THE MODEST MILLIONAIRE FIGHTING FOR YOUR RIGHTS
Gay rights champion, fashion entrepreneur, television producer, Member of the UK’s House Of Lords, Left-wing multimillionaire, out gay Muslim… Sitting opposite correspondent Tim Benzie to know exactly where to begin. >>
In the UK, Baron Alli is not nearly as well-known as he should be, given his astonishing résumé and the nation’s obsession with celebrity. For a generation, he’s been at the forefront of gay rights in the UK – he should be mentioned in the same breath as Peter Tatchell.
The first openly gay peer in the House Of Lords, Baron Alli was appointed by then-Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1998, as part of a clique known as “Tony’s Cronies”. Alli campaigned to overturn Section 28, legislation enacted in 1986 during Margaret Thatcher’s governance to prevent the “promotion of homosexuality”. (As a shocking point of reference, young readers, similar laws were introduced in Russia last year). Alli then fought to equalise the age of consent, remove discrimination in employment and he won the fight for gay marriage.
When the gay marriage law passed through the House Of Commons, there were attempts to scupper the legislation by providing amendments, most notably to distinguish between same-sex and opposite-sex marriage. Baron Alli was cool, determined and completely delightful. During one debate, with the campily named (but not so inclined) Lord Dear, Lord Alli said, “I am a little confused about what Lord Dear has in mind when talking about traditional marriage. Marriage not just predates Christianity, but is found in many different cultures and traditions and, as has been said, in many different forms. As an aside, the noble Lord may be interested to know that in ancient Rome, Emperor Nero was married to a man – a fine tradition, in my view, but perhaps not what the noble Lord had in mind.”
When the bill finally passed, the cheers of activists and supporters outside could be heard inside the House. The crowd included yours truly, so it feels particularly special to be dining with someone who helped make it possible. Yet his political life is only part of the story, which includes coming out as a gay Muslim, producing ground-breaking TV (including the first Survivor), founding fashion websites (Asos.com) and making a name (and fortune) for himself in finance when he was only in his twenties.
With gay marriages now able to commence in the UK, we start with the future. Are we nearing the end of the journey for gay rights in the UK at least? Is getting gay married in a church the next hurdle? This particular battle is one of the few that Baron Alli has lost. He puts down the menu. “That was a journey. Are we at the end of it? No. I think you’re right about the churches. The churches opposed civil partnerships in 2006, particularly the Church Of England. When gay marriage came along, they said no, we’re for civil partnerships.
“And I thought, well, before the idea of gay marriage came along, none of you were for civil partnerships. So I said this to the Church: if you are so for civil partnerships – where is the liturgy? Where are the blessings for the civil partnerships in your Church? Why aren’t civil partnerships allowed in your religious buildings? Don’t tell me you’re for it, because you’re not.
“So the work we have to do is to get them to accept civil partnerships in the Church Of England and then move into gay marriage. Whereas the United Reform Church, the Quakers, the liberal Jews, they’ll go straight to gay marriage. And I love them for it.”
It’s exciting to hear a politician speak openly about his relationship with religious organisations and how they might be changed. Baron Alli occupies a particularly incendiary public position as the first openly gay peer and one of very few openly gay Muslims in UK public life. I’m curious to know whether he thinks Islam could move towards a long-lost tradition of ijtihad (a practice of scholarly questioning and debate) and away from fundamentalism. But he politely declines to comment.
It’s understandable, but it’s a shame. Throughout the interview Baron Alli will prove an articulate critic of the dangers of religious intervention in civil laws and praises the UK for its separation of church and state. Examples will be raised of excesses in other countries – but no mention of Islamic states in which gay men and lesbians can legally be executed. In response to the question: “What can we do for our Muslim brothers and sisters,” he simply replies, “Be fabulous.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Alli insists that, “the state has made the changes, the churches haven’t.” It seems clear that, by and large, the state is where he is prepared to fight his battles. “The state says you can have gays in the military now, but you still won’t have a gay bishop. They won’t have a woman bishop.” He rolls his eyes. “The same arguments that keep women out are the same arguments that keep out gay men. And you and I know they have gay bishops. They have gay clergy. They just won’t allow them to be open, officially. Or they’ll allow them to be open but not officially. It’s so hypocritical.”
What about the political situation Down Under? His work life is in the UK, but Baron Alli has bought a home in Sydney and visits often, demonstrating a passionate, informed interest. Was he surprised that the erstwhile Labor leader in Australia did not support gay marriage, while it was pushed into law in the UK by David Cameron, a Conservative Prime Minister? Are the days when gay activists had to look to the Left now over?
“Tony Blair changed that dynamic in this country. He made the centre ground broad enough to encompass the Conservatives, and the Labour and the liberal parties. And that’s what you have to do.”
He is, not surprisingly, glowing about Tony Blair. Regardless of any subsequent tarnishing to the Prime Minister’s place in history, Alli cites his proudest political moment as being all about Blair. “In 1998 we were doing >>
It was my first speech in the House Of Lords. I stood up and I talked about what it was like to be gay – I was the first openly gay peer. It was slightly nervewracking.
>> the equalisation of the age of consent and it was my first speech in the House Of Lords. And I stood up and I talked about what it was like to be gay – I was the first openly gay peer. It was slightly nerve-wracking.
“I finished my speech and sat down and I thought I’d changed the minds of people. We voted and I couldn’t yet tell how the system worked. I was so new. I didn’t realise we’d lost the vote. When the Lord Chancellor stood up and said these are the results and we lost, I felt physically sick. The leader of the House Of Lords was a woman called Baroness Margaret Jay and she stood up and said, ‘My Lords, my right honorable friend the Prime Minister has instructed me to inform this House that for only the second time this century, will he invoke the Parliament Act to ensure safe passage of this bill on the statute books.’
“And I sat back and thought ‘okay, one person can make a difference in politics’. He [Tony Blair] didn’t have to do that. He could have done what Clinton did and backed away from gays in the military. Said ‘I’ve fulfilled my manifesto promise, I gave a vote in parliament’.
“And in that one moment I’m proudest of him. It said to all the people on the other side, it said to everybody – I’m gonna do this and it is a political conviction, not political posturing. That made people understand he was serious. It made everyone else in the Labour movement brave. And that is the thing I’m proudest of.”
A brave Labour movement? At the time, yes. It’s something that seems only a dream in Australia. Then Alli, despite his committed Leftie credentials, offers an astonishing endorsement. “I look at Australian politics – the great hope has to be Malcolm Turnbull. It has to be. Here’s somebody that is of the Right, who demonstrates so clearly that the values of equality don’t belong just to the Left, but sit slap bang in the centre. When you had Julia Gillard [former Australian Prime Minister] who wouldn’t vote for gay marriage and you have Malcolm Turnbull who will, well, that’s what we need. Of course always us on the Left, we have to do the heavy lifting. And the Right are a bit like the Americans in the war – they come in last and take the glory. But we have to let them do that.”
Of current Australian PM, Tony Abbott, he adopts an hilarious pitying tone. Abbott is “a product of his generation” and “the easiest way for the Australian Labor Party to win is to keep him in there.” Yet he’s equally scathing of the ALP. “Divided parties get thrown out. It’s a lesson. Love or loathe Kevin Rudd, he divided a party that made it impossible for Julia to govern. The big loser wasn’t Kevin Rudd or Julia Gillard: it was the Labor Party. With any political party – the more you talk about yourselves, the less likely you are to be elected.”
For Alli, the road to victory means you need to do more listening to the people’s concerns, and that means it’s not possible to skip over immigration. “I don’t understand how so much time is spent discussing 6,000 people a year. Really? Six thousand people a year?” The journey also involves something he admits is “a horrible thing” Australians will have to face. “To win this battle, we’re going to have change his [Abbott’s] mind. Not just to force him, we have to change his mind. That’s the victory.”
So we’ve sorted out the UK and Australia and it’s time for the main course. What about the rest of the world? Given the massively increased awareness of gay rights abuses globally, what should individual gay men and lesbians be doing? “There are two things,” he says. “We have to fix our own countries. And then we have to support other gay men and lesbians in those countries. I think there is a special responsibility on the gay community to start being less domestically focused. With Russia and India – these are not good things, and we need to be much more united. “For the first time we are engaged in a conversation, much more than I’ve ever known before. People are talking about Russia. And what happened in India. And where you can get married in the United States. Suddenly there’s a dialogue again and it’s not just about your own country.”
Yes, but what can we do? “You have to make your voices heard more. Which means more money, more campaigning, more canvassing and more demonstrations. It means broadening out beyond just our caucus group. It means having a powerful lobbying group. And then it’s the responsibility of, I think, political leaders, gay political leaders, to get together and start working on international stuff. There’s an alliance that needs to be built but it’s not there yet.”
Larry Kramer once said that one of the things that has hampered gay rights globally is the lack of a singular leader, although he has refused to accept any such mantle himself. This remains true – the film Milk might have brought one particular American hero to a global audience, but we don’t have a figurehead with the historical clout of a Malcolm X or a Betty Friedan. Is having a leader still necessary? “You need leadership and you need a plan. And for that there is probably a need for a leader. The problem is it’s a complicated thing. You know, our movement dissipates when we’ve got what we want. We come together for a reason. When the reason disappears we’re right back to where we are.”
Alli is quite the artful dodger. He’s a mesmerising mix of charm and elision, of forthright claims and opaque parries. He’s clearly an experienced politician, although when he began his career he freely admits he had little idea what he was doing.
It’s this bright-eyed enthusiasm and lack of fear that saw him thrive in the City of London in the 1980s, working >>
We have to support gay men and lesbians in those countries. I think there’s a special responsibility on the gay community to start being less domestically focused. Baron Alli on Australian politics: “Malcolm Turnbull… is somebody of the Right, who demonstrates that the values of equality don’t belong just to the Left.”
>> his way up from junior researcher on a finance magazine (earning £40 a week) to a career in investment banking, in what was surely a largely macho environment. Was it tough? “The City institutions were terribly homophobic then. Less so now. There were no gay CEOs of FTSE 100 companies, there were no gay boards of director, there was no openly gay person in business. You couldn’t find them.”
That was up high – but on the ground level? “When I was in my twenties I avoided the subject. And we all know how to do it very effectively, without lying. But underneath, there’d be resentment and fear of being discriminated against,” he says, admitting that in the early years, coming out might have stunted his career progression. “So one of the laws I changed was the employment law. In this country you could be fired for being gay, up until 1999. I mean on no other grounds – just for being gay. And I managed to change the law – except for the Church. You can still be fired from the Church, without any recourse, for being gay. Which I think is scandalous.”
Television was the next big career move, a sector that was somewhat less homophobic. Alli laughs. “It’s quite hard to be straight in television. I mean it’s just the gayest place in the world.” With his business partner and then boyfriend Charlie Parsons, Alli was at the coalface of British television. Parsons and Alli formed Planet 24 Productions in 1992 with Sir Bob Geldof and created shows such as the beloved The Big Breakfast and The Word.
It’s hard to describe the impact of these shows in the UK, but The Big Breakfast was water-cooler morning television that included a bed on which hostess Paula Yates would conduct interviews, such as her flirty first contact with Michael Hutchence. The Word proved almost as scandalous, a late night chat show with a segment aimed at people who proved they would do anything to be on television – such as licking the sweat off fat people.
Parsons and Alli also made television that much gayer by introducing the world to gay nudist Richard Hatch, who went on to win the first US season of Survivor. Yes, they devised the show from a format they initially trialed in Sweden. How on earth did they come up with it? “We did a documentary putting four celebrities on an island for a week without any of their comforts. And it was so amazing to watch. It had those politics and it was playful, too. It was accessible. So we thought – could you structure the game, but make it real? And Charlie came up with 16 people, desert island, million dollars. Genius.
“I like television. I like making it, I like coming up with the ideas. I’ve been very lucky. I’ve been able to work in the three businesses and be very successful in each of them. I like politics and being able to change things, but I like watching television and I like shopping.”
I go to lots of countries that I love visiting, but I could be in prison for 25 years for having gay sex. I can have life imprisonment in India for oral sex!
The couple split after twenty years, but remain close. They own houses together and Charlie has since founded Charlie Parsons Creative, a boutique investment company whose portfolio includes Gaydar. Alli has kept up his TV interests, currently managing Paul O’Grady (aka drag personality Lily Savage) and heading up children’s TV production company Silver Gate Media. From 2003 to 2011 he was chairman of media company Chorion, which held the broadcast rights to the works of Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie. It’s exciting to meet another avid Christie fan/nerd and we’re soon comparing notes.
His favourite Poirot is David Suchet, his preferred Marple is Joan Hickson. The best books are those that take Poirot out of his comfort zone, like Murder In Mesopotamia, but he also adores the Marple mystery 4:50 From Paddington. When I confess that my prized possession as a 12-year-old was The Agatha Christie Who’s Who, he laughs. “You bought the Who’s Who – I bought the company!” We laugh, and it echoes across the socioeconomic chasm that has formed between us.
It hadn’t been forgotten that Baron Alli is bonkers wealthy. His many projects include the recent sale of half his stock in the fashion website Asos.com (for what is estimated at £15m) and he’s currently setting up an equivalent site in India, called Koovs. So far, he says, the results have been “spectacularly successful”.
He offers an apologetic smile across the chasm and continues. “I regret selling it [the rights to Agatha Christie], but only for sentimental reasons. As a result of the company I have a selection of first editions and they’re lovely to read. As my treat over Christmas I’ll read The Adventures Of The Christmas Pudding [a collection of Poirot short stories].” It’s a tremendously British image: Alli dressed as he is now (immaculately in a suit and tie with a touch of tweed) sat by a fireplace reading stories from a Christie first edition. Despite being Islamic, he loves Christmas and celebrates it with his entire family.
It can’t always have been this rosy. Was coming out difficult? “I’m afraid mine was trauma-free, partly because I felt so independent. My father left my mother when I was 16. So I had to go out and work. So already I was put in a position where I was independent. And my home life was different, so I could be who I wanted to be.”
Including, for many months of the year, a visitor to Australia, where he has bought a house. Why Australia? “Sydney’s one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I mean – the quality of life is extraordinary. They do finish work at a decent time, they do have an evening, they do socialise. And you don’t need a huge amount of money to have a great life.
As this point I must have blanched. With the strong Australian dollar, trips Down Under from the UK are far from cheap. Rents, property prices and groceries make Oz an expensive place to live and visit. A BBC report on the Australian price of a lime ($2.25 each) in February 2013 has become the stuff of legend among ex-pats.
None of this is vocalised, but Alli gets the message from my astonished face. “Although I do have a huge amount of money,” he says, then mocks himself. “He says, ‘Of course you can do anything you like!’”
We laugh again, and he continues. “There is an equality to socialising in Sydney. Going to the beach is going to the beach. There isn’t an exclusive private beach that you want to go to – you want to go to the beach that everyone >>
>> else goes to. There’s a sense of collective life. I think it has great culture. I love the new MCA [Museum Of Contemporary Art]. There’s a confidence to the city which I really like. The food is amazing. You walk along the wharf at Woolloomooloo and everywhere you go there’s great food at every price range. It’s got all of those things, but the most beautiful men in the world.”
It’s time for the bill, and Alli produces a Gold Amex swiftly and discreetly. They know him well – he lives just around the corner. With houses all over the world and frequent trips to New York and India, he still calls the UK home. “My rights are more entrenched here. There is a culture of people being different and that difference being celebrated, accepted, tolerated by some, and religion doesn’t invade politics in the way in which it can – partly, I suspect, because of the Reformation and Henry VIII.
“You can have the Archbishop Of Canterbury argue against gay marriage and his words are listened to but Parliament doesn’t feel bound by them. He isn’t preaching from the pulpit and afterwards he can come out of that debate and say to the General Synod, we have much to learn from the debates in the House Of Lords. We need to change. It’s a different place.”
So back to the future – globally, are things looking better or worse for gay people? “I’m generally a person whose glass is half-full, not half-empty so yeah, I am hopeful. If we stick together, lock in the changes that we’ve made and use our networks to help those who can’t help themselves. “I go to lots of countries that I love visiting, but I realise that I could be in prison for 25 years for having gay sex. I can have life imprisonment in India for oral sex – male or female! You look at those extremes, in democracies and civilised societies, and you think I’d rather be here.”
It’s time to leave. Alli is about to head off to the House Of Lords, and 2014 will see him jet-setting frequently for business and pleasure. This includes to New York where he’ll see his new beau, Ben, a designer.
From March 2014 gay marriages will start being held in the UK for the first time. It’s a powerful legacy. Does he see himself getting married one day? He shoots me a look of absolute horror. I didn’t necessarily mean with his very new boyfriend, but the damage is done. There’s nothing quite like the English when they’re aghast.
Thankfully, he’s a gentleman. He smiles, shakes my hand and says, “Oh no. It’s not on the horizon.” Then he’s gone: a charming and bewildering iconoclast and one of the best supporters we have.
I like politics and being able to change things, but I like watching television, I like making it, I like coming up with the ideas. And I like shopping.
A worldly traveller who also loves his home comforts, Baron Alli prizes his collection of Agatha