Questions for Lord Alton for Liverpool Hope University Alumni Magazine


What are your key memories of studying at Christ College?

Exactly 30 years ago Fr. Alexander Jones put the scholarship of Christ College firmly on the map through his translation and publication of the Jerusalem Bible. Deeply affected by the Second Vatican Council, he had been hugely influenced by the cross-currents of Christian thought in the post war years: aggiornamento – keeping abreast of the times – and approfondimento – the deepening of theological thought. Working with great scholars, like J.R.R. Tolkien, Fr. Jones passionately rejected the idea that Christianity was a relic and irrelevant or that it had “nothing to say to the mind.”

On arriving at Christ’s in 1969, I experienced this confident ethos, which was still prevalent. An extraordinary spirit of purpose and mission pervaded the College. The Departments of Divinity and History, where I studied, were imbued with energy and commitment. To young men and women who wanted to give their lives to teaching there was an endless stimulus to the mind and, through the spiritual life of the College, to the heart and soul as well. As a teenager, at a school founded by Jesuits, I had toyed with the idea of working on the African missions and maybe teaching there, then discovered politics. I thought Liverpool would be a great place to be a student and to decide what to do next. I came from a family where Higher Education was a novel experience. My mother was an immigrant from the West of Ireland, her first language was Irish and she had left school at 14. My father had been a Desert Rat and a shop floor worker at Ford Motor Company. Just two of us from the Council estate where I grew up made it through the scholarship to my Grammar School so I had already learnt not to take opportunities for granted – and that education is both a privilege and the key to everything else in life.  Happily, as I hadn’t applied to go anywhere else,, Monsignor Bernard Doyle, then the College Principal, offered me a place. Quite literally, from the moment I arrived, I knew I was part of a special community where people really looked out for one another.  The College had been built by Catholics to serve the needs of the Catholic community – and as I quickly discovered through College visits to inner city schools, this was a city which needed help in fighting disadvantage, discrimination, and poverty. I felt particularly at home in the unique British-Irish mixture that gives Liverpool its vitality, its warmth, its generosity, and its humour.  Those early encounters with poverty led me in to “community politics”. But I was also finding my feet in the Student Union. My first successful foray was a motion to oppose sporting links with white-only South African apartheid teams.  A month before my finals I stood in a “hopeless” Council seat in the inner city, Low Hill Ward, and at 21 found myself elected as a student to the City Council. My only helpers on the ground had been half a dozen other Christ College students. There was quite a reception committee waiting for me when I arrived back at Newman Hall that night and the partying ended in the small hours of the morning! The morning after, and of more immediate concern, were my finals. A note from the wonderful Sister Winifred, who taught history, told me I had better come and see her. She gave me some extra notes and not a little encouragement and it was really she who deserved the results which happily followed.

Did you live in?

I lived in Newman Hall in my first and third years; and with three other Christ’s students in a house off Smithdown Road – a neighbourhood I would one day represent in Parliament – in my third year.

Do you still keep in contact with any fellow students from your time at Christ College?

Just a week ago I was spoke to the Sixth form at Maghull’s excellent Maricourt School. With great selfless dedication, Tony Grieco, who was a student with me, has taught there throughout his teaching career, and our paths have often crossed. He was also in Newman Hall. John Henry Newman, who had some very decided views about what a university should be, would be able to take some satisfaction from the idealistic teachers who were moulded during that period. Recently, through the Good Citizenship Award scheme which I set up, and which is available in over 1,000 schools around the region, I often meet contemporaries from my days at Christ’s. I also keep in touch with some of the inspirational people who taught at Christ’s. A few weeks ago I had supper with one of them, Mary Lonsdale. Mary was a guest at a lecture I organised for Gervaise Phinn, whose books and talks capture the spirit that pervaded Christ’s in my time there.  I often hear from College friends via e-mail. Inevitably, these days it is sadly sometimes news of illness or death. I was really distressed to hear that Clare Downey, who studied with me – and whose husband, John, was at school with me, died on Christmas Day last from tumour of the brain. Clare was the perfect example of what Christ College was all about: the bedrock of her deep faith inspired her to give a life of real service to education.

After leaving College and entering Parliament, you put your teacher training into practise on Merseyside. What are your memories of this time?

During two of my summer vacations, as a student, I worked on the South Liverpool Holiday School, staying in what was World Friendship House, in Falkner Square, run by a charismatic Anglican, Canon Goddard. I was teaching immigrant children English. In later years one of the Chinese children asked me to be Godfather to her daughter and so I am still in touch with that family. After leaving College, I spent two years teaching in Kirkby, at English Martyrs School. Staring forty children in the face, on my first day, I’m not sure, even now, who was more apprehensive, them or me! Many of their parents had been arrested for taking part in a huge rent strike. The local estate was seething. The school was an oasis and the staff utterly committed to the children.

Years later I met one of the lads I had taught and he asked me if I could remember giving him the books of C.S. Lewis. He introduced me to his 8-year-old and told me he was now reading The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe to him. I think that a lot of education is like passing on the baton in a relay race. At 23 I gave up my job in Kirkby to fight a General Election. There were two elections that year and having notched up a good second place in a seat uncontested since 1950, I decided that I would have another go four years later. Meanwhile, I needed another job. So, I spent five years working for Sefton Education Authority with children who have special needs. It was the first time I had encountered serious disability. That made me think a lot about issues like eugenic abortions, about discrimination against disabled people, and the right to life. The last child I taught was dying of Cystic Fibrosis. He and his family taught me rather more than I taught Ian. He died just a few weeks after I entered the House of Commons.

Have you been back to the Childwall campus recently, and if so what are your thoughts in relation to the way it has changed since the late 60’s, early 70’s?

When Lizzie and I married, in 1988, we chose the chapel at Christ College for our wedding and we held our wedding reception there. One of my closest friends, the late Fr. Paul Thompson, performed the marriage, with the help of my father-in-law, the Revd. Philip Bell, who is sixty years an Anglican priest. Paul – who later baptised two of my children and was Godfather to another – was Derek Worlock’s press officer.

The ecumenism of the Worlock-Shepard years was obviously going to be needed in an inter-denominational marriage and I sensed that Christ College was coming to terms with that need too.  Liverpool had a deeply divided sectarian past and David Sheppard and Derek Warlock were right to confront and attempt to heal that. The amalgamation of Christ’s, St. Kath’s and Notre Dame, was a logical expression of that desire. My only anxiety is the danger, one which I know that Professor Pilay will resist, that Hope should not become yet another secular institution, with a Christian past, striving to accommodate everyone but standing for nothing.

How much of a part did politics play in your life while you were studying at Christ College?

The Jesuits say “give me a child until he is seven and I’ll give you a man for life.” They drove it into us that we should be “men for others” and use the opportunities we were being given for the common good. Strongly influenced by this belief and by the events and things I saw around me, at College I quickly realised that even though you might not be able to change the whole world, it was not an excuse for changing nothing. These were the years in which Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King had been assassinated; wars in Biafra and Vietnam; apartheid in South Africa; Russian tanks in Czechoslovakia; troops being sent to Northern Ireland. It was hard not to be political.

If I had felt a call to be a career politician I would have joined a big political party. I joined one with just 6 MPs and 5% of the popular vote. But I knew that doing nothing ever changes anything: and I have always like a challenge!

So, I spent almost all of my free time at College engaged in politics – and my College room sometimes resembled an election committee room. Gradually, I spent more and more of my vacation time here too, staying with the Davies’s, a local Jewish family. Harry stood as council candidate in Childwall, and I was his election agent. A year later we came within 35 votes of winning, so I realised that hard work and commitment paid off.

In 1972, you were elected to Liverpool City Council as the country’s youngest councillor. What drove you to stand for office?

I stood in the Low Hill Ward, where half the houses had no inside sanitation, no running hot water or bathrooms and half the streets were still lit by gas lamps. Yet the houses were quite capable of renewal and improvement – not the demolition favoured by the Council. The people living in Kensington Fields agreed with me and elected me. At one level or another I then represented that particular community for the following 25 years. In 1978 as the City’s Housing Chairman and deputy leader of the Council I was able to “pension off the bulldozer” and created the biggest house improvement programme in the country.

In 1979, you won a seat in Parliament but as well as being the youngest member of that Parliament you also set a record for the shortest tenure. What happened?

In March 1979 a by-election was held after the death of the Labour MP for Edge Hill, the seat where five years earlier I had been a candidate, and the constituency where my council Ward was situated. Very inconveniently and inconsiderately, the night before the election, the Callaghan Government collapsed, having narrowly lost a vote of no confidence. A General Election was called.

The following day Edge Hill went to the polls and with a 38% swing I became the youngest MP of the Parliament but also the shortest-lived MP! I had to make my maiden speech two hours after taking my seat. Every other MP was packing their bags to go back and fight the General Election. I could have been an after dinner joke for the rest of my life if the good voters of Edge Hill hadn’t sent me back again four weeks later.

Happily, after the constituency was merged with Mossley Hill, I went on to hold the seat again in 1983, 1987 and 1992, until I stood down, after disagreeing with my then Party’s decision to make abortion a Party policy.

You have worked with our Chancellor, Baroness Caroline Cox of Queensbury. What has been the nature of that work?

Having thought that I had escaped the parliamentary penitentiary in 1997 I was given a life sentence for bad behaviour. In the Lords I sit as an Independent on the Crossbenches. I have particularly used this opportunity to pursue human rights issues. In the mid 80s I co-founded Jubilee Campaign and Jubilee Action (www.jubileecampaign.co.uk) and they have done a huge amount of work on human rights, religious persecution and issues like the exploitation of street children. Through this work I got to know Caroline Cox extremely well. During my visits to the Karen refugee camps on the Burma border and in the bombed and ravaged villages of Southern Sudan, where 2 million people have been killed, I was deeply struck by the numbers of people who told me how much they appreciated the help they had been given by Caroline. She is a true “voice for the voiceless.”

Two years ago Caroline and I travelled together to North Korea and raised humanitarian and human rights issues with the regime there. Subsequently we set up a joint Parliamentary Committee on North Korea, which I chair, and of which Caroline is Vice Chairman. It’s a modest attempt to ensure that the plight of the suffering people of that forsaken land are not entirely forgotten.

How would you rate Liverpool Hope’s choice of Baroness Cox as our Foundation Chancellor?

I was really delighted that Hope had asked Caroline to be the Foundation Chancellor. She is an extraordinarily brave and courageous woman: one of the truly great people you are privileged to meet in life. Her energy and compassion are a by-word; her understanding of higher education a real asset; her international profile of tangible benefit.

But the greatest thing Caroline brings to Hope is her faith. St. Francis of Assisi famously said that we should use words to explain our faith, but only when we have run out of deeds. Caroline, who is a member of the lay Anglican third-order of St. Francis, is the embodiment of that thought and synonymous with the values which shaped the colleges from which Hope has sprung.