David Steel: We need Liberalism now more than ever

Having now been in political life for over 50 years, I cannot think of a time when Liberalism was more needed. That is true internationally, in the UK, and in Scotland.

Former Liberal leader Lord Steel. Picture: PA
Former Liberal leader Lord Steel. Picture: PA

Having just returned from my latest visit to South Africa, it is depressing to see how the hopes and standards of the two first democratic presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki have been betrayed under the current president Jacob Zuma; the only bright light being the steady progress of the Democratic Alliance which I expect to see continue in their upcoming local elections.

It has been my good fortune and pleasure to attend no fewer than seven party conventions in the US and thereby to admire much in their democracy; but it is horrifying to see how a man with nothing except a large mouth and deep pockets can be taken seriously as a contender for their highest office.

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Here in the UK we see a yawning gap between a party supporting the wealthy at the expense of the poor, and a party led by a doctrinaire socialist. We also see so far a relatively low-level debate on the European Union question, ignoring the high ideals of its founders. We also have the failure to respond to the refugee crisis in the Middle East.

In Scotland we have the likely spectacle of a parliament unable to call to account the one party in government enjoying a dangerous quasi-monopoly.

Against that background the case for a strong Liberal force has never been more needed. Fortunately in Tim Farron as UK leader and Willie Rennie as Scottish leader Liberal Democrats have found two energetic young people who have emerged from the wreckage of the last general election. Tim, together with the two MP former leaders Charles Kennedy and Ming Campbell, voted against the disastrous volte face on student fees, and Willie has clearly distanced the Scottish Party from that coalition debacle. Now is the time for Liberals to re-assert themselves and to support them.

When I say that Liberalism was never more needed I have in mind Alan Paton’s definition: “By Liberalism I do not mean the creed of any party, nor any century. I mean a generosity of spirit, a tolerance of others, a commitment to the rule of law, a high ideal of the worth and dignity of man, a repugnance of authoritarianism, and a love of freedom.”

lLord Steel of Aikwood was leader of the Liberal Party 1976-88 and founder Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament 1999-2003