are also critical of you. For example, Richard Savill in the Times accused you of being ‘a political grandee who, these days, gives the appearance of someone who is easily offended, and who feels he should command greater respect.’
I must have missed that one [laughter]. I don’t think I am particularly sensitive to criticism. I am actually inured to it; I’ve lived with it so long it doesn’t worry me. My wife gets much more upset about the criticism than I do. I just shrug it off. What irritates me are the straight untruths that appear in the press. From Day One I have been told that I wanted ceremonial robes, a chauffeur, a private dining room, an official residence – it’s all absolute rubbish. But once it has appeared in the press, it becomes accepted and I am then described as a grandee.
Would you say that criticism has been justified in any measure?
It is important that the press should be able to criticize the performance of anybody, whatever his position, in the parliament or outside it. I don’t object to that at all. What I object to are the untruths.
It seems to be an undeniable truth these days that politicians are held in very low public esteem. Generally speaking, people are cynical about politics, which they see as a world inhabited by self-servers or would-be do-gooders. Does this distress you?
Yes, it does. I regard being in politics as quite a high calling. The very definition of politics is to deal with people, to help mould and create a just society. And most politicians I’ve known over the years, in all parties, are actually dedicated to public service. It is only a tiny minority who are out for themselves.
But what about the last Tory government, and all the sleaze…
The Tory government had two or three bad eggs in the barrel, that was all. I don’t think you could say that the whole government was mired in sleaze – that’s a gross exaggeration. It was convenient for their opponents to use phrases like that, but the truth is you are talking about a handful of individuals who behaved badly and who got their comeuppance.
Politicians’ private lives are considered to be very much in the public interest, and yours has been no exception. Over the years two of your sons – Graeme, your own elder son, and Billy, the son you fostered and then adopted – have caused you some embarrassment. Yet you appear to have been quite relaxed and non-judgemental about their behaviour. Are appearances deceptive in this instance?
No. Although I don’t say I was directly responsible for their behaviour, I felt that I wasn’t in the best position to be over critical. The fact is, they come out of these experiences and go on to adulthood and lead their own lives. They make mistakes when they’re young – well, we all make mistakes when we’re young. The difference is that had they been the sons of the local bank manager or doctor nobody would have noticed or cared much, but because they happen to be in the family of a well known politician, they were doubly punished. They were pilloried in a way that other children would not have been. That’s why I am very sympathetic to the Blairs in the recent case with their nanny. One’s children should be protected; they are not responsible for the fact that their fathers are in the public eye. It is very hard when the press publicize something about children that would otherwise not merit the slightest attention.
Can you explain your position about cannabis? You think it was wrong to send your son to prison for growing and selling it, especially since he could have become addicted to heroin in prison. You want the problem of drugs to be confronted, but what are the police to do if it remains a criminal offence?
First of all, and as a matter of fact, my son wasn’t selling it; he was growing it, rather foolishly, for his own use. I don’t approve of him taking it and still less of him growing it, but I think that the police have got better things to do with their time. A lot of senior police officers have themselves said that they wish that the mere possession of cannabis could be decriminalized so they don’t have to waste their time arresting people. From the little I know of the subject I don’t accept that there is an automatic progression from cannabis to hard drugs, and we should distinguish between cannabis and the really serious problem of hard drugs. I just think that it would be sensible not to have prosecutions for cannabis possession, that’s all, and that is a widely shared view among the judiciary as well as the police.
Do you welcome Charles Kennedy’s initiative on drugs?
Yes, I do. In fact the party as a whole some time ago adopted the position that there should be a royal commission independently looking at this whole question of drug culture, but successive governments have unfortunately shied away from it. It is partly a generation thin. Maybe the next House of Commons will take a different view from the House of Commons of my generation. We didn’t know much about these things, but almost all of the younger generation of politicians will have had experience of drugs at college and university.
Have you realized all your personal ambitions, would you say, or does something remain outstanding?
No, you see a remarkably contented man. I didn’t expect at the age of 60 to start a new career, though I will leave at the end of the four year period and take time to enjoy my family and growing number of grandchildren. I would love to be master of my own diary again – that is the greatest luxury still to come.
What in your life are you most proud of? What do you hope to be remembered for?
That’s very difficult. I don’t think I can single out any one thing. I’m proud of my part in the creation of a Scottish parliament, but that doesn’t take away from my 12 years as the leader of the Liberal Party. It was also wonderful to enter parliament rather unexpectedly at a young age, and in particular to represent a very remarkable and beautiful part of Scotland for all that time in the House of Commons. All of these things I’ve enjoyed, and I feel very fulfilled. There is no single thing I cherish above all others and want to be remembered for. I’m very happy to have had the life I’ve had.