Tuesday, September 14, 2021
My Impassioned Speech on Equal Marriage (and more)
LGBT+ rights are deeply personal to me and at the heart of Liberal Democrat values – but sometimes we have to stand up for them even in the Lib Dems. With another Lib Dem Conference looming, my Equal Marriage speech two years ago today was one of the most nerve-wracking I’ve ever delivered – though also one of my best. I had to stand up to a then-MP and a former Leader, because many people knew someone had to but no-one else was doing it (I’ve even drawn out lessons from two former Leaders at the end. Don’t have nightmares).
My Speech on Equal Marriage, Liberal Democrat Conference, Bournemouth, 14th September 2019
Next month is my fifth wedding anniversary.
But my husband Richard and I have been together twenty-five years.
The wait wasn’t because we’re really traditional and wanted a really long engagement.
We had to wait for the Liberal Democrats in Government to change the law before we could get married on our twentieth anniversary.
Liberal Democrats have always had the best policy of any party on LGBT+ issues.
But it’s not just the policies and campaigning issues.
For me it’s personal.
We got married – but many people still can’t.
We got married – that’s why I can’t stand by and say, ‘I’m all right, Jac, never mind the rest of you.’
I must stand up. We must stand up.
Jo Swinson talked about love in her victory speech as Leader.
This is a simple choice: love or hate.
Liberal Democrats are about love and liberty.
Now, I take it personally when people tell me I shouldn’t have the same rights – my marriage matters!
Is it a matter of conscience? Yes! For the people getting married!
But if you want to bully people, to enforce your prejudices on people, to stop people making their own decisions…?
That’s not conscience – it’s control!
Everything in this motion comes back to the same founding principle: people’s right to control their own lives.
But it’s not just about policy. It’s about the face that the party shows.
I welcome people joining us from other parties. Some will be fully-formed Liberals, and some you might have to give more Leeway to.
Like children raised by wolves, you might not expect them to have perfect table manners, but we should expect all our MPs to say without qualification, ‘Biting people to death is wrong’, and if you’re in doubt, ask someone with scars, don’t say, ‘No-one’s ever tried to bite my leg off, so it’s just a point of view if they bite you.’
We should expect all our MPs to be whipped to stand up and not make excuses for homophobia.
Phillip Lee: I know you’re married. I hope you’re both very happy. Was it a long engagement?
We wrecked our last General Election campaign because we compromised – one person compromised – on homophobia.
Listen, all our MPs: if you don’t want to wreck the next one, it’s not just about the policy.
To put it in language at least two of our MPs will need to understand:
You may try to get into Parliament with good policies, but without faith you are nothing.
Surprisingly Good Reviews
Many Lib Dems agreed with this speech – many laughed, many clapped, Caron Lindsay was particularly kind on Twitter – which helped balance the usual line of the great and good saying How Very Dare You. But just this once, I did get some very good reviews from the New Statesman. Stephen Bush cited me in his write-up of the debate:
“In a speech that received loud applause from the floor, Alex Wilcock, a Liberal Democrat activist, spoke about the 20 years he had to wait to marry his partner, and asked Lee if his marriage had a similarly “long engagement”. It was Wilcock’s speech that also got to the heart of the Liberal Democrats’ unease over Lee’s admission: the party’s defence and toleration of their then-leader, Tim Farron, and his record on equal rights, and the price it paid for that at the 2017 election.”
But my cockles were most warmed by him and Alibhe Rea on The New Statesman Podcast – Lib Syncing, 19th September 2019.
“For me the best speech, actually, of the Conference, and I also think probably one of the best speeches I have seen in party conferences all told, was from a man called Alex Wilcock, who spoke about his own marriage, the very long engagement and the fact that same-sex marriage was illegal for so long, and basically challenged both Phillip Lee and the party for kind of turning a blind eye to some of the aspects of his voting record.”
“Yeah, it was pretty powerful, that they had been engaged for twenty years and unable to marry, and then the concluding line of his speech was something like, you know, ‘Phillip Lee, I gather you’re married, I hope you’re happy – was it a long engagement?’ It was really quite stirring in the context, and he was just a very good speaker. He’d sort of circled around and alluded to it for quite a while, and then arrived at that conclusion.”
Which is probably the best review I’ve ever had in the press (at least since the Daily Mail’s double-page-spread hit-job back in 1994, which was flattering in quite a different way).
Why I Made This Speech
I wasn’t going to make that speech. I wasn’t going to speak at all. If you want to make a speech in a physical Lib Dem Conference debate – it’s even less flexible in the current online Conferences – you need to put a card in saying roughly what you mean to say well in advance of a popular debate, usually at least the day before. I hadn’t, and had no intention to. But there had been so many hurt people around – not least friends who’d resigned from the party over its welcoming in an MP who saw us as Hell-spawned inferior life forms and wanting to tear out our hard-won rights. I’d prefer a sinner to repent, I’d like everyone to get along, but confronted with the choice between an unrepentant bully and people whose values actually belonged in the Liberal Democrats, there was no way not to pick a side. I woke at 4am that Saturday, stressed and depressed, massively wound up, and could not get back to sleep. So I did the obvious thing: I started thinking of a speech. Amazingly, I was in the Conference hall by 9.30am and put in a card (after Tweeting an obscure declaration of intent which nobody else would get but to stiffen my sinews). More amazingly still, I was called to speak.
I’d been scribbling thoughts, desperate to sort out what I thought at all, how much of it I should say, what tone I should take, and how on earth I might fit any of it into three minutes, which is a very short time indeed once you’re up on stage and gives no room for waffle (in the end, I was so focused on getting to the point that I ran under time). I still have the several sheets of paper where I can see my thoughts take shape – and how much was still unformed by the time the debate began. Unusually, I hadn’t decided how to end it even as I walked onto the platform and opened my mouth. But before I wrote anything else, I had circled to one side at the top, next to where I had to put the opening lines: “Serious and funny!”
A debate speech should have a point – you want to swing people’s votes with you. Sometimes I’ll wing it as I go along, but there are always two parts I need to prepare: the opening, because that gets people listening to you; the closing, because that gets people applauding. The finest arguments have been lost when people are still nattering from the last one because they don’t notice you’ve started or when stopped in mid-flow as your time runs out and the mike’s cut off. I realised both very early, but over the years I’ve set a second aim for the opening line that’s more difficult: it’s also to get people on your side. Whether it’s a joke, a self-deprecating moment or just saying hello, an effective speech begins by getting people to like you. The previous year, I’d made a blistering speech against a policy paper that hand-wringingly appeased bigots over immigration. It was one of my best speeches, focused, incisive, impassioned, but it had an opening like chucking a brick through a window, and while that got people’s attention, I don’t think it got anyone on my side. This time I might have to be even more combative – not attacking a paper, but possibly attacking MPs in person. Fortunately, this speech was personal and a personal opening came naturally, even with a funny bit and an opportunity (heartfelt as it was) to butter Conference up.
The Equal Marriage motion not only celebrated the Liberal Democrats’ achievement of making marriage legal at last for same-sex couples, but recognised that equal marriage is still some way off and set out how to get there – in Northern Ireland, for humanists, removing the hugely unfair spousal veto for trans people – and with speeches overwhelmingly in favour was passed, too, by an overwhelming vote in favour as Lib Dem policy.
Several excellent speeches before mine dealt with those issues for marriage directly, with the rise in homophobic attacks, with Labour MPs wanting a new Section 28, with daily virulent press transphobia – I was crossing off bullet points I’d scribbled haphazardly across my notes, helpful in terms of keeping better to time by not repeating what everyone else was saying, but with stress rising as I listened out for what everyone else was leaving unsaid. MPs and former MPs I admire paid loving praise to people who’d left the party because of— What? Our party was the best on LGBT+ values, and was getting better in this very debate, and yet for some reason that dared not speak its name people were loudly hoping that one day leading LGBT+ activists might somehow find their way back. Many in the hall must have wondered, had they accidentally slipped through into some parallel dimension and were merely lost, because surely nothing about our party was explaining it? I very much did not want to give the speech I could see in a choose-your-own-adventure set of variably hard-hitting ideas scribbled in question marks, but by the time I was called to speak (and for the rest of the debate) no-one else had said a word, and someone had to.
For that Conference, the number of Lib Dem MPs suddenly almost doubled: some defectors I was enthusiastic about; some seemed OK; and then there was one. In June 2019 I had written not a blog post but a Twitter thread as speculation about defectors rose: my instinct was to welcome everyone who chose to side with us. I was thinking aloud on Twitter, but I still – mostly – agree with myself. Yet there are always caveats… But it was by being welcoming, bold and Liberal that we attracted so many people who used to vote for other parties. Being open doesn’t mean watering down what we stand for – if we don’t stand for anything, no-one would make the leap anyway. Though I can’t help thinking that, as one of the Leadership’s more appealing themes at the time was that we were leading a wider Liberal movement, it might have saved a lot of heartache if we’d persuaded a defector standing with us on the big issue but clearly a git on others to caucus with the Liberal Democrats in Parliament as part of a wider Liberal movement and not actually join a party whose values he does not share (that nobody thought of it after years of the party faffing about with supporters’ schemes…). I didn’t actually say that because there wasn’t room for procedural rumination, but despite appearances I have never given a speech in which I was more thinking aloud.
Today I sum up Lib Dem values in three words: Freedom, Fairness, Future. I’ve been writing and speaking about the first two, intertwined, since the early ’90s: that was when I identified them as “Love and Liberty” in a long philosophical pamphlet, and carried that on to this blog. But “Love” isn’t a word politicians are often bold enough to claim, so I was delighted when Jo Swinson did that Summer, and I seized on it. Not just because I agreed with her and applauded her speech, but because if you’re about to go in with both barrels it always helps to call the Leader on your side. But that and my funny opening had a point: this is not ‘a point of view’. This is not just a debate. This is something that is crucial to real people’s lives, and no Liberal should be hoarding rights that they deny to others.
There was a moment where I nearly lost it. As I declaimed, “That’s not conscience – it’s control!” the last word surged up in a growl that almost frightened me: I’d never heard that tone from myself in a speech before and I realised with a shock that I was seconds from just shouting in righteous anger. It doesn’t seem as visible as it felt, but I pushed myself down hard inside, because I knew that I was at the pivot to the dangerous bit of the speech and, suddenly, I could so easily lose control. I forced myself to sound more at ease, to slip in a cutting pun, a stealth Doctor Who reference and a breezily insulting put-down. But as there’s a storm of applause, I wince now seeing the curt gesture to cut it, harsher than I’ve ever been in a speech, as I’m fighting not to snap. And then I say the line that I remember most vividly: “Was it a long engagement?” And it’s only three seconds before I dive on, but after the laughs and applause the deathly shocked silence at that picking up Chekhov’s punchline from earlier and making it a punch in the face felt like an eternity, and inside I was panicking that I’d blown it.
So as I went into the close, knowing I was going to finish with a mangled flourish from my religious upbringing – that you may try to get into heaven with good works, but without faith you are nothing – wielding it as a righteous flaming sword against two theocratic bigots, but not knowing how I was supposed to get there, with several partial versions scribbled in front of me and none I was happy with, and at the last moment somehow navigated between the cop-out of sticking only to Phillip Lee and full-on naming and shaming Tim Farron. I glanced at the scrawl of lines hoping we would pass the policy then warning that most people would never hear about it, while many voters would hear if so-called Liberal MPs lust to control others and claim their religion says my twenty-five years is too short a wait; or reminding the lucky few Lib Dem MPs elected in that disastrous General Election of the cost of weakly suggesting homophobia is just a point of view. But I swerved away from going full Old Testament thunder because I might never stop, or explode in sheer incandescent rage. I feared I’d already lost the hall but I was committed to saying something – in the end, my more tightly controlled ferocity still got the point across and the thunder was left to the applause.
Where Nick Clegg Went Wrong
I thought hard about whether to say any of this, after leaving it unsaid in 2019 – both in a speech that in the end confronted what everyone knew in the least confrontational way I could bring myself to, and after holding back from saying it at far greater length earlier that year. It isn’t uplifting, so you may wish just to stop here. But I’ve made myself look in order to learn.
During the 2019 Liberal Democrat Leadership election I wrote – most of – an article assessing the three immediately previous Leaders, and lessons to be learned. Though I wrote at length about the positives for each before blasting their big disasters, I never published it. What I had to say about Nick felt too much like old wounds, what I had to say about Tim Farron was still too raw and hurt and blisteringly angry, and I never quite finished writing about Vince, as just too meh (though in a late surprise entry since he’s now topped the ‘Most Problematic Former Lib Dem Leader’ chart. I wish he hadn’t). I’m not going to publish all that now. But it’s worth summarising the crucial lessons: not just when two Leaders f—ed up, which everyone knows, but why those particular f—k ups were so deadly. I’m not going to assess the whole Coalition – though Richard and I did say thank you for our marriage on our (twenty-years-and-) six-month anniversary, without which we’d still be waiting.
Here goes, though. “Tuition fees” was engraved on every Lib Dem heart and every anti-Lib Dem attack leaflet. The biggest, most catastrophic, monumental political misjudgement of the Lib Dems in Coalition. Yes, we all know this. But steel yourself and look at just why this was so destructive. First and foremost, for the Lib Dems (and for Nick Clegg personally), education is an absolute, passionate priority. It’s at the centre of enabling everyone to have the opportunity to realise their potential, not just a policy but at the heart of our philosophy. And in Coalition government, we championed education; we protected the schools budget from cuts and introduced the pupil premium, so schools got more money to help teach poorer kids. But every single time any Lib Dem mentions it to this day, what does every voter think? ‘But tuition fees.’ F—k. Breaking the promise was bad, but breaking the heart of our values was catastrophic. And from naked political nous, university towns and higher-educated voters had become the hard-earned most likely to vote Lib Dem, and the tuition fees betrayal kicked them in the face. It’s hard to think of a more laser-guided missile to the Lib Dem vote.
Some More of Tim Farron’s Greatest Mistakes
Which brings me to Tim Farron. The 2015 Leadership election was blighted in two ways: not only did we have practically no MPs left to choose from, but in hindsight the two contenders were summed up by Yes Minister:
“If Eric gets it, we’ll have a split in the Party in three months. If it’s Duncan – we’ll have one in three weeks.”
Eurosceptic Norman Lamb would have been an utterly catastrophic Lib Dem Leader for Brexit. Tim Farron made the critical choice that we would stay fighting as the party of Remain, a brave, principled decision trying to save Britain’s future that also enabled the Lib Dems to survive the near-extinction event preceding Farron’s Leadership and then the near-extinction event precipitated by Farron’s Leadership. But then, obviously, he went and proved that while it’s hard to think of a more laser-guided missile to the Lib Dem vote than tuition fees, it could still be done. I’m trying to strike an ironic tone, but I’ve cut my next four paragraphs from 2019 because they’re unlikely to do anyone much good, and certainly I felt the fury, misery and betrayal rising just re-reading them. Plus there aren’t enough em dashes to cover all the swearing. Every single day of that blighted election I defended him because I thought I knew him, as furious and hurt and betrayed LGBT+ people said, ‘How can you do this to us?’ But Farron didn’t just destroy the LGBT vote for the Lib Dems, much as Nick didn’t just hammer the student vote. This was about the sort of party we are and the sort of people who might vote for us. Think about the sort of voters who are likely to listen to the Lib Dems. Even if they don’t mention it on the doorstep, how are they going to react to the only thing they hear from the Lib Dems, day in, day out, being that their Leader doesn’t like the gays? A more perfectly targeted voter-seeking missile even than tuition fees – not even the excuse that the money was too tight, not even the excuse that we couldn’t get another party to accept it, but simply because the Leader we chose had chosen to be a bigot. Name me anything a Liberal Leader could possibly do more effectively to alienate Liberal-minded voters. They recoiled en masse. In the year of the universally hopeless leaders, to be more of a voter turn-off than disintegrating robot Theresa May and a UKIP nonentity? The 2017 Lib Dem Leader was sheer electoral poison – delivering an even lower vote than 2015’s collapse, the worst share of the vote for British Liberalism since the 1950s – and, as votes had to go somewhere, if you wonder how on Earth people once saw any hope in Brexit’s Best Mate Jeremy Corbyn, Tim Farron was his biggest asset.
I had known and liked both Nick Clegg and Tim Farron since long before they became Leader. I felt for both of them… But I admit one I find easier to forgive for their worst calls when leading the Liberal Democrats. It’s an appallingly hard job and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but it’s also hard not to want to tell anyone doing it: if you must f—k up, can you at least think about what’s deepest in our values and what’s most important to our voters, and try to f—k up at the furthest-away political point from both?
However, looking at your sections on Nick Clegg and Tim Farron, I see things very differently.
Nick spent five years destroying Liberal Democracy, continuously, repeatedly and obviously and proved to the electorate at large that we could not be trusted. He squandered 50 years of hard work and effort by tens if not hundreds of thousands of Liberals and Liberal Democrats, who built up the party to give him that chance, and he trashed it. We are where we are because of him and Boris Johnson, the Triumph of the Tories and Brexit are down to him.
Tim, was dumped in the ruins of that catastrophe, and made a decision - Remain - that gave us our one chance to prove we were still relevant on the national stage, and it worked, only to be finally squandered by Jo and her rush to a quick election.
Both were flawed characters, but Tim's philosophy was "Find a seat and win it." Nick's was " I'm in charge. Tough."
But while Nick could dissemble like any smooth talking bar steward of a politician, Tim is an evangelical Christian and so he believes that we are all sinners. But that doesn't mean he doesn't like sinners. It means he believes in the literal truth of the Bible as the word of God and that we all need to seek redemption through Jesus Christ. Many Lib Dems, including Christians do not believe this with anything like this intensity, but Tim is Tim and he does.
This is why when you say "how are they going to react to the only thing they hear ... , day in, day out, being that their Leader doesn’t like the gays?" you are absolutely right to and it hurts. But it doesn't make it true. People who hate us - the Conservatives, Labour, the Nats and many in the media who will do anything for a quick poisonous kill - will say it anyway.
However, where I believe you are wrong, is where you take this "what they hear" and turn it into "Tim doesn't like gays" as a statement of fact and then add in "because the Leader we chose had chosen to be a bigot."
I am sure there are Lib Dems, including clearly yourself, who (sadly) believe this to be absolutely true, but it doesn't make it so. I really would say to you, if you believe that it could be true I suggest that you should ask people who work with him day after day before saying it. If they do say "Tim doesn't like gays," and "He is a bigot", you have every right to repeat it and I will have been proved to be mistaken. But don't be surprised if they say something like "Tim is Tim and as a Christian, he 'knows' he is a sinner, like he 'knows' every one of the rest of us is a sinner as well. Sadly as an evangelical he also believes he has to help people towards redemption, and sometimes that involves saying so."
I hope perhaps you will reconsider.
All the best to you.