by Rob May
As Minister for Equalities in the coalition government, Lynne Featherstone originated and architected the same sex marriage act (2013). She has received various accolades and awards for her work on equalities. In his book Gay Shorts (2015), the former Conservative Party politician turned broadcaster and member of the LGBT community, Iain Dale said that ‘same-sex marriage will be associated with Lynne Featherstone in the same way that we associate David Steel with the 1967 Abortion Act and Roy Jenkins with the legalisation of homosexuality.’
In the hours following the icy gales of Storm Doris, I caught up with Lynne at Taunton’s most distinguished hotel, The Castle. The previous evening, she was speaking at a party fundraiser in East Devon. After the interview with me, she was heading off to another commitment, this time as the guest speaker at the Bridgwater and West Somerset Liberal Democrats annual dinner. She is certainly a woman in demand! Among the bustling crowd of Saturday night revellers, who were making good use of the historic hotel’s bar and restaurant, Lynne and I managed to find a table and a couple of chairs, tucked away in a reasonably quiet corner, a few feet from the lobby. In the hour that I had with the Lib Dem peer, I wanted to cover a lot of ground. Obviously, the subject of her new book Equality Ever After was going to dominate much of the conversation. Besides the equal marriage bill, I wanted to find out more about the renownedly private former MP, her life before her time as Minister and her life after.
RM: You are a north London girl, could you tell me a bit about your childhood?
LF: I grew up in a block of flats. I went to the local primary school and won a scholarship to the independent girls day trust, South Hampstead High School for Girls. I wanted to go with all my friends to Camden High, but my headmistress convinced my mother to allow me to sit the entrance exam, which I passed.
My mother didn’t believe in education. She was a child of an immigrant, and for her it was all about surviving financially. She wanted me to go out to work and not get ideas above my station!
I wanted to be an actor. They do say politics is show business for ugly people! I gave up acting to become a designer because my mother said to me if there was one thing worse than acting it was art school. Therefore, I wanted to go to art school. I was always the rebel!
RM: You didn’t become involved in politics until you were around 40 years of age, relatively late in comparison with other politicians. What did your previous adult life entail?
LF: I went to Oxford Polytechnic (now Oxford Brooks University) to study Design for three years. I led my first campaign there, which was to save Art. The powers that be were closing my course because they wanted to convert to a university. I got the whole college out. We had marches, and I gave a radio interview, which was my first ever media. We won. It did eventually become a university but not until after I’d left!
This experience gave me a taste for campaigning. Although I wasn’t particularly partisan, I did think about politics at that time, but no party appealed to me. It was the mid-seventies. The Liberals were a small band, and the party was engulfed in the Thorpe affair. The Tories had this disastrous three-day working week. When Labour got in, they were equally as awful. I don’t even remember about the Greens. Therefore, I walked away and became a designer.
I worked for a big architecture and planning company before setting up my own business. I was a designer for twenty years, including for transport consultants. This stood me in good stead when I became Chair for Transport for London. You never know when something is going to come in useful.
RM: Besides those that you’ve just mentioned, what other skills in your previous career helped you with your political career?
LF: Many more transferable skills than you would have thought. The basis of being a designer is about resolving a problem, usually financial. You’re really looking at what someone does, what their messages are, how they are communicating those messages and how to reach their target market. Bingo, it’s the same as politics. I’ve found that all of my twenty years in design have not been wasted in terms of a political career. Although I didn’t know I was going to have a political career at the time.
RM: You don’t come from a conventional political background. Your parents weren’t involved in politics, you didn’t go to a university, didn’t do PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics), no previous parliamentary experience, why politics?
LF: There were many drivers in. Firstly, I had that taste for campaigning in my early twenties. Then I got angry at the world. When Thatcher was Prime Minister, I thought she was creating a very selfish world and, at that point, I had two young children. I did not want this type of world, so I thought I should do something about it. I started volunteering at a local hospital and noticed that the nurses were too busy to spend enough time with patients. They were literally run off their feet. The hospital couldn’t afford to purchase their own equipment. Every piece of equipment on the ward was donated. Without this generosity, the health service would fall apart. I thought ‘how do you change this?’ That was a crisis and, sadly, the NHS is still in a crisis. The only way this could change was to either own the multinational, which was clearly out of my reach, or get involved in the political process because somewhere in there is how you change things. That’s literally when I joined the political party. Although I didn’t know which one to join.
RM: Why the Lib Dems then?
LF: I researched all the political parties and their policies. I was never going to be Conservative. They are not really me, although I think some of their policies are okay. Greens are a single-issue party and are not serious enough. Labour are controlling, and I cannot be controlled. I will not belong to an organisation that says you have to be regimented. If you don’t say or do the right thing then you are not included. You can see this now with momentum. I know it’s an extreme version, but even generally Labour was much more command-and-control. I liked the idea of the Liberals. I’m obviously a natural Liberal. The last time I had looked at them, they were six men in a taxi! They were now the Liberal Democrats. They had a really sound hook that I could hang my political hat. They weren’t perfect, no party is an exact fit, but I could be comfortable within them. It was a good choice. You do not choose Lib Dems for a political career. You choose them because you believe that you are a liberal.
RM: Who were your main political influences? Did you have a political hero?
LF: Shirley Williams. She is stunning. She is an amazing politician. Shirley is a role model for both men and women. Funnily enough, she was the originator of polytechnics. I thought polytechnics were a magnificent idea of a sort of mixed economy of students. I don’t like segregation amongst students.
RM: You were and still are a campaigner against important issues such as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), child abuse and violence against women. However, perhaps your greatest achievement is being the originator and architect of the equal marriage act, which was passed into law in 2013. No party had equal marriage in their 2010 manifestos nor was it part of the coalition agreement. Why did you take this issue on and why is it important to you?
LF: When we entered into coalition, 20 ministerial posts had to be filled. After two days, I received a call from [the then deputy PM] Nick Clegg offering me the post of Equalities Minister. In fact, I ended up with three-quarters of me as a Home Office minister and one-quarter as Equalities Minister. So I’m a minister in the coalition, we have Liberal Democrats in government, and I’m thinking to myself ‘I’ve got to do something to make sure everyone knows that there are Liberals in this government’. It never crossed my mind that it wasn’t in the manifestos or portfolio because to me it was an obvious piece of equalities work that needed doing. Labour were great with civil partnerships, but I thought they were a kind of ,one rule for gay people and one rule for straight people. My view is that you should have marriage and civil partnerships for both gay and straight, both for both. The state’s job is to facilitate that union, not to judge if one is good or one is bad.
We were all new Liberal Democrat ministers and didn’t have a clue what we were doing, so the Institute for Government put on a morning instruction for newbie Liberal ministers. They invited Michael Heseltine and Andrew Adonis to advise us. Heseltine said ‘you are going to be really busy. You do not understand the tsunami of work that will hit you when you become a minister. You will have debates, orals, speeches, correspondence and endless other things. Your diary will be full from morning to night. If you do not ruthlessly prioritise one or two things you want to get done in your time in the sun, you will not achieve it. You will be a very good minister doing very important things but you won’t have done anything you went into politics for’. Adonis encouraged us to trust our civil servants. He said it wasn’t like The Thick of It or Yes Minister, although, I have to say, I thought it was quite like Yes Minister! He told us ‘If you don’t direct your civil servants, they will fill your diary from first thing in the morning until midnight, all with very worthy things but you’ll just be executing what they want you to do. If you trust your civil servants, you have to direct them. They will go to the ends of the earth for you’. As I walked back from the Institute for Government to the Home Office, it just crystallised in my brain that I wanted to do same sex marriage because it was a piece of equalities legislation that needed doing. I came back into my office and said to one of my assistant private secretaries ‘I want to do same sex marriage, what do I do?’ That is literally how it started.
If I hadn’t had that morning, we would not have same sex marriage. It’s really strange how things happen.
RM: Can you explain the process? What did you have to do?
To get a new policy into government programme, the Secretary of State of the department that the policy emanates has to write round to all the other Secretaries of State, and every one of them has to agree it. That is how you introduce new policies. My assistant private secretary said ‘well Minister, you need to write some words, and we’ll take them to the then Home Secretary [Theresa May] for approval. If she approves, she will write round’.
My first effort wasn’t good enough, apparently. I remember sitting in the basement café at the House of Commons with my assistant private secretary, who said ‘you’ve got to make it stronger if you want to get it into legislation. In one sentence it has to take you from A to Z’. The words were something like ‘It has become clear to me that there is a genuine desire by those with an interest in these matters to move to same sex marriage and straight civil partnerships. We wish to move to legislation within this parliament’. The actual words are in my book. The wording went to Theresa May whose reputation was not great on matters LGBT, but I had sussed that she wanted to change her past. It took two or three days before the word came back that she was prepared to back me. She then conducted a write round to the cabinet ministers.
Any cabinet minister has a veto. Both Philip Hammond and Iain Duncan Smith vetoed. David Cameron overruled them because he, like Theresa, wanted to recast the Conservative Party away from there homophobic track record. Thus it began. Many things had to be sorted, but eventually it was made public at our party conference of 2011. After 18 months of working out all the parameters and, as it was my baby, Nick [Clegg] got agreement for me to announce it. There’s a lot of argy bargy that goes on about who will announce what at party conferences.
About two days before, Cameron’s special advisors rang mine. They said if I did not drop civil partnerships for straight people from the bill, it’s dead in the water. We argued back and forth for about six hours but he wasn’t budging, so I gave way. I thought ‘okay, same sex marriage is the important equalities step and I’m sure straight civil partnerships will follow at some point’. Unfortunately, I had to drop civil partnerships to get the same sex marriage bill through.
RM: You were met with much opposition to the bill, with a certain lobby group branding it ‘appalling’. Were there any stumbling blocks you came up against, and how supportive were your colleagues especially your superiors, for example the then Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg?
LF: There were a number of things that made me think I could do same sex marriage. I could see a route through. One of which was that the three leaders of the main parties were on the record, mostly in pink news, as saying that they wanted support same sex marriage, although, as you rightly said, it wasn’t in the manifestos. Nick was the first of the leaders to say, without doubt, it should happen. Cameron said it should and then it shouldn’t. He flip-flopped. Surprisingly, when asked during the Labour leadership contest, Ed Miliband claimed that it wasn’t a big issue as no-one was asking him about it. After he became leader a year later, he changed his mind.
Nick was great. He was lovely and very supportive. I had a lot of support, some from surprising places. I could send a whole number of people out to bat.
Yes, I met with some fierce opposition too. The bishops kicked up quite a lot of fuss. Theresa had them in her office to talk to them. She is religious you know, she is a vicar’s daughter, but she was quite clear about her support for me on this. I did run into some hideous homophobes. The evangelicals, for instance, shocked me rigid at one meeting. At the meeting, I was joined by the Jewish Board of Deputies, Catholics, CoE and the evangelicals. The evangelical was getting so het up. My civil servant next to me was gay. I thought ‘how can you sit there and say these terrible things?’ I had threats and all sorts of threats. I wrote an article for the Telegraph titled ‘The Church Doesn’t Own Marriage’. It was quite provocative as a title, and everything fell on my head!
RM: After the consultation closed in mid-2012, your Tory successor announced that the bill would be put before a vote in Parliament, which as we know passed. Besides the dropping of straight civil partnerships from the bill, how happy are you with the law, and are there any other amendments that you think should be made?
LF: I am super happy. There were a few anomalies that we could never get passed. One was the definition of consummation. The divorce rational is slightly different for same sex couples as opposed to opposite sex couples. Adultery is not a ground for divorce for someone of the same sex, you have unreasonable behaviour instead, but case law will eventually sort that out. There is a tiny difference on one section of pensions. Otherwise, it is absolutely wonderful and the same.
Obviously, I wanted the amendment for straight civil partnerships. I didn’t think we needed the Triple Lock for the CoE. That was the only thing that changed. I didn’t take the legislation through myself because I had already tied it all up and didn’t need to actually do it. I knew it would go through. I had no worries about that. Maria Miller, who subsequently took the bill through, included it. I imagine the CoE must have said ‘you aren’t making us special. We are the established Church!’
The law actually protects all religions. We introduced religious same sex marriage, which as I said wasn’t in the original bill, because we would be outside of the Equalities Act if we didn’t. Literally, in my first few weeks as a minister, we also passed the law allowing civil partnerships in religious premises, which meant you could sign the register in the church if that church wanted it. That got through the Lords because it was permissive. That permissive law protects those religions that want to do it. Those that don’t, do not have to. They cannot be forced either way. The whole cry during the same sex marriage bill was from the religions. They were concerned that they would be forced, against their will, into marrying same sex couples and would be taken off to the European Court of Justice if they refused, which was a load of rubbish.
RM: So you do not believe that the government should have the power to force churches to accept equal marriage?
LF: I don’t think it’s possible. It remains permissive. I do not think that the orthodox religions, which include CoE, Catholics, Orthodox Jews and all Muslim groups, would do it. We have religious freedom in this country. This means that you cannot force them to do things. However, no one should have to choose between his or her religion and their sexuality. My wrath and venom are reserved for those religions that force the choice upon their congregation. They need to move their position on this. I don’t think that this is achievable through law, but it is ridiculous to preach love when you don’t love all of your congregation equally.
RM: What are your thoughts on the recent unsuccessful court case that aimed at overturning the ban on heterosexual couples entering into civil partnerships?
LF: Well, straight civil partnerships will happen at some point. It’s an inevitability, as it leaves an inequality that is not sustainable. It would be wonderful if the government would just do it. They’ve already had a revise and a consultation, and everyone has come back saying ‘yes, let it happen’ but nothing does. This is because the government does not really want it to happen. I think that this case will be taken to the Supreme Court. I just wish people would do things themselves in a timely manner, not wait to be forced by law.
RM: Of your achievements in politics, where would you put the equal marriage bill?
LF: Oh, right at the top. It is the most public. It is the most clear cut and obvious. But it shares with others. Clearly the FGM campaign wouldn’t have happened. I am incredibly proud of it because I find it extraordinary that we allow a practice such as this to go on in this country and around the world.
The one that people don’t know about is the disability in the developing world campaign, which I’m incredibly proud of. I changed the structure on how we give money. I refused to give any money to any educational charity working in the developing world unless they had totally accessible schools. That made a huge difference.
That is the thrill of politics – you can use it to try to make the world a better place. It sounds terribly naive, but that’s what I went into politics for. I was one of the very few lucky people who managed to do some big things. I got a lot of satisfaction at every level, but there’s nothing like being a minister.
RM: Along with many other Lib Dem MPs, you lost your seat in 2015. What are you up to now?
LF: Yes, I did lose my seat. For the first two weeks, I laid on the sofa eating chocolate while watching every episode of 24 and all the Harry Potter films. That was an excellent start to my new life!
RM: House of Cards?
LF: I’d already seen that!
Anyway, I got up and started writing my book Equal Ever After. I was really worried that history would close over our heads. We were out of government. Cameron was saying that his proudest achievement was same sex marriage. He was trying to claim what I had spent months fighting for and eventually achieving. However, I was very glad of his support, and he does deserve credit for sticking by it when his party were in eruptions.
RM: And your book?
It’s called Equal Ever After and is the story of same sex marriage. There’s a little on me at the beginning, and the epilogue was about my work, as International Development Minister, on gay rights in Africa. That was a really tough nut to crack, but we made many advances.
I wrote the book to get it all on record.
RM: Last question. Designer, volunteer, entrepreneur, campaigner, politician, peer, what’s next for Lynne Featherstone?
LF: I love the Energy and Climate Change portfolio that our leader Tim Farron has given me. When he offered me this, I warned him that I’ve never had anything to do with green issues. Although obviously being environmentally sound is a good thing. He said ‘I know, I don’t want someone who knows things. I want someone who will do things’. We are doing things, and it is very exciting. I would have liked to have been a cabinet minister, but I get it after we were in government! I am enjoying that portfolio though.
The Lords is really different. I worked between 12 and 18 hours, seven days a week, for literally 17 years. Now, as a working peer, I go to the Lords every day. I work between three and seven hours a weekday. It feels like part time, as I’ve always worked many many hours.
I’d like to be a bestselling author. I really enjoyed writing Equal Ever After, so I thought I’d have a go at fiction. I’m writing a political thriller. I am not going to tell you about it though!
RM: Lynne Featherstone, Thank you very much.
Baroness Featherstone’s book Equal Ever After is currently available for purchase on Amazon. Follow this link: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Equal-Ever-After-same-sex-marriage-x/dp/1849549745