Chris Bryant: ‘I’m quite an old-fashioned gay, in a way’

<span>Chris Bryant in January 2024.</span><span>Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer</span>
Chris Bryant in January 2024.Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

Chris Bryant has been Labour MP for Rhondda since 2001. He is the shadow minister for creative industries and digital, and former chair of the Commons committee on standards and privileges. He has published eight books; his ninth, James and John: A True Story of Prejudice and Murder, out last month, reconstructs the lives and deaths of James Pratt and John Smith, who in 1835 became the last men to be hanged for homosexuality in Britain.

James and John both tells the story of a terrible injustice and highlights how widespread the persecution of gay men was in this country: 404 British people were sentenced to death for the same “crime”. How did you alight on this particular case?
A couple of years ago [in 2020], I wrote a book called The Glamour Boys about some gay Tory MPs in the 1930s who were killed in the war. I had to get my head into the law as it was in the 1920s and further back. And that’s how I came across this case. I’d assumed it’d be impossible to find out much about James and John: they were working-class guys – and one of them was called John Smith. But then I discovered not only that Charles Dickens visited Newgate prison when they were held there, but also the government had literally just appointed the first inspectors of prisons. And their first visit was to Newgate when James and John were awaiting execution, so they wrote about it extensively in their report to parliament.

Did you feel as though you got to know them well across the decades?
I got to know them well in silhouette. I can’t, for example, even be certain how old John Smith was when he died because the newspapers reported it differently. But, for example, with William Bonell, who was the person who provided them with the room to meet in and ended up being transported to Van Diemen’s Land, there’s lots of material from the prison ship: how tall he was, how well he was, whether he had a tattoo…

The fact that we hanged people for being gay was a shock to me, particularly as we were one of the few countries with those laws…
I think it will be genuinely shocking to an awful lot of people that we ever did that. And the fact that we continued doing it until 1835 is even more shocking. Most countries never did.

The president of Burundi is now saying that homosexuals should be taken out and stoned

Did that history also come as news to you?
Not really. I think I’m quite an old-fashioned gay, in a way. I’m 62. I went to university when the age of consent was 21 and when people were still arrested for importuning, under the Vagrancy Act of 1824. That’s partly why I hope a younger generation of people will read this book. Not least because there are plenty of places in the world where these things still go on. The president of Burundi is now saying that homosexuals should be taken out and stoned.

It must be a continuing source of frustration and anger to you that the Anglican communion still seems part of the problem rather than part of the solution in confronting that?
I love the church in many ways. I’m a former priest. But it is profoundly depressing that the Church of England still can’t get its act together over [gay relationships]. At the moment, it feels like even the pope is going to get there first. I think, one day, people will look back on this period of our history and ask: “How could the church be so slow to recognise that it’s OK for people to love one another?”

Were those attitudes one of the reasons that you abandoned the priesthood for politics?
It was a very important part of it. Definitely.

You have been a very busy chair of the parliamentary standards committee. Do you see yourself as a strongly moral person?
I’m not very judgmental, partly because I hate the idea of other people judging me for my sexuality. I want a society based on respect and mutual recognition, rather than somebody looking down their nose and going: “Oh, yes, I’m going to tolerate you.”

You have said that you feel less safe as a gay man in Britain in the past five years – what did you mean by that?
I wasn’t saying that if I go out in the street, I think I’m going to get beaten up – though the number of queer-bashings is up quite significantly. It’s more when I hear some Conservative politicians talk, it feels like they want to roll some of the legislation back. We still haven’t got a ban on conversion therapy. And then you hear people like Kemi Badenoch referring to a trans “epidemic”. You think, Oh my God, what is going on in these people’s minds?

Given your day jobs, how do you find the time to write?
I get up quite early. I don’t have kids. And the time that many years ago I would have spent going to church on a Sunday, I spend in my study writing. Also, I feel as if this book is part of my job as an MP. I don’t know why, for example, we’ve not yet issued posthumous pardons to people like James and John. At the very least, there should somewhere be a memorial to the people that we as a nation hanged for their sexuality.

What are the books that have meant the most to you as a reader?
The novel I go back to is The Red and the Black by Stendhal. I love the moral ambiguity in it. I read Dickens a lot. And I read the Bible – I love the fact that Jesus taught through parables rather than rules.

What books do you currently have by your bedside?
I’m reading Anna Reid’s A Nasty Little War about the west’s attempt to undermine the communist revolution in Russia. Judi Dench’s book about Shakespeare is up next.

• James and John: A True Story of Prejudice and Murder by Chris Bryant is published by Bloomsbury (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply