Peter Preston reminisces about David Steel’s by-election victory half a century ago

Former Guardian editor Peter Preston has been reminiscing about the Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles by-election 50 years ago which was won by a young David Steel. He’s been to the opening of a new exhibition celebrating the by-election and muses on the difference between politics then and now.

First, he sets the scene:

Fifty years ago, as a neophyte Guardian reporter, I covered the Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles byelection that catapulted David Steel into parliament. Now I’m back in Selkirk to open an exhibition celebrating his victory: a kind of still living artefact in a mini-museum full of faded speeches, posters and promises. Ah yes, I remember it well. The eerily youthful “boy David” who went on to lead the Liberals through that pact; wildly enthusiastic meetings, 300 or more strong, greeting big hitters – George Brown, Lord Hailsham, Jo Grimond – up from the smoke; an enthusiasm and a turnout (81.5%) with referendum intensity.But the past is not an island – even in a chilly mansion-cum-embryo-arts-centre perched by a loch. For the clan gathering to congratulate the old boy (aka Lord Steel of Aikwood) is large and intriguing. Here’s George Reid, the early SNP warrior who succeeded Steel as presiding officer in the Edinburgh parliament. Here’s Tam Dalyell of the Binns, Labour’s superlative stoker of backbench trouble through four decades. Here (well, at least expected soon) is Ronald King Murray, 92, who lost his Labour deposit but went on to win laurels as lord advocate. Here are canvassers who tramped the streets of Galashiels, folk with a memory leaning on a stick.

What was the campaign like then?

Were things kinder and gentler half a century ago? Not exactly: Brown and Hailsham, for two, could dish it out. Jeremy Thorpe was already a sly, smiling rogue. But on the doorsteps and in the village halls there was a connection beyond curled lips. Byelections mattered to editors. (I wrote 14 dispatches from the Borders.) A whole pack of hacks followed events day by day. No one set much store by opinion polls. If you wanted – whether as a reporter or a candidate – to find out what was happening, you needed to talk to people, to greet and meet. As for spads, the only minder in sight (for the Tories) went on to become controller of Radio 4 and then Radio 3.

He reckons that the closer you are to the community, the better the atmosphere of the campaign:

The politicians, too, are part of that community. Dalyell (ex-Eton and Oxbridge, as it happens) was the Labour candidate here in 1959, but refused to return to campaign against Steel, whom he admired. George Reid, preparing for an SNP triumph today, should really be the enemy but seems more like an amiable chum.

Steel MP’s first bitter defeat in parliament was failing to stop Beeching’s closure of the Waverley line from Edinburgh to Galashiels and on. This autumn – thanks to a £300m Lab-Lib Dem decision in Holyrood honoured by the SNP when it took over – Waverley rides again. It’s a victory that Steel talks of fondly: he’s booked on the first train from Edinburgh. No bile, no confected hate. The closer you get to the people you live among, the less hate matters.

You can read the whole article here.


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  • David Steel has been a fantastic MP, MSP and Lord. His 50 years are an example to all Lberals.

    He has a very proud record.
    His Abortion Law reform achieved from the opposition benches shows that you do not have to be in a Coaition to achieve very significant change in both the law and in public attitudes.

  • Seeming to be so less than forthcoming about issues surrounding Cyril Smiths’ peerage haven’t been a plus for Steel has it though ?

  • Cyril Smith was never made a peer.

  • Steve Comer 31st Mar '15 - 5:27pm

    I suspect John Tilley and I both had times when we were at odds with Steel when he was Leader, but like Charles Kennedy hhe seems like a beacon for progressive politics compared to the present leadership!

    I’m too young to remember the by election, but just old enough to remember the abortion act and David leading the anti-Springbock protestsin the rugby-mad Scottish borders in 1969/70. Those were early signs of a brave and principled politician.

  • Paul Hunt. He wasn’t made a peer but he was (be)knighted. Steel nominated him.

  • Tony Greaves 31st Mar '15 - 5:50pm

    The pic is actually two years later, just after Thorpe was elected Leader. The missing Liberal MP is Russell Johnston (Inverness).

    RS&P was the most exciting by-election I’ve ever been to and full of fun incidents. A lot of the legwork was done by students from English Universities which we (ULS) organised to get there. I ended up on polling day running the show in Hawick together with Harold Minnis, a Liberal agent from Northern Ireland.

    Peter Preston writes in the full story: “And meanwhile what of the SNP, with a charming quirk of a candidate who campaigned on banning South African oranges and polled 0.9%?” Actually the candidate was an Independent Scottish Nationalist called Dr Kerr and he was against banning SA oranges not in favour.

    A group of us had been sent to one of Steel’s public meetings in a smallish village to bolster the numbers and at the end a nice lady took to the stage and begged us to stay “for the next meeting”. Terry Lacey asked him if he supported the South African boycott campaign and he said no, the problem was that “the whites are nasty to the blacks and in other parts of Africa the blacks are nasty to the whites, in the Middle West the Arabs are nasty to the Jews and the Jews are nasty to the Arabs, in the Indian subcontinent the Hindus are nasty to the Muslims and the Muslims are nasty to the Hindus….” and after taking us all round the world concluded that boycotts were therefore not workable and what was needed was for everyone to be nice to each other.

    I agree that David Steel will be seen by history as a Liberal hero.

    Tony Greaves

  • Tony Greaves 31st Mar '15 - 5:51pm

    Perhaps I should add that DS is the only Liberal/LD leader who I actually voted for!


  • I’ve never voted for the winner.

  • Like Tony Greaves, I too voted for DS.
    It is worth femembering that it was the first ever leadership election (for any party in the UK) where ordinary party members were allowed to vote.

    David Steel became leader and clearly showed his worth. He has often said and done things which I disagreed with – as Steve Comer rightly reminds us.
    I never doubted for a moment that Steel was a Liberal. Wish I could say that about all subsequent leaders.

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