Tag Archives: david steel

Why David Steel’s Abortion Act means so much to me – a reflection on its 50th Anniversary

Today is an important day. We, as Liberals, need to remember that 50 years ago, on this day, the Abortion Act came into being.

Why is this important? I know many people, especially disabled people, feel a real conflict about this legislation. There are issues to consider here, not least with regard to the concept of gender selective abortion and I would urge people to look at MP voting records on this important topic.

Back in the 1960s, the oral contraceptive was still in its infancy. Abortion was illegal and many women faced the real social stigma of being pregnant and unmarried. Fortunately, attitudes have changed. However a real and profound reason for the idea of the Act was not, as many people think, convenience. In actual fact, women were dying every year, in the U.K. from illegal and unsafe abortions. I am talking about women who had few options, where access to clinics was for the rich. A young Liberal MP, David Steel, took up the challenge and the Act was drafted.

Amongst the team of civil servant legal officers was a woman in her early twenties, who would have been deeply affected by issues around women’s reproductive health. I cannot tell you what she, coming to adulthood in this era, must have experienced with her friends, but I do know that she had fellow female students who were married with children at an early age. Did she know anyone who had had to engage the services of a woman like Vera Drake, someone who did their best to help women in trouble? Did she know someone who had died or became unable to have children as the result of infection from an unsafe abortion? I don’t know.  I do know that the experience and what she learnt from drafting the legislation had a profound effect on her and she went on in life to strongly support women’s reproductive rights and health. Her views on people who wanted changes to U.K. legislation “because it felt right” were quite strong. I know she was happy to discuss it with her daughters. I know this because she was my mother.

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Student hopes to become the Scottish Borders’ youngest councillor

Following hard on the heels of our post about the Isle of Wight’s youngest candidate on Sunday, here’s news from Galashiels via The Southern Reporter:

A teenage student from Peebles is the youngest candidate standing in next month’s Scottish Borders Council elections.

Caledonia Bhatia, 18, a chemical engineering student at Edinburgh University, has been selected as Scottish Liberal Democrat candidate for the Galashiels and district ward.

No stranger to political life, Caledonia is the daughter of outgoing Tweeddale West councillor Catriona Bhatia and granddaughter of Liberal Democrat grandee Lord David Steel of Aikwood.

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In pictures: Leaders from the archives

Just delving about in the Getty Images archive, I happened upon these great images of our current leader and some of our past leaders*. Please click on the images to read the captions.

* includes predecessor parties.

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David Steel pays tribute to Derek Ezra, emphasising his pro-European views

Derek EzraIn twelve years as Liberal Leader, David Steel only got to nominate eight peers. One of them was former National Coal Board chairman Derek Ezra, who died last December.

In London this week, Lord Steel gave a speech at Haberdashers’ Hall (Derek Ezra was an honorary Liveryman) in which he paid tribute to Derek Ezra. He also explained why his colleague was so in favour of a European organisation that worked together and kept the peace.

During my twelve years as party leader Prime Minister Thatcher was notoriously mean in Liberal peerages, allowing me only eight during that time in spite of the encouragement of the Tory leader in the Lords – Willie Whitelaw – to do better. Subsequent Prime Ministers were much kinder to Ashdown, Kennedy and Clegg and allowed them several nominations in each list. Inevitably my eight nominations were all either former senior MP’s or party office-bearers – with one exception – Derek Ezra.

In his memoirs he says that I nominated him “in order to introduce some industrial experience on to the Liberal benches” and that is true but not the whole truth – I thought it important for the public to see that we had people of his calibre in public life. He was known as chairman of the National Coal Board but few knew he was an ardent Liberal, arguing against the pattern of “them and us” in so much of British business. And what a success he was, one colleague saying “Derek ought to give lessons to the rest of us on how to put questions in the Lords” and another describing his contributions – even from his wheelchair in later life – as combining “integrity, clarity and relevance”. I always considered his expertise on energy and conservation debates as adding greatly to the prestige of our party.

Lord Ezra was an active and committed European from his earliest days as a student at Cambridge, as Major Ezra during the war and in his four-year service in the European Coal and Steel Community in Luxembourg. Delivering a lecture in this very hall in 2005 he mentioned his earlier work with Jean Monnet “one of the most remarkable men of the 20th century” who “was convinced that in order to avoid future wars and promote stability and prosperity, European countries would have to cooperate on a more integrated basis than ever before”. Derek added “Britain remained a reluctant participant – in my opinion much to our disadvantage”.

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David Steel on Northern Ireland abortion law

David Steel

We’ve just caught up with an interview with David Steel on the BBC Northern Ireland political show The View. (The interview starts 17:58 minutes in)

David was responsible for introducing the Abortion Act in 1967, which made abortion legal up to 28 weeks, later reduced to 24 weeks. But the law was never extended to Northern Ireland where the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861 still applies. Under that law a woman who procures her own abortion is guilty of a felony and can be given a prison sentence of life, or for up to two years ‘with or without hard labour, and with or without solitary confinement’. Current regulations permit termination only if the woman’s life is at risk or if continuing the pregnancy would put her long-term health at risk.

David says:

I think they’ve got to face up to the fact that the law in Northern Ireland is simply ridiculous – 1861 – and it is time they came up at least to 1967, if not 2016.

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LibLink: David Steel: We need liberalism more than ever

David Steel has written an article for the Scotsman explaining why liberalism is needed more than ever in the face of both domestic and international challenges. He praises both Tim Farron and Willie Rennie and urges liberals to “re-assert themselves and support them.”

His comments about the SNP also struck a bit of a chord with me. It’s not just that they stitched up the Scottish Parliament with their majority, giving themselves control of the committees so that they couldn’t be effectively scrutinised, it’s their general attitude to politics. They are reminiscent of Labour in the ’80s and ’90s, with such a sense of entitlement to power and objection to even the mildest, most evidence based criticism. Yesterday, we had three shouty nationalists in the space of a couple of hours in our office. Clearly such intimidatory tactics are designed to spook us. Actually, we enjoy the fact that they are clearly rattled by the scale and success of our campaign. It is very like the days in Derbyshire when Labour thugs would shout at you as you delivered leaflets and it’s sad to see that kind of politics.

Anyway, back to David’s article. He wrote:

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LibLink: David Steel: Tim Farron is a man of conviction and a risk taker – that’s why he got my vote

David Steel has written in the Guardian about why he backed Tim Farron and what he thinks he’ll bring to the party:

That level of deep commitment which Farron obviously has, combined with his organisational skills and northern public persona, has all the ingredients of a successful leadership. I speak as one who sat in a gloomy Commons party of six after the 1970 election debacle, three of us clinging to majorities under 1000. It took time, but we turned that round, and went on both to increase our numbers and form the significant Alliance with the SDP and eventually the new united party, which at elections under Paddy Ashdown, Charles Kennedy and Clegg reached new heights of public support. The same can happen again.

A colleague said to me during this contest: “But isn’t Farron a bit risky?” I responded that that may be so, but what the party needs at this time is a risk-taker, not afraid to revisit more traditional Liberal policies – on Trident, on Europe, on industrial democracy, on land value taxation, on the pursuit of a more just society, and on the need for a federal constitution including a new upper house.

It will be a long and at times painful journey, but with Tim Farron inspiring and leading it I see grounds for real hope and optimism.

 You can read the whole article here. 
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