Born 31st March 1938 in Kirkcaldy, Scotland. Father was Church of Scotland minister, and Moderator in 1974. Educated at Dumbarton Academy; James Gillespie's Boys School, Edinburgh; the Prince of Wales School, Nairobi, Kenya (1949-53); and George Watson's College, Edinburgh. University of Edinburgh, MA 1960, LL.B 1962. Married Judy MacGregor, 1962. Two sons, one daughter and six grandchildren. While at university he was President of the Liberal Club, and of the Student's Representative Council. Thereafter he was Assistant Secretary of the Scottish Liberal Party 1962-64 before joining the BBC as a reporter/presenter. That career was cut short by winning the by-election in March 1965 in Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles from the Conservatives. At 26 he became the youngest Member of that Parliament. He continued to represent the Scottish Borders (the seat later became Tweeddale, Ettrick & Lauderdale) through eight further elections until he retired in 1997.
He was then elevated to the House of Lords as Lord Steel of Aikwood in the dissolution honours. In 1966/7 he successfully piloted through the Commons a bill to reform the law on abortion, the Abortion Act, with large majorities on free votes in both Houses. This rid Britain of the record of criminal and self-induced abortion, which has led annually to between 30 and 50 deaths and hundreds of injuries to women. He was also the founding Scottish Chairman of Shelter, the campaigning charity for the homeless. From 1966 to 1970 he was President of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in the U.K. In 1971 he was expelled from Rhodesia and declared a prohibited immigrant by the illegal Smith regime. In 1992 he was an observer at South Africa's first democratic election and in 1997 was appointed to the Commonwealth Secretary General to Chair the Commonwealth Observer Mission to the second election. He continued to be active in the development of multi-party democracy in Kenya, and later also in Malawi. From 1970-75 he was Liberal Chief Whip and in 1976 was the first party leader in Britain to be elected by vote of party members in the country, not just MP's. In 1977 he was appointed to the Privy Council, becoming its then youngest member. In 1977-78 he led his party into the Lib-Lab pact to support the government of Prime Minister James Callaghan in its fight against inflation. Having experienced inter-party cooperation in the European Referendum campaign in 1975, he welcomed the founding of the Social Democratic Party in 1981 and led his party into Alliance with it, leading in 1988 to union as the Liberal Democrats; thereupon he retired from the leadership and went on to serve as the party's foreign affairs spokesman and President of Liberal International. From 1997-9 he served as Deputy Leader of the party in the House of Lords to Roy Jenkins. From 1989-99 he was joint-chair of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, which drew up the blueprint for the re-establishment within the U.K of the Scottish Parliament (abolished in 1707), and on which basis the Blair government legislated. He became a list member for the Lothian Region in the new parliament and was elected its first Presiding Officer (Speaker). He retired at the end of that first parliament in 2003 and returned to the House of Lords without portfolio. He served as Rector of Edinburgh University 1982-5, and was created a Doctor of Laws there in 1997. He holds honorary doctorates from eight other universities, and held the Chubb Fellowship at Yale University in 1987. Their respective Councils created him a freeman of Tweeddale and of Ettrick and Lauderdale. He was knighted in 1990.
He also holds the Grand Cross of the order of Merit of Germany and Chevalier of the Legion d'honneur of France. He is Deputy Lieutenant of Ettrick & Lauderdale and Roxburgh. In 2003 and 2004 he was appointed Her Majesty's Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. From 1997 he has been President of the Charity Medical Aid for the Palestinians and is a patron of the Anglo-Arab Association. He is an honorary Vice-President of the Royal African Society, and chair of the Liberal Friends of India. In 2004 he became chair of the Carnegie Trust Commission for Rural Community Development, and of the Liberal Democrat Commission on the future financing of Scottish government. He has written several books, notably "No Entry" (about Kenya Asian exodus in 1968), "A House Divided", and his autobiography "Against Goliath". Also with his wife Judy "Border Country" and "Mary Stuart's Scotland". He continues to write freelance in various newspapers, to broadcast and to lecture. Commercially he is a non-executive director of two companies; Blue Planet Eupean Financial Investment Trust, plc (Edinburgh) and General Mediterranean Holding S.A (Luxembourg). His leisure interests are fishing, shooting and classic cars (he won a bronze medallion in the 1998 London-Cape Town classic car rally). He lived for many years, in the Scottish Border stronghold Aikwood Tower, near Selkirk, a 16th century tower house, which he and Judy restored in 1992. He became President of the Scottish Castles Association in 2000, and is a regular attendee on the programme of weekend visits.