Mini-me to Owen? No, a man of Steel


By Dominic Sandbrook


Rating: 3 Star Rating

The first thing most people remember about David Steel is his hilarious rallying cry to the Liberal Party Conference in 1981. ‘Go back to your constituencies,’ he told the delegates, ‘and  prepare for Government!’

Alas for Steel, two years later Margaret Thatcher won one of the biggest landslides in British history. His party was soon enmeshed in a bitter merger with their Alliance partners, the Social Democrats. Hence the second thing most people remember about poor Steel: his depiction, alongside SDP leader David Owen, in a mercilessly funny Spitting Image TV sketch.

‘We’ll take one word from your party and one from my party,’ says the Owen puppet. ‘Er, which words?’ asks Steel. ‘From mine, “Social Democratic”, and from yours, “Party.” ’ ‘Very fair, thank you very much indeed.’

Duelling duet: Steel, right, with David Owen

Duelling duet: Steel, right, with David Owen

And its leader? ‘One word from your name, and one word from mine.’ The names, needless to say, are ‘David’ and ‘Owen’.

In fact, as David Torrance’s thorough but rather grey-suited biography shows, there was more to Steel than met the eye. When he took the reins of the Liberal Party in 1976, he was just 38. Although he had been in the Commons for 11 years, many of his parliamentary colleagues still knew him as ‘the boy David’.

Out of power since the Thirties, the Liberals seemed an eccentric irrelevance. Worst of all, Steel’s predecessor, the colourful and narcissistic Jeremy Thorpe, had just been accused of an affair with the male model Norman Scott, and would shortly be charged with conspiracy to have Scott murdered. No new party leader in living memory had faced such a challenge.

That the Liberals still exist today, albeit in merged form, is largely due to Steel. The son of a church minister, he spent much of his boyhood in Kenya, where he became a passionate anti-racist. Once he entered the Commons in 1965, he became a fierce crusader for social reform, and the driving force behind the 1967 Abortion Act.

When Thorpe quit in 1976, Steel fought a bruising leadership battle and then took his party into the Lib-Lab Pact, propping up Jim Callaghan’s ailing Labour Government. It was a brave decision, and helped revive his party’s reputation. As it turned out, history – and Mrs Thatcher – had other ideas. While she set about reshaping the British economy, Steel found himself haggling over an alliance with the breakaway Social Democrats, who had fled the extraordinary anarchy in the Labour Party to establish a fourth party.

Paradoxically, though, the emergence of the Alliance cramped Steel’s style. He was much more popular than David Owen, who often seemed arrogant and aloof; he was much more organised than scatty, self-doubting Shirley Williams, and much more attuned to public opinion than the claret-swilling Roy Jenkins.

Indeed, in the last days of the 1983 Election campaign, Steel and his allies even mounted a coup to oust Jenkins from the leadership because he would cost them votes. The coup left Jenkins in nominal control, but Steel took charge of the campaign. Owen, of all people, said he had never seen ‘such a ruthless and savage deed’.

Perhaps Steel should have been more savage more often. In Torrance’s book, he comes across as too reasonable, too moderate and too boring. Successful politicians need a touch of what Enoch Powell called the ‘cloven hoof’, but Steel always seemed too decent to reach the top. Still, there are worse things to be. He deserves better than to be remembered as Owen’s mini-me.