The Right Honourable Professor the Lord Alton of Liverpool
Lord Alton had a long career in politics before becoming the founder of our Roscoe Lecture Series - delivering three lectures himself since the series began - and was a Professor of Citizenship at the university for some 20 years.
In 2016 he was awarded a Ambassador Fellowship from LJMU in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the civic life of the city of Liverpool, over more than four decades, and at the university, over two decades, through the Roscoe Lecture Series and its associated Good Citizenship Awards.
He became involved in politics as a teenager and at 17 years of age was elected as chairman of his town’s branch of Young Liberals. Then after moving from London to Liverpool to undertake his teacher training at Christ's College of Education (now a part of Liverpool Hope University), his political career really took off. In his Students’ Union he successfully proposed a campaign against apartheid and became active in community politics, choosing to live in a neighbourhood where half the homes had no inside sanitation and had been designated as a slum clearance area.
In 1972, while still a student and aged just 21, he was elected to Liverpool City Council for the Low Hill (and Smithdown from 1973) Ward and became the city’s Housing Chairman and Deputy Leader.
He was elected as Member of Parliament for Liverpool Edge Hill at a by-election in 1979 for the former Liberal Party, when he became the “Baby of the House” – the youngest member of the House of Commons. He became the shortest-lived MP, a member for less than a week, but five weeks later he was re-elected and went on to serve as a Liverpool MP for 18 years (as a Liberal Democrat after the party's formation in 1988), before standing down in 1997.
Throughout his political career, David was recognised for his strong advocacy on various social and humanitarian issues. He is particularly known for his commitment to human rights and pro-life causes, with the latter often sparking debate and challenge from fellow politicians and constituents alike.
When he stood down from the Commons, he was appointed as an independent Crossbench Life Peer, able to sit and vote in the House of Lords. It was around the same time that his relationship with LJMU would begin.
“If you want to change the world you have to change your country, if you want to change your country you have to change your community, if you want to change your community, you have to change your family, and if you want to change your family you have to change yourself.”
– Professor the Lord Alton of Liverpool
After delivering a valedictory lecture in 1997 at St Nicholas Parish Church of Liverpool on the importance of participation, engagement and citizenship, unbeknown to him, Peter Toyne, LJMU's first Vice-Chancellor, was sitting in the congregation, and the lecture would be the catalyst for the creation of the Roscoe Lecture Series.
That same year the first lecture was delivered by Stephen Dorrell, then Shadow Secretary of State for Education and Employment, a potentially provocative choice, as David explains: “I thought it would be interesting to bring a Conservative to the city, but I knew he would give a measured lecture and also that he wouldn’t be frightened to come to Liverpool. And there was genuine fear in those days amongst a lot of politicians about coming to this city. I thought that if the lecture series could undo that reputation that would be good. That was one of my hopes.”
This hope has been more than realised, and the Roscoe Lecture Series has now been running for more than 25 years, with 169 lectures delivered to date, with average audiences of around 800 people.
David named the lecture series after one of his heroes William Roscoe - one of the founders of the small institute which has evolved into this university. Like David, Roscoe had the courage of his convictions, he was willing to defy the odds and follow his conscience, such as voting against slavery while MP for Liverpool in 1807 despite widespread public opposition.
Launched in the aftermath of the Toxteth riots, deindustrialisation, huge unemployment and the Militant era, the Roscoe Lectures have helped to promote the need for tolerance, respect, for more co-operative politics, and for people to work together for the good of the city. The lectures have given a platform to industrialists, scientists, Cabinet Ministers, heads of state, football managers, comedians, campaigners and even members of the Royal family, to share their views and join with the people of Liverpool to debate the issues that really matter to the city.
Through the Roscoe Lectures, David has enabled the university to tackle a wide range of issues head on through public debate. Many have explored the lighter side of life, such as the role of humour in times of trouble, by comedian Ken Dodd, while others have examined the darker side of humanity, with harrowing but essential lectures by survivors of the Holocaust and the genocide in Rwanda. Such true-life testimonies demonstrate powerfully what can happen when you lose the freedoms we enjoy and sometimes take too much for granted. In the aftermath of the 2005 London bombings, David helped orchestrate a mini-series called Learning to Live Together, with lectures from speakers representing the Jewish, Muslim and Christian faiths.
“That’s what’s so powerful about the Roscoe Lectures, they bring people of all ages, backgrounds and occupations together and by doing so, help promote the dignity of difference and the importance of being tolerant.” - Jim Davies, then High Sheriff of Merseyside speaking about David at the ceremony for his Ambassador Fellowship in 2016.
Throughout his time at the university, David championed good citizenship and celebrated the important role that young people play in civic life across the region, presenting the Good Citizenship Awards in tandem with the lecture series. The awards were presented to individuals and groups, helping to recognise the overlooked contributions that young people from different cultures and communities make to society.
David is often heard saying: “If you want to change the world you have to change your country, if you want to change your country you have to change your community, if you want to change your community, you have to change your family, and if you want to change your family you have to change yourself.” This was something he repeated in his most recent Roscoe Lecture, delivered during out Bicentenary year, reflecting back on the series since its inception, and his hopes for their legacy and future. Watch the lecture back on our YouTube channel.
Through his work at LJMU, Lord Alton has demonstrated how we can all play a part in changing our community, our city and ourselves for the better.