Enduring legacy of Lord Ashley, AKA ‘our Jack’ – a man for all people

In the shadow of the magnificence of Westminster Abbey they came in their hundreds to pay tribute to a bloke born and raised in the slums of Widnes who made his name representing the people of the Potteries.

They came from all walks of life, from all ages, creeds and cultures: the rich and the not-so-rich, the influential and the inspirational rubbing shoulders on a day when party politics went out of the window.

They came on crutches, aided by walking sticks, in wheelchairs and scooters: each one with an anecdote or a reason to be thankful.

Hundreds came to honour a man for all seasons – indeed, a man for all people – whose passing is only softened by the knowledge that his legacy will endure.

Many people know a bit about Jack Ashley – or Lord Ashley of Stoke as he became.

Our Jack, formerly the Honourable Member for Stoke-on-Trent South, was the country’s first deaf MP and a peerless champion of rights for the disabled.

But try to sum the man up with such simple labels would be to do a great injustice to the great campaigner against injustice.

That’s why they came from far and wide yesterday to a quiet corner of Dean’s Yard to add their threads to the rich tapestry of a life less ordinary.

They came from Scotland, Wales, Widnes, Devon, Stoke-on-Trent and even as far afield as the Tory front benches – united in admiration for a man whose values were universal and who transcended the tribal loyalties of politics.

Among them was TV personality and the founder of the ChildLine charity Ester Rantzen – a kindred spirit, no doubt.

The heavyweights of yesteryear such as Lord David Owen and Lord Geoffrey Howe were also there – sat with today’s Labour front benchers including Harriet Harman, Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper.

Welcoming the guests, Labour leader Ed Miliband described Jack Ashley as ‘giving a voice to the voiceless’.

His speech was signed for the deaf and hearing-impaired among the audience who could also watch his words appear on screens courtesy of the ‘palantype’ system which transformed our Jack’s career as a politician.

Many had written him off when he had been struck suddenly deaf – his career in Westminster seemingly in tatters.

But they hadn’t bargained for the tenacity of a bloke who was born a fighter and whose targets have included unscrupulous landlords, tinpot factory dictators and the lawyers for multinational firms.

Neither did they take into consideration the brilliance and devotion of Jack Ashley’s wife and partner of 50 years Pauline – whose support during his darkest days proved crucial to his rebirth as a pioneering Parliamentarian.

Lord Kinnock of Bedwellty, who had simply been Labour leader Neil during Jack Ashley’s time as an MP, paid a wonderful tribute to his friend whom he described as a ‘hero’.

The praise came thick and fast as the service painted a picture of a man whose dogged campaigning had improved the lot of everyone from bullied servicemen to victims of domestic violence.

In Jack Ashley the vulnerable, the persecuted, the ignored and the second-class citizens of the UK found an indefatigable champion who simply refused to take no for an answer.

Thalidomide survivor Rosaleen Moriarty-Simmonds was living proof, she said, of someone whose life had been enriched by the intervention of Jack Ashley back when drug companies seemed untouchable.

Lord Donoughue of Ashton echoed the words of legendary journalist Harold Evans, the former Sunday Times editor who joined forces with the Stoke South MP to campaign for justice for the Thalidomide babies and their families.

“God he was impressive,” Evans told Donoughue a few days ago when he had been rung for his memories of our Jack.

“That Bloody Jack Ashley”, is how both Labour and Tory ministers had come to refer to the man who wasn’t prepared to be fobbed off with glib answers when lives or the quality of lives was at stake.

So that was Jack the first working class head of the union at Cambridge University, Jack the trail-blazing politician, Jack the founder, president and chairman of a host of charities for people with disabilities – a man who demonstrated beyond any doubt what can be achieved by a back-bencher with no agenda other than a burning desire to help the helpless.

But there was more, much more, to Jack Ashley than the public figure who became a national treasure.

He was a loving husband, father and grandfather – and his daughters and grandchildren lined up to share their own very personal recollections as pictures from the family album flashed up on the big screen.

One of his grandsons said Jack had trended on Twitter when he died – although his grandad had no idea what a social network was and would simply have chuckled at the notion.

Nonetheless, it is proof – if any were needed – that a 89-year-old’s simple goodness was as relevant when he passed away in April as it had been when he first became an MP the year England won the World Cup.

I, for one, am glad to have known Jack Ashley whose story is enough to restore one’s faith in politics.

The thought of him whizzing up and down the corridors of power on his mobility scooter and giving the staff in the House of Lords a real headache will always make me smile.

Thanks to Jack Ashley millions of people have a better quality of life, more dignity and a sense of purpose they may otherwise never have found.

What’s more we can be extremely proud that fate dictated that he ended up representing our city while he changed lives and attitudes.

As one anonymous tribute on the internet, put it: “He’ll be having a ramp installed on the stairway to heaven.”

Amen to that.

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