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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.

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