The Conscience of Lord David Alton

“I had a brick in my face and had twelve stitches, and I had a chair thrown at me. On one occasion, the council was suspended when a man had his hands round my throat and had to be pulled off by the police. As a [Member of Parliament], my weekly advice centers were regularly picketed.”

“But the nastier they got, the bigger my majority got. Ordinary people could see these people for what they were. It was important to be robust and to see them off democratically.”

As Britain’s leading pro-life politician and an active champion of international human rights, David Alton has taken significant risks, both politically and physically, to stand up for what is right. A professor of citizenship at Liverpool John Moores University and author of eight books, he has traveled the world in pursuit of justice—from North Korea to Brazil, Russia to Burma, Sudan to Vietnam—and been physically attacked by pro-abortion campaigners and militant socialists alike. Tipped in the 1980s as a possible future leader of his party, Lord Alton has a string of political accomplishments: Britain’s youngest city councillor elected at age 21; Britain’s youngest member of Parliament at age 28; and now a member of the House of Lords, the Upper House of the British Parliament. But above all, he’s the man who paved the way for the recent momentum in the British Parliament to review the abortion laws.

Perhaps what is most intriguing about Alton is the fact that for 18 years in the House of Commons, he was a Liberal. He served as president of the National League of Liberals and as a spokesman on home affairs, Northern Ireland, and the environment for his party, which became the Liberal Democrats, the third major party in the UK besides the Conservatives and Labour.

But on at least two occasions, Alton sacrificed political ambition for conscience. In 1987 he was given the opportunity to introduce a private members’ bill in the House of Commons—a rare occasion to put forward legislation not driven by the government. He chose to introduce a bill to prevent late abortions and resigned as Liberal chief whip in order to concentrate on this task. A year later, it passed with a majority of 45 votes but was “talked out” by its opponents in the chamber and never became law.

At their 1992 annual conference, the Liberal Democrats made a decision that, for Alton, was the final straw. While abortion in the UK is traditionally a non-party political issue, considered a matter of conscience and therefore a free vote in Parliament and rarely a feature of campaigns, the leaders of the three major parties, including Margaret Thatcher, all personally took pro-choice positions. The Liberal Democrats, however, went a step further, and in 1992 passed a motion adopting a pro-abortion policy as the party platform. Since relations with many in his party were already strained, Alton could not in good conscience run on such a ticket. The situation in the party grew worse when, in the morning of the same conference, a wild motion banning the use of goldfish as prizes at fairs was adopted. Alton went on national television that night, announcing he would not seek re-election and would be leaving the Liberal Democrats at the following general election. “A party that votes for the killing of the unborn in the afternoon and votes to protect goldfish in the morning is not a party to which I wish to belong,” he declared. The Liberal Democrat leader at the time, Paddy Ashdown, responded by saying “good riddance.”

But Alton’s integrity and morality were soon rewarded. Ashdown apologized, and the then Conservative Prime Minister John Major, as one of his last acts after his defeat in the 1997 general election to Tony Blair, offered Alton a life peerage and a seat in the House of Lords. Alton told Major that although he was leaving the Liberal Democrats, he was not yet ready to join another party. Major, with extraordinary political generosity, told him that where he sat would be his own decision. Alton accepted and became an independent cross-bencher.

David Alton was born in the east end of London in 1951, his father a World War II veteran and his mother from the west of Ireland. Educated at a Jesuit school that encouraged young Catholics to apply their faith to the world, his interest in politics was aroused by the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, South African apartheid, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. He became passionately opposed to discrimination on the basis of color or creed. But the biggest issue that aroused his energies was the passage of the 1967 Abortion Act: “I collected petitions against it. The die was being cast for the future.”

In addition, Alton’s politics were shaped by domestic experience. He grew up on a housing estate in east Lon-don—”I’m a cockney by birth,” he adds—and so, he argues, “it would have been surprising for me not to have become involved in a party that was committed to social justice and eradicating poverty.” So at 17, Alton joined the Liberal Party, which at the time had just six members of Parliament and was at 3 percent in the polls. A year later, he moved to Liverpool to study history and divinity at a Catholic college and “was shocked by the extent of the poverty and deprivation.” He considered becoming a priest but decided his calling was in “lay ministry through public and political life.”

The Liberals at that time, Alton stresses, were not liberal with a small “1.” “It was the party of Gladstone, G. K. Chesterton, and Hilaire Belloc, and the party Winston Churchill had been a member of from time to time,” he explains. (Churchill changed parties from the Liberals to the Conservatives.) “It had a non-corporatist, non-state approach to industry and ownership, as opposed to the nationalizing tendencies of the Labour Party. The Liberals emphasized liberty, but also the importance of the strength of community.”

There followed a meteoric rise through the ranks. Upon graduation, Alton became a special-needs teacher and was elected the youngest city councillor in Britain. He rose to be deputy leader of the city council and housing chairman. Then came his first moment in the national spotlight. In 1978, the Labour MP for Liverpool Edge Hill died and a by-election was called. Although the seat had always been a Labour stronghold, this was the “Winter of Discontent,” during which the trade unions had taken control and the Labour government was on the rocks. “The country was in anarchy. The dead were not being buried,” Alton recalls. “My party was in chaos it had been supporting the Labour government, its former leader [Jeremy Thorpe] was on a conspiracy to murder charge, it had eleven MPs and was at 5 percent in the polls. It was a perilous moment. Then came this by-election, and the most bizarre few weeks of my life.”

Alton’s life is littered with extraordinary moments and several firsts, and this by-election ranks high on the list. “From nowhere I got the biggest ever political swing—a 38 percent swing—and won the seat,” he recalls. “But I was the shortest-lived MP ever. The night before I was elected, the Labour government was defeated by Margaret Thatcher in a vote of confidence, and a general election was called. I thought I would become an after-dinner joke for the rest of my life.”

But the story did not end there. One of Thatcher’s closest allies, Airey Neave, was blown up by an IRA car bomb in Parliament the day after Alton’s victory. “When I took my seat, everyone was packing their bags, the place was seized by the disaster of this terrorist strike, and many Labour MPs knew they would never be back. I made my maiden speech, focusing on terrorism, Ireland, the lessons of Liverpool where sectarianism had been overcome by Christian cooperation, by the outstanding leadership of the Anglican bishop and the Catholic archbishop who healed so many of the strains of the past, and Parliament was prorogued four hours later.”

Most by-election victories by the Liberals in Britain are a protest vote against the two major parties, and Alton’s was no exception. But unlike most other Liberal by-election victories—which are often overturned in a general election—the residents of Liverpool Edge Hill stuck with him. In the 1979 general election Alton was re-elected, and he spent the next 18 years in the House of Commons, throughout the premierships of both Thatcher and Major.

Although coming from a different party, Alton backed Thatcher’s early industrial relations legislation, which introduced secret ballots for workers to stop the intimidation of the trade unions. He also helped fight the battle against the militant Left. “My own city had become a battering ram of Trotskyite militant forces who took the city over,” he explains. “I became the only non-Socialist MP in the city, the only opposition. Within two years the city was engulfed in riots, which had been fomented by the Workers Revolutionary Party. I saw streets burned to the ground. It was total anarchy.”

In Parliament, he became his party’s first elected chief whip (his predecessors had been appointed by the leader) and oversaw the development of the alliance between the Liberals and the Social Democrats, which led to a merger between the two. The most memorable aspect of that period was “the realignment of politics that we helped bring about,” he believes. “To see off the Marxist Left, to force the Labour Party into the center, we helped to be the midwives of the birth of the Blairite Labour Party.”

In 1987 Alton won a place in the private members’ ballot, 20 years to the day since the Abortion Act was introduced by David Steel. It was another of those quirks of fate that seem to occur in Alton’s life. Steel, by now the party’s leader but who, like Alton, had been the youngest MP and the party’s chief whip, had introduced the 1967 Abortion Act as a private members’ bill. So when Alton was given the opportunity to put forward a private members’ bill, he told his leader that he planned “to do everything I can to get rid of your legislation.” But, with typical grace, he emphasized that he did not want to fall out over it. “We fundamentally disagree about the right to life, and I hope that like Jane Roe he will one day change his mind, but you don’t have to hate someone because they take a contrary view to you. I always say in his favor that he never believed that his legislation would lead to some of the things it has led to, and he never sought to make it party policy—he accepted my right to hold a different view.” Others in his party did not. At a party conference one delegate spat at him. “I had been a member since I was 17, and if I did not have the right to hold my own views about abortion, then the party no longer had a right to call itself Liberal.” In the 1992 general election, under a new leader-ship, the party briefed against Alton, saying they expected him to lose his seat, which he regards as “an extraordinary act of treachery.” As it turned out, he increased his majority. Then came the party conference that year, when they not only adopted a pro-abortion platform, but also made legalization of euthanasia, drugs, human cloning, human embryo experimentation, and “the emasculation of church schools” party policy. “These are not fringe issues,” Alton says. “They brought it to a head. They realized the electorate were not going to see me off, so they decided to do it for them.”

Alton’s bill, which sought to reduce the time in which abortions could take place from 28 weeks’ gestation down to 18 weeks, won every round of voting in Parliament, and secured the biggest turnout for a private members’ bill since World War II. “It never lost a vote at any stage, and won on second reading by a majority of 45,” he says. He built strong cross-party support, with three Conservative MPs as its most active supporters and a Jewish entrepreneur as a financial backer. “I have always enjoyed working with people of different political colors. I’ve learned far more doing that than by digging into a partisan hole and thinking ‘my party, right or wrong.’ He also built interreligious ties through his work with evangelical Christians and people of other faiths. “When a Catholic and an Orthodox Jew get together, it is a powerful combination.”

The Jewish entrepreneur sponsored a million copies of a photograph of a baby at 18 weeks’ gestation, and Alton persuaded a national newspaper to run it on the front page. “This started to transform the debate. A million of these cards arrived in Parliament. Every day I could see them arriving at every MP’s office. Colleagues started coming to me and asking what it was all about.” According to the Guardian, popular opinion was on his side, with one poll showing that 67 percent of women and 54 percent of men supported the new legislation.

Though he had the majority of the public, the opponents of his bill became increasingly violent. “My home was picketed, my constituency offices burned down, gutted, and meetings all over the country were picketed. There were police cordons everywhere,” he says.

But for every challenge, there was a blessing. His friendship with Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe, “a doughty, formidable ally,” deepened as a result of this adversity. In 1988, Widdecombe gained a place in the private members’ ballot and chose to introduce a bill that would provide time for Alton’s bill to proceed—”a very novel parliamentary procedure that we dreamed up!” He describes her as one of the Catholic Church’s greatest assets. When Widdecombe left the Anglican Church to become a Roman Catholic, Alton was one of her sponsors.

The biggest blessing of all was that while working on the bill, Alton met his wife, the daughter of an Anglican vicar, who volunteered to help. Fifteen years later, the couple have four children, all educated at Stoneyhurst, a leading Catholic school that has produced more saints and war heroes than any other school in the country.

Despite the earlier successes, the bill never made it into law. “I managed the extraordinary feat of uniting all four political leaders, who could agree about nothing else but were all agreed in opposition to my bill,” he recalls. “There have been six million legal abortions in Britain since 1967. One in five pregnancies ends in abortion. There are 184,000 abortions a year. If my bill had been passed it would have saved 8,000 lives a year.”

Alton’s bill sought to place limits on abortion, not ban it altogether. But he was in no doubt where he really stood. “I was opposed to abortion at any stage,” he says. He chose, however, to follow William Wilberforce’s model of tactics.

“If you look back to Wilberforce’s struggles against slavery, he hacked away year after year, chipping away at the legislation, sometimes winning, sometimes being defeated, but incrementally building up opposition to slavery,” he argues. In the same way, by challenging the upper time limits for abortion and illustrating the humanity of the child, his bill helped clear the way for the debate in the United States about partial-birth abortion.

Like the slave traders, the pro-abortion lobby presents its arguments in terms of the right to choose. “They have ‘me, my, I’ at the heart of the equation. It is all about rights and not responsibilities. ‘Choice’ comes from the same Greek word as the word ‘heresy,’ and it is a modern heresy to think that choices carry no consequences,” Al-ton argues. “It is a piece of modern claptrap to say ‘I’ve got my values, you’ve got yours, I can make my choice, you can make yours.’ That implies neutrality at every level, that there is nothing right or wrong, nothing absolute. The right to stop someone from having the opportunity to be born? It is a profoundly mistaken view which has had disastrous consequences.”

In Alton’s view, for Christians the position is non-negotiable. “If you believe that every man is made in the image of God, then this is not an issue on which we can be neutral.”

What would he say to professing Catholic John Kerry, whose pro-abortion views have caused outrage in the Catholic Church? Alton pauses for thought. “Every man and woman has to search their heart and soul and ask what would Jesus do? Jesus said that ‘You do it to the least of my brethren, you do it to me.’ Any Catholic politician voting in favor of the killing of unborn children should read Psalm 138.” Alton applauds President Bush’s decision to end indirect funding for forced sterilization under China’s one-child policy and says he is appalled that Kerry would reinstate it. “China is the only country in the world where it is illegal to have a brother or sister.”

The cross-party, interdenominational coalition Alton built for his bill was so successful that it led to a new organization, the Epiphany Group. “My bill was the first time evangelicals came alongside Catholics to oppose abortion. Cardinal Hume spoke at a rally alongside the head of the Evangelical Alliance. I thought it would be a pity to lose this, and so I drew together a group of Catholics and evangelicals to see if there were other things we had in common. We met at a Catholic monastery over the Epiphany weekend of 1989. We founded the Epiphany Group because, like the Epiphanarians—the Magi—we knew what our gifts were, we knew who we followed, but we weren’t sure where we were going or how long it would take to get there!”

A rally of 2,000 people was held, and the Westminster Declaration was launched, establishing six principles: social justice, respect for life, active compassion, empowerment, reconciliation, and good stewardship. Alton details these in his book, Faith in Britain. The Epiphany Group, which became the Movement for Christian Democracy, had three purposes. On one level, it aimed to engage in political life. On another level, it would be a think tank that would provide policy ideas. And ultimately, if people wished, it could become a political party, along similar lines of the Christian Democrat traditions in Europe. “It is a transitional point for people going into each of the political parties. No party in this country is Christian, even those that call themselves such, because all of us fall short of what Jesus would wish of us.”

As if the pro-life struggle and domestic social justice issues were not enough, Alton has also immersed himself in international human rights. He cofounded the Jubilee Campaign, a Christian human rights pressure group, in 1987 and campaigned for the freedom of seven Siberian Pentecostals sheltered in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. Since then, he has traveled to the street children of Brazil; the no-go areas of southern Sudan, Georgia, and Azerbaijan; and with U.S. Congressman Joseph Pitts to Laos, Vietnam, and the Karen people on the Thai-Burmese border. He has introduced and spoken in numerous debates on human rights and religious freedom in Parliament, published a report highlighting the killings of street children, founded the Parliamentary Committee on Street Children, initiated anti—child trafficking legislation, and successfully steered through a law to protect children against video violence. Last September, he and Baroness Caroline Cox became the first members of the House of Lords to visit North Korea where, to their surprise, they found some in the regime willing to engage in discussion. The pair followed up that visit by creating the All Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea (the equivalent of a caucus) and hosting the speaker of the North Korean Peoples Assembly in the highest-level visit ever by North Koreans to London.

Many of his overseas trips have, like his pro-life campaigns, brought him face to face with adversity. In keeping with his life of firsts, Alton took the first printing machine into the Soviet Union to deliver to Alexander Ogorodnikov. It was almost confiscated upon arrival. “I said the only thing I could think of to the angry customs officer, which was, ‘Mrs. Thatcher has sent this printing machine.’ They let it through.” During a visit to the Ukraine, Alton was arrested at midnight on the border, on the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentropp Accord. “I had 200 Ukrainian prayer books and a television camera. But when the guards opened my bags, all they took were a biography of Cardinal Hume that I had for personal reading, and a copy of my local newspaper, the Liverpool Echo!”

Alton’s philosophy is summed up by his view that life needs to be measured by “human ecology.” In Britain, 43 percent of marriages end in divorce; hundreds of thou-sands of children have no contact with their fathers; a mil-lion elderly people do not see a friend, relative, or neighbor during an average week; and one in five pregnancies ends in abortion. “If we measure the happiness of society in these terms rather than the Dow Jones Index or the value of the pound to the dollar, we come to a rather different conclusion about the health of our society. What Wilberforce was doing when he campaigned for the reformation of manners was calling for a religious renewal of the person, on the basis that this changes the nature and direction of society.” As Wilberforce was to his two great objects of slavery and manners, so Lord Alton is to the pro-life and human rights movements in Britain and beyond.


  • Benedict Rogers

    Benedict Rogers is a journalist and human-rights activist working with Christian Solidarity Worldwide ( He has co-authored a book with Joseph D'Souza: "On the Side of Angels: Without Justice, There Can Be No Mission."

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