John Walker was on a river cruise through Bangkok with his husband when he heard the supreme court was finally about to end his 11-year legal battle.
After a tortuously slow campaign to secure another landmark moment in the march towards equality, he had just 10 days to race back to London and prepare for the outcome to which he has dedicated his retirement.
Last Wednesday, the 66-year-old former army officer strode into the Westminster courtroom to discover he had won a resounding victory – removing what may be the last discrimination in British law against same-sex couples.
In a unanimous decision, five supreme court justices declared that EU equal employment rights trumped English exceptionalism, and that on Walker’s death his partner, who is now 52, will be entitled to a spouse’s pension of £45,700 a year.
The refusal of his former employer, the chemicals company Innospec, to grant his partner the same benefits it would have awarded a wife infuriated Walker. Not only had the company promised to do so, Walker believed, but the Department of Work and Pensions’ opposition undermined claims that the Conservatives had delivered equal rights to gay and lesbian citizens.
The government relied on exemptions in the 2010 Equality Act that, their lawyers argued, permitted firms to restrict benefits generated by periods of service before 2005, when civil partnerships were introduced.
At home in his mews house in west London the day after the hearing, Walker celebrated his success by leafing through a sheaf of soothing, but ultimately evasive, responses he has received over the years from ministers and senior party spokesmen.
“Here’s one from Theresa May,” he said, “from 2010, when she was shadow minister for women and equalities. It says: ‘I am very interested to read about this situation… I’m sure the possibility of placing greater burdens [on firms’ pension funds is an issue]. I will consider whether it can be addressed.’
“Then she gets her departments to fight me tooth and nail [through the courts]! You can see my frustration. I have been to a lot of very senior people. They were all very sympathetic and said they would get back to me.”
Walker is in many ways an archetypal establishment figure. Born in Wiltshire and educated at Harrow, he is a member of the Conservative party, served a five-year commission in the army and worked in the Middle East for a British trading operation before joining Innospec in 1980.
He is also gay. In 1993, the company dispatched him to Singapore. Within a few weeks he met the man who would become his husband. Walker is immensely protective of him. Not only has Walker fought for more than a decade to provide financial support after his death, he is also determined to shield his identity.
His reticence dates back to 2005, when they entered into a civil partnership at Chelsea Registry office. They were the first gay couple to record their union in the Daily Telegraph’s births, deaths and marriages column. Walker’s brother, a vicar, was a witness at the ceremony.
Walker’s partner, who later became his husband, is Muslim. The story was picked up by journalists in Singapore, who turned up outside the family home as his mother lay dying. “It was very upsetting,” Walker explained. “The pictures in the Singapore papers coincided with the funeral. It’s had a nasty effect on him.” The Asian republic does not recognise same-sex couples.
In 2003, Walker returned to Britain with his partner and retired at the age of 50. As he understood it, he had negotiated a deal with the firm ensuring his partner obtained rights equivalent to a widow’s pension. In an exchange of faxes, he received a message confirming “safe receipt” of the request message.
The staff subsequently changed. The firm, according to Walker, later argued that “safe receipt” did not mean that the benefit had been granted. Innospec has declined to comment on the case.
That rebuff triggered a legal challenge fought all the way up through employment tribunals, the court of appeal and, ultimately, the supreme court.
In 2012, the human rights organisation Liberty joined his case and supported him through legal battles where he was threatened with massive costs and told his claim was “unreasonable and misconceived”.
Emma Norton, lawyer for Liberty, said: “This is a hugely important ruling, and another major step towards legal equality for LGBT people. One of the most glaring pieces of discrimination has been disapplied and thousands of couples’ lives will change for the better because John kept fighting.
“The concern now is that Brexit could undo the progress that’s been made. John’s victory came under EU law – and we still have no formal commitment from the government that this and the many other equalities we’ve gained from our membership will be protected in UK law after withdrawal.”
Walker accepts that his ex-employer’s pension is generous, but remarked: “I have worked bloody hard for it.” His determination to fight on was strengthened by the knowledge that thousands of gay couples in the same situation would gain from his victory.
“I’ve met people who have been very supportive. For some, the judgment came too late. A man came up to me in court [on Wednesday] and said his partner died last month. He can’t benefit now. There’s a tinge of sadness for that reason. Why didn’t the government do the right thing?”
Since 80% of firms have granted spouses’ benefits to gay couples already, Walker said, the impacts on private firms will be relatively modest. The Department for Work and Pensions, however, estimates it would cost £100m for the private sector and £20m for the public sector to deliver financial equality.
Walker is confident his legal victory was worth it. “This was, as far as I know, the last legal differential between gay and heterosexual people,” he said. “There’s no need to talk about married and ‘same-sex married’ couples any more. I don’t believe there’s any difference.”