Jack Ashley: A politician who showed how things can be done.

Warren Kinston 30. April 2012 19:00

Jack Ashley

I appreciate politics is tough. Even so, it is hard to find kind things to say about politicians in recent times. What do you make of a recent candidate for the US presidency now in court facing 30 years in jail and $1.5 Million in fines? Jack Ashley was cut from different cloth.

Lord Ashley, as he became, stood out from the pack. I realized that all would-be politicians could learn something from him when I read his obituary today.  What an extraordinary person he was—probably far too good for his own good.  So on being elected to Parliament in 1967, the Gods immediately struck him down by making him deaf following a minor operation. You can imagine his shock and distress. The divine intervention hypothesis is supported because he regained his hearing with a cochlear implant in 1997, after his political life was inevitably almost over. Nevertheless, he offered more value in that 30 years of deafness-based disability than most others ever do, even with all their senses intact.

Jack was a UK Labour politician of the classic variety. His father, a labourer, died of pneumonia when he was 5. He left school at 14 to earn a living filling bottles with sulphuric acid. He then regularly experienced exploitation by people with power over him, like his mother's landlord or his employer. He responded to these by amazing shows of determination and strength that led him to win the day. If only politicians today realized that power is stupid and self-defeating, while strength is wise and socially beneficial!

This led to others encouraging him into local government politics: at 22 the youngest in the country. Later he was the youngest member of a trade union national executive. He supported himself by doing labouring and crane-driving jobs—and when the war came along, he was a driver.  But of course this work had no relation whatsoever to his actual capability. So he took evening classes and won a scholarship to Ruskin College at Oxford (1946-48) and then read economics at Cambridge University. He must have handled himself well, because he became the first working-class President of the Cambridge Union: defeating among others Geoffrey Howe (later UK Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer). Defying convention, he did not wear a dinner jacket at debates because he couldn't afford it. At University, once again, mindless power interfered when rules were used to block him marrying. He didn't take it lying down, and marry he eventually did.

Following University he worked in radio and television, including on the prestigious Panorama current affairs show. 

Eventually in 1967 he entered Parliament. Again, one sees the strength and integrity of the man. He was the only Labour MP, backed by a Trades Union, who fully supported a major piece of legislation to reform the unions.

His career in politics reflected what the English call "bloody-mindedness". This is a term that is commonly used to describe those who are determined to respect common sense and pursue what is right regardless of expedience, specious arguments by vested interests, and the fact that "it's always been this way".  As well as regularly fighting against gross unfairness to the weaker groups in society, as might be expected of a Labour politician, he had a broader vision. For example, he was a long-time enthusiast for televising the commons. Many MPs were opposed because the public would "misunderstand". How do you explain that the debating chamber is often almost empty and discussions are commonly boring in the extreme? 

Jack Ashley's life story is an example that gives us what we most need: hope.

If you are dismayed by politics, it's worth reading the obituary. 

If you are a politician, or would like to be, take a leaf out of his book. If you can't measure up, perhaps it's best to think again before becoming another John Edwards.

Thanks, Jack.



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Warren Kinston is the creator of the THEE-Online website as an open forum for the further discovery and development of THEE. He writes this blog as an escape valve for the excitement and frustrations of the work. More info here.

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