Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles by-election, 1965

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The Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles by-election was significant in that it led to the election of David Steel, who went on to lead the Liberal Party, to the British House of Commons for the first time. As such it was a milestone in the revival of that party's political fortunes from their nadir in the 1950s.

Background[edit]

Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles, a large rural constituency in the Scottish borders, had been safely Conservative for many years. The Liberal Party's 26-year-old candidate David Steel had dramatically cut Commander Charles Donaldson's majority in the general election of October 1964. When Donaldson died some months later it was clear that the ensuing by-election represented an opportunity for the Liberals to repeat previous by-election triumphs in Torrington and Orpington. However, the Conservatives were now in opposition rather than in government and the party's standing in the constituency was thought to have been further bolstered as their leader, Sir Alec Douglas-Home was himself a Scot, representing the rather similar constituency of Kinross and West Perthshire to the north.

Result[edit]

The election was held on Wednesday 24 March 1965. The result was a major defeat for the Conservatives. The votes cast were as follows:

Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles By-Election March 1965
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Liberal David M S Steel 21,549 49.2 + 10.4
Conservative Robert L McEwen 16,942 38.6 - 4.2
Labour Ronald K Murray 4,936 11.2 - 4.6
Independent Scottish Nationalist A J C Kerr 411 0.9 - 1.6
Majority 4,607 10.5
Turnout 43,838 81.5% - 0.7
Liberal gain from Conservative Swing 7.3

Reaction[edit]

This defeat was seen as a huge setback for the Conservatives, coming on top of their defeat in the general election the previous year and wiping out the boost they had received in the Leyton by-election, 1965. Douglas-Home resigned as leader shortly afterwards, and in the first election for party leader from amongst the Conservative MPs, was replaced by Edward Heath.

Although the Labour candidate lost his deposit, the governing party enjoyed the Conservatives' discomfort, and the result represented a turning point in the government's political fortunes after a very uncertain opening few months. For the Liberals, the acquisition of a talented young MP was still rare enough to be extremely welcome. Steel soon made a national impression and it was his Private Member's Bill which led to the legalisation of abortion in 1967. He would go on to represent the area at Westminster until 1997.

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