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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Jack Ashley: A truly great Parliamentarian who continues to inspire us all

I don’t have much time for politicians, if truth be told. I can’t be doing with the double-speak served up by so many of them and their simple inability to answer a direct question.

Indeed, I blame much of the public apathy towards politics in general on the mistrust so many feel towards those who seek public office.

The days of rotten boroughs may be long gone, but politics remains an inherently grimy business ruled by self-interest.

In recent years the ‘cash-for-questions’, ‘cash for honours’ and MPs’ expenses scandals have done little to enhance the reputation of political parties in the UK or those elected to serve.

That said, very occasionally individuals come along who seem to transcend party politics and go some way towards restoring one’s faith in the system.

Jack Ashley, or Lord Ashley of Stoke as he became, was just such a man.

Two years ago I had the privilege of welcoming Lord Ashley on to the stage at the King’s Hall as part of Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s Citizen Of The Century celebrations.

Jack, who died on Saturday, was 87 at the time, frail and in a wheelchair but determined to be part of an historic occasion where we marked the centenary of the federation of the Six Towns.

Unfortunately, fate conspired against us that night and the great charity champion and campaigner for the rights of the disabled was left stranded in the clunky old lift for a couple of minutes.

It ground to a halt as we attempted to bring Jack on stage to receive his civic honour.

It could have been a disaster. However, such was the calibre of the man that he laughed off the gremlins and received his award with sublime grace.

What’s more, it was at that moment that I realised just how the people of the Potteries had taken this bloke from Widnes to their hearts.

There was no way anyone was going to let a technical hitch spoil the moment.

Indeed, such was the warmth felt towards one of the great Parliamentarians from the 400-plus audience, that it took just a few additional rounds of applause and Jack was on stage with me.

The word ‘inspirational’ is greatly over-used these days but it is certainly appropriate in the case of Jack Ashley.

His life in public service is remarkable – not because of its longevity but because of what he accomplished during his time as an MP and in the House of Lords.

When an elder statesman such as Lord Ashley passes on we have come to expect tributes for their peers.

However, when David Cameron, Nick Clegg, Ed Milliband and Gordon Brown – to name but a few – spoke of the admiration for our Jack there is no doubt they meant it.

Lord Ashley of Stoke was a pioneer, you see. A man who, quite literally opened doors for millions of people.

Having won the Stoke-on-Trent South Parliamentary seat in 1966 he could quite easily have thrown in the towel two years later when he lost his hearing.

However, as this country’s first deaf MP, he learned to lip-read and was held in such high regard – even by political foes such as Prime Minister Ted Heath – that they turned towards him during Commons debates so he could get a clear view of their mouths.

Because of Jack Ashley, many people realised that a disability didn’t have to be a barrier.

Because of his sheer force of will others, like former Home Secretary David Blunkett, forged a career in politics in spite of a disability.

Jack Ashley was arguably the greatest champion disabled people in the UK have ever had.

He was a man driven not by self-interest but by the needs of others and someone who placed fairness at the heart of his own personal agenda.

During 26 years as a member of Parliament he campaigned tirelessly for society’s second class citizens – the under-represented and the victims of everything from thalidomide to the arthritis drug Opren.

Jack Ashley was someone who changed attitudes for the better and we should be grateful that a man elected first and foremost to serve the people of Stoke-on-Trent did that and so much more.

Forget statues to the man in charge of the Titanic. How about a permanent memorial to a man whose legacy is supremely positive for us all?

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel