Lord Alli: 'I was called sinful and dirty. And that was in a Lords debate'

The Upper House has come a long way since Lord Alli declared his homosexuality there in 1999. But not far enough, he tells Oliver Wright

On 13 April 1999 the House of Lords heard a speech quite unlike any other it had heard before. At 10.29pm, after more than six hours of debate, the youngest member of Britain’s Upper House stood up and declared: “I am openly gay. I am 34. I was gay when I was 24, when I was 21, when I was 18, and even when I was 16. I have never been confused about my sexuality. I have [only ever] been confused about the way I am treated as a result of it.”

It may seem less extraordinary now but then Lord Alli of Norbury was the first peer to have ever spoken openly about being gay in the House of Lords. In fact, he was the first member of Britain’s upper house to admit to being gay at all.

Over the next few minutes, he quietly explained why legislation for an equal age of consent was not just a moral right but also a moral imperative. He described how he had been forced to keep his relationships secret from his employers, friends and even his family and been labelled as “sick”, “abnormal” and “unnatural” simply for being gay. He concluded: “In tonight’s vote I should like your Lordships to speak out for me and millions like me, not because you approve or disapprove, but because if you do not protect me you protect no one.”

Reading Alli’s speech now it is extraordinary how far Britain has come since then and in such a short space of time.

In the intervening 14 years Parliament has voted not only for an equal age of consent (1999), but also for the right for gay couples to adopt (2005), to openly serve in the military (2000), for the repeal of section 28 (2003) for civil partnerships (2005) and a host of other anti-discriminatory legislation.

As Alli, now 48, puts it: “If you told me when I went into the House of Lords 14 years ago that there would be a black President of the United States and that a Conservative Prime Minister would put forward legislation for gay marriage I just wouldn’t have believed it,” he says. “Things have just changed so much. If you’re black, if you’re a woman, if you’re disabled, if you’re gay, there is no time in history, no place on earth that it would have been better to have been in than 1997 onwards.”

It is perhaps a reflection of that change that Alli today is better known as a multi-millionaire media mogul behind shows such as The Word, The Big Breakfast, Survivor and the children’s show Octonauts than as a gay rights campaigner.

He sold the youth-friendly production company Planet 24, which he founded with Charlie Parsons and Bob Geldof, for around £15m in 2000. He was also chairman of the media rights group Chorion until 2011.

But there is still one significant piece of the equality jigsaw left and Alli is once again being called to the fore. He is helping to spearhead this week’s crucial gay marriage debate in the House of Lords and has spent the past few weeks phoning, texting emailing and talking to nearly 400 peers.

We meet the week before the vote near his office where he is at the centre of a round-the-clock lobbying operation to ensure a successful “Yes” vote at the Bill’s second reading tomorrow.

In a sign of the cross-party co-operation involved, he is interrupted by a phone call  from the Conservative Chief Whip in the Lords to discuss the latest numbers. It is, he says, incredibly close.

“The thing which is most frustrating about it is that the people with the dirtiest tactics always claim that everyone is against them,” he says.

He cites attempts by those trying to throw out the gay marriage Bill by “talking it out”, forcing a vote without even considering the legislation in committee, and whipping up unjustified fears about religious freedoms to win the argument.

The battle – and strength of feeling – is all a little bit reminiscent of 1999 when he was involved in the first piece of gay equality legislation. “I was called ‘sinful’, ‘disgraceful’ and ‘dirty’,” he says. “And that was in a debate in the House of Lords – it was awful. I’d only been there a few months. When the whip came back and reported that we’d lost by a huge number, I felt physically sick.

“I thought – I hate this place and I don’t want to be here. This is just the most awful place. Why on earth do I want to be here?  But then Margaret Jay, who was Leader of the House of Lords, stood up and walked to the despatch box and said: ‘My Lords, I am instructed by my Right Honourable Friend the Prime Minister to inform this House that he will for only the second time this century use the Parliament Act to ensure safe passage of this Bill on to the Statute Book. In that one moment I thought Tony Blair; you did what Bill Clinton didn’t do. You didn’t walk away from this. You absolutely took it through.”

Alli points out that in every single year afterwards the Lords has put through a piece of equality legislation – and never lost another vote. He is hoping the record will continue on Tuesday.

He divides the opponents of gay marriage into two distinct categories. “There are those who have deeply held religious views and then there is a second group who oppose now but will probably repent later.

“They were the type of people who voted against the equalisation of consent and regretted it. They are the people who voted against civil partnerships and regretted it. And I’ll believe they’ll vote against gay marriage and they’ll regret it in five years’ time.

“I telephone them, I write to them I text them I try and make them turn up. I try and discuss the issues that worry them. It’s all the things you would expect me to do.”

But he is also attempting to persuade the Bishops – 26 of whom have seats in the Lords – not to present a unified front against gay marriage and to recognise that they do not speak for the whole Church when they oppose it.

To this end he recently had a meeting with the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, that led to a rather remarkable public letter from the Bishop of Salisbury that  challenged Church of England orthodoxy.

“I said that I knew there were people in the Church – such as the Bishop of Salisbury – who were supportive of gay marriage and I asked him [that]  if I went to see him and asked him to do a piece would he have your blessing? He said ‘Absolutely. And that goes for any bishop.’”

So that’s what Alli did; leading to a 1,200-word letter from the Bishop, now being sent to every peer, in which he explains why he does not agree with the current orthodoxy.

Alli thinks there are more who share the view of the Bishop of Salisbury but for political reasons find it harder to speak out. “You go to a meeting and they give their position and their eyes almost roll as they are leaving the room,” he says.

“Some of them don’t fundamentally believe their own position on this.”

He also points out the inherent contradiction in the Church of England’s position – that while they are protected from having to conduct gay marriages they don’t want to give other groups the freedom to do so.

“They argue religious freedom except where they don’t like it. They don’t want gay marriage – so that means the Quakers can’t have it or the liberal Jews can’t have it. They’re in a pretty hypocritical place.”

By contrast, Alli – despite being a staunch Labour supporter – has nothing but respect for David Cameron for bringing forward the legislation against such opposition. “I think he just believes in it. It’s a personal commitment. It’s in his DNA.”

But, even if he wins tomorrow, he knows the battle for equality needs to be kept up. “I want to win the ground and keep it,” he says. “I never want to go back to where we were. The more the Conservative Party changes the safer I sleep at night.”

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
News
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Voices
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
News
Jermain Defoe got loads of custard
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst - Banking - London - £550 - £650

£550 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Business Analyst - Traded Credit Risk - Investmen...

Data Insight Manager - Marketing

£32000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based o...

Data Centre Engineer - Linux, Redhat, Solaris, SAN, Puppet

£55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A financial software vendor at the forefro...

.NET Developer

£600 per day: Harrington Starr: .NET Developer C#, WPF,BLL, MSMQ, SQL, GIT, SQ...

Day In a Page

All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf