This year Lord Steel of Aikwood will mark 50 years since his victory in the 1965 Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles by-election.
The win saw the 26-year-old David Steel become the youngest MP in the country and he would go on to hold the seat – with boundary changes – for the subsequent eight general elections.
In the wake of recent polls by Lord Ashcroft suggesting the SNP could be on course for a landslide victory in seats across Scotland, we asked the former Liberal leader if he felt half-a-century of Liberalism in the Borders was now under threat.
Lord Steel of Aikwood writes:
With the general election looming, I am happy to respond to the suggestion that I write in the light of my 50-year experience in parliament.
Much excitement has been generated in the public media by Lord Ashcroft’s selective polling in Scottish constituencies suggesting that the SNP surge will result in major advances for them.
I do not question his basic conclusion that they are likely to have more seats, but his poll did not include our Borders constituency.
“Indeed this is the only constituency in Scotland where over the decades in its various guises and boundary changes, the battle has always been between the Conservatives and the Liberals.
As the forthcoming 50th anniversary exhibition of the by-election will demonstrate, our history is littered with famous families who represented those battles – the Elliots (Minto), Pringles (Haining), Tennants (Glen), and Scotts (Bowhill) – as well as literary figures: Arthur Conan Doyle who was defeated as the Unionist candidate in the Border Burghs, and John Buchan who abandoned being prospective Tory candidate to stand successfully for the Universities seat.
Sir Walter Scott himself deplored the unruly treatment of his friends at the hands of Liberal sympathisers.
In more recent times the same trend held. In 1959 a young Tam Dalyell scored the highest ever Labour vote in the Borders but still came third. (He went on to be the distinguished MP for West Lothian and Father of the House and hopes to attend the opening of the exhibition at the Haining on the 25th).
I recall that in the fiercely fought general election of 1970, when my majority was a wafer-thin 550, another former Labour candidate for the seat got up at a public meeting in the Volunteer Hall in Galashiels and announced he felt obliged to vote for me, such was the reality of the electoral arithmetic locally.
Looking ahead, this seat is the least likely to succumb to the SNP advance. At the last election with a good candidate they polled just 9%, and in the referendum last autumn, the Borders had the largest ‘no’ to independence majority of any part of the Scottish mainland.
The only effect of a growing SNP vote (and Labour or Green for that matter) instead of Liberal would be to help the Conservatives win the seat. They are understandably targeting it with huge expenditure on leaflets and a recent visit from David Cameron.
One final thought: we are not being asked to vote for a president, nor even a prime minister, nor a political party, but for a person to represent us in the Borders in parliament for the next five years.
I have no doubt that the usual Tory/Liberal battle will be as hard-fought and lively as ever, but Michael Moore’s eighteen years of dedicated service will I suspect tip the balance.