Lord Steel’s career tainted by decades-old misjudgements

The Westminster inquiry into child sexual abuse show Steel's conduct was symptomatic of politicians of the day.

In the twilight of his career, Lord Steel of Aikwood cuts the very embodiment of an establishment figure – member of the House of Lords, former presiding officer of the Scottish Parliament, elder Liberal Democrat statesman.

Today’s announcement serves as a warning that misjudgements made decades ago can haunt well after lofty status is conferred. Even by the norms of the time, his inaction in relation to the late Cyril Smith beggars belief from a politician who was so usually sure-footed.

Perhaps the sheer disgust at what he was hearing back in the 1970s impaired his judgement? Whatever the explanation, he is paying a price that will serve as the final line in any review of his career.

He wasn’t always an establishment figure and it would be unfair in reviewing a life of public service if conclusions aren’t tempered by an acknowledgement of his courage.

After he won the Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles by-election, he piloted the Abortion Bill through the House of Commons. It was a fundamental piece of social reform and one that did not chime in every corner of the more socially conservative Britain of the time.

Nor was this Borders MP playing to electoral self-interest when his passionate anti-apartheid views extended to rugby boycotts in South Africa. He could have sown the seeds of electoral defeat in the rugby-daft towns he represented but principle trumped expediency.

And he took the Liberals into a pact with the minority Labour government in 1977, giving them a sniff of power. A sniff was all they got, as Steel was no match for the wily Jim Callaghan although the experience was a portent for the kind of cooperative politics he championed with Roy Jenkins after the SDP was formed in 1981.

Closer to home, he was a co-chair of the Scottish Constitutional Convention and played a key role in the establishing of a parliament he would go on to preside over. Yes, Steel’s contribution should not be lost in the events chronicled in this report, which leads to the question: what was he thinking?

Many of the figures discussed in this report are dead, so in a very real sense, Steel represents the key casualty. But as the report makes clear, the culture that seemed to keep law enforcement out of allegations surfacing in the body politic was not confined to the Liberal Party. Steel’s misjudgements are not isolated, rather they were symptomatic of politicians who managed issues primarily for the reputation of the party.

Steel’s conduct has echoes in the behaviour of others. Harold MacMillan was keen to keep Lord Boothby’s association with the Kray twins out of the news since it would have exposed a senior Conservative engaging in homosexual activity that was criminal at the time.

Harold Wilson, the Labour leader, was equally keen to keep this out of the public gaze since exposure of Boothby would have led to the unmasking of Tom Driberg, as a man whose tastes were as voracious as they were illegal.

This all happened around the time of the Profumo affair, where again we learn that throwing immature working-class women to the wolves was a price worth paying to contain the embarassment to the government of the day.

Yes, David Steel’s misjudgements were replicated all over Westminster.

What is astonishing is that scandal was greater in the parliamentary Liberal party than any other. Cyril Smith is widely regarded as a paedophile. The party leader Jeremy Thorpe stood trial on charges of conspiracy to murder. Peter Bessell attempted to compromise the Labour Home Secretary Frank Soskice into helping Thorpe escape the lethal nuisance that was Norman Scott. Clement Freud is alleged to have been a rapist. All of this in a small party is truly gobsmacking. Wormwood Scrubs, not a Commons Committee room, would appear to have been a more appropriate venue for party meetings.

In quitting, Lord Steel has done himself a favour and the Lib Dems can breathe a sigh of relief that a potentially damaging story has been dealt with without it looking to have any long-term ramifications.