Profile: Holier than the House: His campaign against violent videos has touched a nerve. Mary Braid on a very moral MP / David Alton

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The Independent Online
DAVID ALTON is a priestly sort of politician. He speaks well and volubly but occasionally, in the middle of long tracts, he hesitates, Derek Nimmo-like, before pronouncing further on his latest mission.

The style is complemented by a choir-boy appearance. Professional politics and middle age have brought the sombre suit and expression but left no trace of late-night-Commons lines or an over-indulgent paunch. At 43, Alton, Liberal Democrat MP for Mossley Hill, is fresh-faced, boyishly built, earnest and, when you first meet him, almost shy.

He has a reputation for being humourless. But he laughs - not a belly laugh, but a sort of tittering through sentences - over the behind-the-scenes manouevring that brought his campaign against video nasties to a successful conclusion last week. He tabled an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill to restrict the certification of violent videos and their sale to children. He created such a head of steam, particularly among Tory backbenchers, that Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, who said at first that the proposal was unworkable, agreed to table a government version when the Bill reaches the Lords.

The video nasty campaign, a year in the making, has been a doddle compared with his bruising attempt, seven years ago, to tighten abortion legislation. His Private Member's Bill, to change the upper time limit for abortion from 28 to 18 weeks, challenged laws formulated by Sir David Steel, his party leader. It split the Liberal Party and brought thousands of pro and anti-abortion demonstrators on to the streets. Alton was physically attacked, labelled a misogynist and compared to Goebbels by furious feminists. Then 36 and single, he also had to face a barrage of questions about his sexuality. Eventually the Bill was 'talked out'.

His video nasties campaign, by contrast, has enjoyed a political consensus and overwhelming public support. It was, he says, crucial to make clear that it was about violence, not sex. 'It was important not to be seen as a moral majority move by new puritans,' he says. But that is exactly how Alton's detractors regard many of his operations. In full flood in the Commons conference room he pulls together the evils of pornography, abortion, euthanasia and fertility treatment using eggs from embryos. He fashions sermons worthy of any priest.

ALTON, baptised by Franciscan monks, educated by the Sisters of Mercy and Jesuit priests and related to eight ordained clergymen, did contemplate a religious life. Born in London's East End, the son of a Catholic mother from County Mayo and an agnostic Cockney father who was a foreman at Ford's, he was just 14 when he contacted an overseas mission about a job, forgetting to mention his age. 'My mother and father were mortified when this woman turned up at the door to talk about it,' he says. It was not a passing phase: he chose to study history and theology at a Catholic teacher training college in Liverpool, keeping open the option of a spiritual life.

At 17 he joined the Young Liberals because Harold Wilson's Labour government was not inspiring to a young idealist and Jo Grimond, then party leader, was 'so attractive'. He admits that, had the Tories been in power, he might well have joined Labour.

He was a precocious political talent. At 21 he was elected to Liverpool council and seven years later became Parliament's youngest member after winning a by-election in Liverpool's Edge Hill.

Within a year of becoming a councillor Alton showed his mettle. He suspected a fellow Liberal councillor of corruption and told the local party, believing - naively, he now thinks - that it would act. It chose to do nothing. Other political novices might have toed the party line or left politics disillusioned. Young Alton went to the press.

'The man eventually went to prison,' he remembers, pursed-lipped. 'I was a pariah in my own party for a while. There was an attempt to expel me. Some blamed me for the long-term damage to the party, but you can't let matters like corruption fester.'

Soon after, Alton became deputy leader of Liverpool Liberals. With the local party leader and guru, Trevor Jones (known as 'Jones the Vote' because of his genius for organising campaigns), the young Alton is credited with developing a style of 'community' politics which brought the party to power in the city in the mid 1970s and made waves nationally.

Borrowing American ideas, the two men identified specific local gripes, such as refuse collection, got them put right, then claimed the glory for the Liberals. The populist approach was accompanied by ferocious attacks on opposition politicans. The approach brought political enemies. Alton was badly injured when someone threw a brick at his face. 'It was rough, tough politics and David Alton didn't mind taking his gloves off,' remembers one politcal commentator. 'What he and Jones achieved in just a few years was quite remarkable. They called it community politics, but others called it gutter.'

Against the odds, Alton has held on to the only non-Labour parliamentary seat in Liverpool. Since he married six years ago he has lived with his wife Lizzie and their children Marianne, five, Padraig, three, and Philip, one, just a mile or two from Toxteth. He bristles when reminded of the suggestions that his marriage, announced at the height of the abortion campaign, was simply a device to stem gossip about his sexuality.

'When I met Lizzie I just knew I had met the person I wanted to spend my life with,' he says. She is the daughter of an Anglican minister and spent her childhood on Tristan Da Cunha. She, too, is a Liberal, a committed Christian and fiercely anti-abortion. They first met at a prayer breakfast when Lizzie chaired Liberals for Life. Before their marriage, she told a tabloid newspaper, she never stayed overnight at her fiance's flat in case 'the flesh got the better of one'.

Catholicism has always shaped Alton's politics. He is a founder member of the Movement for Christian Democracy, an all-party body which aims to bring Christian values into political life and which played an important role in the video nasties campaign. (Some people think he intends it to be an alternative power base in the event of an irrevocable split with the Liberals.) But he insists the large Catholic population in his constituency - and what some colleagues describe as his 'merciless playing of the Catholic card' - have nothing to do with his success. Sir David Steel agrees. 'David is tenacious and one of the hardest working MPs I know,' he says. 'That is why he has managed to hold on to his seat.'

Alton always knew abortion was wrong; so did his parents. Within a few weeks of arriving in the Commons he was protesting about reports that an aborted foetus had spent hours struggling for life in a hospital in Liverpool. In 1987 he resigned as Liberal chief whip to devote himself to the abortion Bill.

His fixation with the issue has perhaps exacerbated his tendency to be a loner. 'He is generally seen as a one-man band,' said one Commons critic. 'Many believe his primary motivation is vanity and seeing his name in headlines. He does takes credit - even in this latest campaign - for the work of many people. At root he is a political opportunist par excellence.' Some anti-abortion campaigners share the reservations. His Bill might have succeeded, they say, if he had heeded advice to leave the upper time limit for abortion flexible to allow for the advance of medical science.

Two years ago, after the Liberal Democrat conference passed a motion in favour of the existing abortion laws, Alton threatened not to stand for the party at the next general election. (He returned to the fold when the vote was later reversed.) Paddy Ashdown, the leader, observed that Alton was not 'a team player' and that he had played no part in building the new party or in the previous four years' campaigning. His departure would make little difference, Ashdown added. Even diplomatic observers concede Alton 'can be very hard to advise'.

His admirers, however, focus on his 'moral' approach to politics, his energy and his capacity for hard work. He is pragmatic enough, they say, to forge unlikely alliances. The video campaign involved MPs as far apart as Clare Short on the left (she vigorously opposed Alton on abortion) and Sir Ivan Lawrence on the Tory right. And, for all the zeal, he respects other people's views: Jackie Winter, a firm pro-choice supporter, was never, in 14 years as his secretary, asked to type a document concerning Alton's anti-abortion activities.

There is plenty of moral crusading left in Alton. He says British taxpayers' money is being used to fund 'forced abortions and sterilisations' in China and he plans 'to bring something before Parliament'. The wording of the proposed 'video nasties' clause - the censors must 'have regard to' videos that may cause 'psychological harm to a child' or present 'an inappropriate model' - leaves ample room for future campaigns and court cases.

'A bit of a creeping Jesus' is the verdict of one lobby journalist on Alton but, he adds, 'that makes a refreshing change from the conventional power politician'. And Alton does talk of 'loneliness, despair and suicide' being more important than the fluctuations of the Dow Jones Index. You wonder, though, if a cathedral would be a more fitting setting than a Commons conference room.

(Photograph omitted)