A tribute to Lord Alton on the 40th anniversary of his entry into Parliament
By Benedict Rogers, Hong Kong Watch Chair of Trustees
Lord Alton of Liverpool, one of Hong Kong Watch’s Patrons, has served in Parliament for 40 years. On 29 March 1979 he was elected to the House of Commons in a by-election in Liverpool as the youngest Member of Parliament, aged 28 – the “baby of the House”. In 1997 he was appointed to the House of Lords.
Last week, at a surprise reception to celebrate the 40th anniversary of his election, over 100 people gathered in Speaker’s House in Parliament, where tributes were made by the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, and the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. A tribute video was also shown, which included messages of appreciation from Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement activist Joshua Wong, and the former legislator Nathan Law – himself elected as the youngest member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. Last year, speaking at a Hong Kong Watch dinner which he hosted, Lord Alton recalled meeting Nathan Law, whom he described as “a very impressive, intelligent and courageous young man.” He told Nathan: “Us ‘babies of the House’ must stick together”.
Throughout David Alton’s entire political career, one theme has been consistent: human dignity, human freedom and human rights. His motto on his coat of arms as a member of the House of Lords encapsulates his values: “Choose life!”.
That has led him to take up an extraordinary range of causes, from human rights in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, to Sudan, the Congo, street children in Brazil, child prisoners in the Philippines, Burma, North Korea, China and Hong Kong. The US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Sam Brownback, described him as “one of the lead pillars in the world on human rights – you can always count on David Alton.”
In his own remarks at the reception, after recovering from the surprise, Lord Alton did not miss the opportunity to remind us again of his central cause and to challenge us to continue the fight for freedom. He recalled a monument in the United States to those who died in the Korean war, with the words “Freedom is not Free”. And he added: “Our freedoms and our privileges come at a great price and we should never take them for granted. All of us must go on doing small things for those without a voice ….. We must never forget how privileged we are to live in a parliamentary democracy. And we must never forget the price that others have paid: Freedom is not free.” We must, he said, be “politically courageous rather than politically correct”.
Despite already being a patron or trustee or friend of numerous charities, organisations and causes, when Hong Kong Watch invited Lord Alton to be one of our founding Patrons, he did not hesitate to accept. Despite being in the depths of winter with ice and snow on the roads, he left his home in the north of England early in the morning to make a special journey to be with us at the launch. And despite being busier than almost anyone I know, he never fails to table questions, speak in debates, write letters to ministers or chair meetings on Hong Kong. As Joshua Wong said, he is “a champion of human rights …Being a voice of the inconvenient truth is never easy. I thank you for your courage”
Lord Alton’s involvement with Hong Kong goes back decades. “I first became interested in Hong Kong when, as a young Member of Parliament in Liverpool, I came to know a Hong Kong Chinese family and was invited by them to Hong Kong where I learnt the story of their escape from famine and Mao’s Cultural Revolution,” he recalls. Since then he has followed developments in the city actively. “When I heard that Nathan was disqualified from the legislature, by a court and not by the President of the legislature, simply for quoting Mahatma Gandhi after taking his oath, I was appalled. When I heard that Nathan, Joshua and their colleague Alex Chow were jailed, I knew something had gone badly wrong with Hong Kong, and that we in Britain have a responsibility to act.”
At the reception last week was a campaign poster from David Alton’s election campaign 40 years ago. Prior to his election to Parliament, David had served as a councillor in Liverpool, and the poster, based on his record, said simply: “Everybody knows someone who has been helped by David Alton.” Forty years on that is as true now as it was then, and nowhere is it more true than in Hong Kong. We in Hong Kong Watch pay tribute to Lord Alton for his tireless efforts to defend human freedom and human rights, express our appreciation to him for everything he does as our Patron, and look forward to continuing to work with him for many years to defend the basic freedoms which the people of Hong Kong were promised and which are now being eroded by the day.