Friday, February 25, 2011

Judy Steel: Tales from the Tap End

This review appears in today's edition of Liberal Democrat News. You can buy Tales from the Tap End on Amazon UK.

Tales from the Tap End: The Memoirs of Judy Steel
Judy Steel
Birlinn, 2010, £16.99

The best book about the last years of the Liberal Party is the tribute to David Penhaligon that his wife Annette published a couple of years after his death. If Judy Steel’s memoirs do not reach those heights, they still offer valuable insights into a little-documented era.

She was moved to write by the parliamentary expenses scandal, and in many ways her book is a defence of the idea that a political career is a form of public service. Like Annette Penhaligon, she reveals the extent to which such a career is a partnership. At the risk of giving too much information, Judy tells us her title comes from the Steels’ habit of sharing a bath and David’s conviction that “a woman’s place is at the tap end”.

Judy met the young David Steel while they were students at Edinburgh. By the time they married he was already PPC for the city’s Pentlands constituency and he showed his sharpness shortly afterwards by transferring to the more promising Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles.

David’s strong showing at the 1964 general election was crucial to his winning the by-election the following year, though he had to fend off the ambitions of one A.J.F. MacDonald. A.J.F. had held the old Roxburgh & Selkirk seat for the Liberals between 1950 and 1951 and judged the time ripe for a return to public life – he suggested young Steel might act as his agent.

As David Steel rose to prominence through his Abortion Act, presidency of the Anti-Apartheid Movement and leadership of the Liberal Party, Judy’s work did much to secure his constituency base. She is at her strongest in painting the characters and customs of the Borders, and in describing her own fostering of teenagers and work in founding Scotland system of Children’s Hearings.

But she still casts light on the high politics of the Alliance years. More light, it has to be said, than her husband’s Against Goliath, which tends to tell us what journalists said about important events rather than how they felt from the inside.

It is no surprise to learn that David Steel got on better with Roy Jenkins than with David Owen, but Judy tells it like it was in describing Owen as "divisive" and "disdainful of the Liberals right from the start". And though we all know David believes he was wounded by the ridicule of Spitting Image, which showed him perched in Owen’s pocket (not altogether unfairly – he got the tap end in that relationship), it is a shock to learn that he made himself watch the programme each week.

Judy’s own puppet, which she rather liked, spent its time knitting and soothing. They wouldn’t depict her like that now.

Since David left Westminster she has visibly blossomed and made a new career in arts and the theatre. She is an authority on the James Hogg, “the Ettrick Shepherd” – a dark, visionary writer of the Romantic era – and once staged a substantial festival in his honour. A Scottish parliament was the cause that won Judy to politics as a little girl, but her husband’s role as that parliament’s first presiding officer forms only the background to the later part of her story. The Steels’ new bath has taps at the side.

Ultimately, though, a political biography stands or falls by the quality of its anecdotes. My favourite in Tales from the Tap End concerns an old lady to whom Judy Steel was introduced during the 1965 by-election. “I’m so glad to meet you,” she said. “We’ve always been a great Liberal family. My brother Sandy won the Border Burghs for Mr Gladstone in 1886.”

Jonathan Calder

1 comment:

Richard Underhill said...

"David left Westminster". Sir David Steel served one term in the Scottish Parliament, but he has also been active in the House of Lords. He fronted a cross-party bill, which was presented as the art of the possible before the 2010 general election, because he 'missed a meeting'. At a Commonwealth meeting on Budget day he told me that it had been blocked by peers who wanted no change at all. Tory MPs now vaunt a stronger version of this bill as their preference for reform of the unelected house. Many of them spoke in the debate in the Commons, but why are they against it?