Visiting the House of Lords gives a glimpse of a very different Britain from that experienced every day.
The Victorian Gothic architecture exudes an air of solid stability, staff seem to relish their roles of slightly unctuous affability, and the fine paneling and splendid pictures announce a sense of being at ease with British history.
It’s all real enough: Parliament has been meeting on this site for several hundred years, and the history is echoed by the glorious abbey just across the road, where Prince William was married a few years ago and where the relics of St. Edward the Confessor are visited by hundreds of people daily. The history is well recorded, and there is a sense of continuity, which is at the root of the British idea of governance and identity.
But the reality of the House of Lords is also the reality of modern Britain: Debates and law-making in recent years have included same-sex “marriage” and (just emerging) plans for compulsory instruction in “relationships” for all schoolchildren, centered on fashionable slogans about what is now considered acceptable and right.
It is rather refreshing to talk to Lord David Alton. He combines a cheery can-do approach to a wide range of projects, with a thoughtful recognition of the plight of an increasingly confused society struggling to find coherent values and principles. He is what is known in Britain as a “life peer” — someone who has been named as a member of the House of Lords in recognition of services rendered to the country, rather than by inheriting a title. He will not pass on the title to his descendants. The House of Lords is no longer essentially a chamber formed of hereditary peers.
Brought up in a Catholic family, Alton was educated at the Campion school in Essex, named after the famous English martyr St. Edmund Campion. Asked about the start of his political career, he announces with a grin that it began when he was at school: “We used to have a chaplain whom we all liked, but then he was appointed to a new job, and we were left without one. So I and some others got up a petition demanding that we got a new chaplain — and got one! It was a taste of successful campaigning and showed that it was possible to get things done!”
Alton began his political career in Liverpool, when he was elected as a city councillor while still in his early 20s. He served for some years as chairman of the education committee and deputy leader of the council.
He became a member of Parliament in a by-election in 1979 as a Liberal and was re-elected in 1983, but he split from the Liberal Party in the 1990s over the issue of abortion.
The party’s official policy had become increasingly supportive of abortion on demand, and Alton had from the start of his political work associated strongly with the defense of unborn children. He campaigned unsuccessfully for a legal ban on late abortions and for other restrictions on the 1967 Abortion Act and continues to be actively pro-life.
“It’s essentially about human rights,” he affirmed, and his pro-life stance is linked to his campaigns for religious freedom — he has visited North Korea and seeks to highlight the plight of Christians there — and for humanitarian efforts generally. The “Westminster Award,” which he helped to initiate, is presented annually to an individual or group that promotes “human rights, human life and human dignity.”
This year the award went to Mary’s Meals, a Scottish-based group that funds the feeding of more than a million children annually in projects across Africa.
It’s not easy to foresee success for Christian initiatives in modern Britain, and he is realistic about the way things are going in the immediate future. “There’s a sort of pincer movement, between radical Islam and radical secularism, and society is getting increasingly caught between the two.” There has to be a strong and courageous Christian voice — and he is inspired by the example of Christians from countries where things are much tougher. “Just recently, I was talking to Timothy, who escaped from North Korea. He was one of the people helped by the international group Christian Solidarity Worldwide. Now he is studying for a master’s degree and wants to become active in politics. Perhaps one day he will be able to be of real help to his own country.”
And he sees a great value in emphasizing Britain’s Christian heritage, and perhaps especially the heroism of the English Catholic martyrs and the recusant families who held on to the faith through difficult times.
A current project is the establishment of a new heritage center at Stonyhurst, the Catholic school founded by Jesuits in Lancashire, where Alton’s own children have been educated, which will bring together a sense of history with a message of evangelization.
“It’s a new center in an old mill — a restoration project with a message for the future,” he said. “We need to teach the history, and to do it with faith. There will be an outdoor Way of the Cross, an emphasis on prayer. And the project is being funded by the Theodore Trust, named in honor of an early archbishop of Canterbury. St. Theodore was a refugee from Islam who went on to serve the Church here in England. There’s a message there.”
Alton’s approach is always to work at an ecumenical level, where possible, and he gets on well with both Catholic and Anglican leaders. His wife, Lizzie, is an Anglican — her father was a clergyman, of whom David speaks with great respect and affection — and the Alton style is to emphasize goodwill and mutual effort for the common good.
He is a patron of Right to Life and is active with the Parliamentary Christian Fellowship, as well as with a range of charities and campaigning groups. Increasingly, he sees the need to draw on the heritage of martyrs and heroes from the past. “It’s not a matter of just looking back, but of drawing out a message for today and for the future. Recently, we marked ‘Red Wednesday.’ Buildings in London, including Westminster Cathedral, were floodlit in red to highlight the plight of modern martyrs. And part of that was also honoring the relics of St. Thomas Becket, martyred centuries ago.”
Is he optimistic about the future of the Church in Britain and a revival of some authentic values in society generally? Hopeful, perhaps, rather than optimistic.
He tends to get on with the work that needs doing, rather than spend time pondering what might happen, or worrying about it.
Our conversation over coffee was upbeat, even though it ranged over grim issues, from Britain’s tragic abortion rate to the sense of isolation felt by many Christians in the West. But as he said, “History — perhaps especially Catholic history in Britain — shows that there is always the possibility of new growth and new hope.”
Joanna Bogle writes