Working for social justice, equal opportunity and fairness
Earlier this week a Memorial Service was held for Jack Ashley, who died on 20th April of this year. At the service, former Labour Leader Neil Kinnock paid the following tribute:
Jack Ashley was a hero.
His heroism was most obviously manifested by his triumph over the devastating disablement of sudden and total deafness. But its uniqueness was proved through his unbending determination to serve, his tenacity, his vitality, his raw courage. Those qualities gave him the lifelong will to achieve liberating victories for others against personal and institutional indifference, cruelties and prejudices as old as the human race.
He was born to fight. In 1920s Widnes his beloved widowed mother was part of a huge majority forced to endure grinding toil for pitiful pay, drudgery, and deference to priests and bosses. Those conditions crushed many. They ignited Jack Ashley.
At 20, in reprisal against a vindictive foreman, he established a factory union branch. At 22, after organising his neighbourhood against a slum landlord, he won a Council seat as an independent standing against Tory neglect and Labour complacency.
At 24, ten years after leaving school, he gained a trade union scholarship that took him to Ruskin College, Oxford. If that was a galactic leap from Widnes, gaining a place at Cambridge University at 26 and being elected President of the Union at 28 was an odyssey that needs a Homer to do it justice – not least because it enabled Jack to meet the heroine of his life – the lovely mathematics student and hockey blue, Pauline.
No celebration of the life of Jack Ashley would be complete without an equal tribute to this extraordinary woman, wife, mother, researcher, archivist, political and spiritual collaborator. Her high intelligence, calm logic, patience, practicality, sagacity, bravery and – above all – unconditional love gave Jack inspiration and reassurance even in the bleakest days and nights.
She was never a subordinate spouse giving doting support. Before and throughout the decades of deafness, Pauline was a cherished sanctuary and a stimulant - irreplaceably aided and abetted, of course, by Jackie, Jane and Caroline and the broadening Ashley clan.
Together, Jack and Pauline exuded partnership, unblushing affection, merriment and (a favourite word of Jack’s) exuberance.
Jack would have needed that sort of comradeship even if he’d never had a disability.
He had an innate, permanent capacity to crash into authority. The title of his autobiography Acts of Defiance summarises Ashleyism. His challenges were levelled first at factory charge-hands and then against unheeding Ministers of both Parties, hidebound judges and generals, irresponsible multinationals and nationalised Boards, bigots and bullies small and big, petty and gigantic. And the bonemarrow reason for all his collisions was the way, as he put it, “that ordinary people are hurt by the misuse of power”.
Nowhere was – or is – the abuse of authority more tyrannising in its effect than when its victims are people with physical or mental disabilities.
Jack recognised and articulated that reality even before deafness and the “shrieking and roaring cacophony” of tinnitus hammered him into near despondency and withdrawal.
When Alf Morris won the chance to introduce his historic Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Bill in 1969, Jack seized the unequalled opportunity to illuminate the visibility of disability.
The campaign on that Bill pulled Jack out of the isolation – the “exile” – of deafness and into frantic parliamentary and public engagement. “The failure to tackle disability is a failure of democracy”, he said. No one has ever done more to rectify that chronic weakness. Jack Ashley became a projectile aimed against the causes, effects, privations and deprivations of disabilities. Sometimes with rage, often with guile, always with fact, he relentlessly used Parliament for its best purpose – combating and defeating injustice.
Some of his battles were lost. Some were drawn. Many brought advances or victories. Several are still unfinished. But the roll is incomparable. It naturally includes the multiple initiatives to change understanding of, and provision for, people with disabilities and their affected families and it encompasses the causes, particularly the preventable causes, of disabilities. Beyond those efforts, his struggles for reform and redress extended to women victims of rape and other acts of violence, reform of the legal profession, severing of energy supplies to poor people, ending Crown Immunity for public institutions, exposing and combating bullying in the forces and criminal incompetence in the Home Office forensic science service. His readiness to challenge and penalise the mighty and the malicious was unending. The names Thalidomide, Debendox and Opren and his campaigns against their manufacturers read like the tally of battle honours on a regimental banner.
Jack Ashley’s mission was to stop affliction being made into oppression.
He waged his great fights because he was imbued with a love of humanity and a hatred of inhumanity. To him, complaint and protest – no matter how vivid – was never enough. Action to rectify, to compensate, to prevent, to bring retribution against those who caused suffering was the only meaningful, the only feasible, course.
Some of Jack’s efforts, buttressed and carried forward by inspired people and organisations, resulted in legal change, some altered official rules and conventions. Above all, cumulatively, they helped – and are helping – to shift ingrained attitudes of submission, of dismissal, of ignorance, of contempt. They gave – and give – impetus and authority to the decent instincts of mercy and generosity by making them the basis for law, for provision, and – crucially – for rights of citizenship.
Jack Ashley would vehemently insist that none of that could have been done – or ever will be done – by an individual. And, of course, he was right.
But by his boldness, his doggedness, his use of applied democracy he did turn despair into hope and hope into reality for many. He did expand liberty and dignity. He did establish foundations to be built upon here and emulated across the World.
Because of all that he was one of history’s great Civil Rights leaders and among the finest parliamentarians of any age.
They are the reasons for celebrating his life and work and for remembering and rewarding him in the only way he would accept – by continuing to uphold his cause of true justice and full liberty for all.
For more on the life and work of Jack Ashley, visit: http://www.lordjackashley.co.uk/