Out of the great silence, the triumphs of Jack (Lord) Ashley*


Like a boxer who does not hear the bell at the end of a round, Jack Ashley, an MP when I met him, later a lord (The Rt. Hon. Lord Ashley of Stoke, C.H.) and rightly, too, tended to battle on when others were resting in their corners. Deaf-blind boys and girls were then his major concern, and he had tabled I7 Commons questions.

All the great causes of the land, it seemed, flowed through his consciousness: Debendox (the anti-moming sickness pill then under scrutiny), war widows' pensions, benefits for the disabled, battered wives, vandalism. Your ALT-Text here

Totally deaf (he has since had some partial reprieve through a medical advance) he was missing nothing and shirking nothing. Only a romantic novelist of fanciful disposition would have dared invent his life and times:

Father dying when the lad was five. Water pouring through the roof. Cracks in the walls. The child of misfortune growing to battle for the rights of family and neighbours. He leaves school in Widnes at I4 without qualifications, but miraculously ends at Oxford AND Cambridge. He finds the girl he is to marry and a career as BBC radio and TV producer before facing the Great Tragedy. At the point where the fruits of hard work are about to bring their greatest rewards, total deafness strikes.

Yet in the silence, when I meet him, aided now by a wife devoted to his needs, he fights and fights and fights again, for others. It sounds trite, like a preannouncement for This is Your Life, a little sweet and sickly. It is neither. It is the way it happened.

Jack Ashley is an improbable combination; he sounds like at least half a dozen people who would find little joy in each other:

Labourer, crane driver, shop steward, convenor; then universities, BBC, Parliament, the MP dedicated to the Labour Party but more frequently than anyone, transcending politics in the passion of conviction. Most startling of all: none of it stemmed.from ambition.
"I wasn't looking for a future," he said of those early days. "I had no idea of a career. Things just happened. I do not think I ever considered matters in the sense of ambition. I was simply bringing about changes in the working environment and in the places where people lived. I think mine was a pragmatic approach."

Jack Ashley was in his seventies when I saw him at the House of Commons - father of three daughters, known in Widnes as Our Jack. An early battle set the seal on all that followed.

"The slums were appalling. We could not get repairs carried out. And so there came about a battle with a landlord where I lived in Widnes. Nearly all the houses required repairs and they were all owned by the same man. He refused to repair any of them. I started campaigning to change his mind. How? This bloke was a shopkeeper. When you've got water coming in through the roof, as we did at home, and cracks in the walls, as we did, you want something done, and I went to his premises every day and I would argue and argue. Naturally, with his customers coming in, he did not want me arguing about repairs to the house.

"I went to the town hall and discovered that you could get rent reduced if the house was not in a fit and habitable state, and ours wasn't. I got a form and filled it in and, of course, it went through the town hall and we got, I think, a 30 per cent reduction in rent. Then we had an awful row over that, so I went and got two or three hundred forms at the town hall and distributed them to all the neighbours. They all applied. All the houses were in a hell of a state, and they all got rent knocked off. That's just the way things begin. Had the bloke been reasonable, it would have been all right; but the fact that he was so awkward led from one thing to another

Jack Ashley loved his home town. He did not particularly wish to get out.

His father had died when he was five and he became "the man of the house". He left school at I4 and went to work in a factory. He was a furnace worker, a labourer, and a crane driver. He organised a trade union to combat bad conditions. Then -

"One day when I was working at the factory I saw an advertisement - Scholarships to Ruskin College. Working class people, you know? It was something never dreamed of in those days, and I simply applied for a scholarship and got it. I think I got it partly because I was, by then, very active in the trade union movement. I was a convenor of shop stewards and on the national executive of my union. I was also, by then, a member of Widnes Borough Council. "I had no academic qualifications at all, but I think they appreciated the fact that a bloke who had left school at I4 and had not gone to grammar school or anything of that kind would not have such qualifications."
He was finishing his diploma at Oxford when he heard about two scholarships to Cambridge. "Most people applied for them. I more or less applied with the crowd"

But was not that a form of ambition?

"These things develop their own momentum."

It seems unlikely, even so, that he should become president of the Cambridge Union.
"I had a lot of fun there. It was a rather funny business: there wasn't entirely the lah-de-dah kind of social elite it had been in the past, but there were quite a few of them. It was a sort of transitional period after the war for a lot of ordinary blokes with no side to them; an interesting period.

"I did not have any adverse reaction to people. My room mate - I'm sure he was deliberately placed - was a pukka sahib type, a tell, elegant young man with an impeccable accent and a very wealthy family background; well groomed, and we got on quite well. There was friction at first, and no rapport, but it developed: there was mutual acceptance. I had my values and stuck to them, and others had their values. I expected them to stick to those. So long as they did not try to change me, I did not try to change them."

A neutrality rather than a mingling?

"Very difficult question. I made friends with some. The huntin', shootin'and fishin' type I never met or associated with. They lived in a world of their own. But there were some in the union who were active in politics. Some of the people I was associated with, and in fact competed against, were Norman St John Stevas and Geoffrey Howe. Geoff Howe was on my committee when I was president of the union, so you get to know these people."

On, then, to radio, TV, parliament - and disaster.

"My hearing was fairly good. I had a perforation in one eardrum and I had a minor operation to have it repaired. It was a complete disaster and I lost all of my hearing, a very rare occurrence, rather like being struck by lightning."
He had been in the Commons a year and a half, was nearly 47, and had made "a bit of a mark that year." Colleagues, constituents and public all asked him to stay. "Harold (Wilson) was very warm and friendly." But making his first appearance totally deaf was "appallingly difficult. I'd be foolish to disguise that. Far more difficult than people realise, because very few understand the consequences of total deafness. You find yourself isolated. People tend to shy away."

It cancelled the possibility of his being a minister. "I've been active on behalf of my various campaigns. I think it gives me more satisfaction than if I'd been in office. I may be rationalising it. It is just possible."

When Jimmy Young interviewed him, listeners would assume the then MP to have hearing. It was done by phone. The trick was that someone else listened on an extension and articulated the words of the caller as they were being said.

His most perceptive ears have been those of his wife. He was using a phone "and the way I use it, again, was Pauline's idea. I couldn't even hear my own voice, and she said, 'Let's get an extension so that I can listen to what people say and repeat it simultaneously and silently,' and I thought it would not be practicable, but we got it and instead of an extra receiver, we just got the earpiece extended. It worked. Some people are very suspicious. They say: You ARE deaf, aren't you?"

In the Commons they introduced a display screen for him which gave a commentary of speeches in written form.Outside the chamber, he read people's lips. "The important thing is will. To overcome the obstacle. If will is there and you are not making a big drama out of it, people accept it."

He reckons he has been "as much a political animal as any." It just happened that many of the issues he fought were supported by MPs of all parties. "I've battled with Labour ministers as vigorously, I would almost say violently, as with Conservative ministers." "When I first met him," said his wife, "we did not have to wait at bus stops in his home town. If the bus driver saw Jack, he stopped. Everybody knew him and warmed towards him."

When we met in the Commons, he led me to a little chapel in the crypt. It was empty and, after the bustle upstairs, eerily silent. It was a reminder that the cacophony elsewhere was also silence, to him.

He did not make over-much of it, any more than he made much of achievement. It Just happened." He "just happened to be there." Modesty is seldom the hallmark of a politician. Apart from the deafness, it is what separates Jack Ashley from most of his Parliamentary companions.

The scars did not show. Those closest to him did not see a martyr but rather a humorous colleague or friend. A strange life to have stemmed from a hole in a roof and a landlord in a shop:

By the nature of his obsessions, he will be remembered when many a minister is forgotten.

* Jack Ashley died in 2012 at the age of 89.