Jack Ashley was born in 1922 in Widnes, Lancashire.
He left school at fourteen to work as an unskilled factory labourer. In 1946 he was awarded a scholarship to Ruskin College, Oxford and later to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he became President of the Union.
He spent fifteen years as a BBC radio and television producer before entering Parliament as the Labour member for Stoke-on-Trent South in 1966 where he remained until 1992 when he was made a life peer. He was president of the Royal National Institute for the Deaf and published two volumes of autobiography: Journey into Silence (1973) and Acts of Defiance (1992).
He died in April 2012 at the age of eighty-nine. I interviewed him in January 2000.
You grew up in considerable poverty in the town of Widnes, but as you say in your autobiography this all seemed ‘part of the natural order of things’. When did it strike you that poverty could be alleviated, that people’s lives could be improved?
It was in my teens when I began to kick against living and working conditions very strongly indeed, though this was something that was not done at that time in Widnes. I’m not saying I was a splendid fellow doing that, just it seemed natural to act in this way. I started by complaining about the conditions in my own home and when the landlord reacted angrily, I began a campaign to try to improve conditions in other houses he owned. And as a trade unionist at the factory I did exactly the same.
There is still poverty in Britain today. How does it differ from the poverty you experienced, would you say?
From what I read about some inner cities, it’s much the same as it was then – poor housing, inadequate income, bad health and in some cases bad health provision. All of these things seem to go hand in hand. After all this time there is absolutely no reason why anyone should be suffering the kind of gross poverty that is still prevalent in Britain today, but the basic issues are just not being tackled. Every government, including this Labour government, fears that there may be a reaction if they go too far too fast. In trying to eliminate poverty this government has done something very commendable in terms of income support and special payments. But if they go as far as to raise taxes to deal with poverty, they fear that there may be a backlash from what, for shorthand, I would call middle-class people. They are afraid they will not remain in power, and that, I think is deplorable. This is why I have reservations about commending the government wholeheartedly. I do support the Labour government, and I think they are doing a very good job, but they should go much further, and if it requires increased taxation, so be it.
Your father died when you were only five, and you lived in fear that your mother might also die and that you and your two sisters would be sent to an orphanage. Do you think that these early experiences strengthened your character, or did the sense of insecurity remain with you into adulthood?
The sense of insecurity did remain, perhaps not into mature adulthood, but certainly for many years. My father’s death strengthened my character in the sense that I became the man of the house and I took on responsibilities, not just material but also physiological.
Reading your autobiography, I was struck by the fact that you were lifted up to look at the face of your dead father. Do you remember that clearly? In the years to come were you pleased to have seen your father after he died?
I think so. It was something that struck me very forcibly at the time. I can remember it even now, not as vividly as when I was a child, but it was something I was rather glad I saw, full of regret though I was at the time.
Death seemed to be very much part of life in those days and it was quite normal for children to go and pray for the souls of the departed. Do you think this was preferable to what we do now, which is to hide death away from our children?
I have to say it is preferable. There was a certain rawness about it and it brought the community together in a very strange and remarkable way. You empathized with people – you couldn’t walk into a house and see the body of a man or a woman or a child and then walk out unaffected by what you had seen. To that extent I think it was a good thing, but I cannot see people reverting to that kind of openness with death.
Would you say you were actually politicized by the experience of your childhood?
You can’t go through the experience of being as poor as I was and working in such conditions without being politicized to some extent. The question then becomes: how do you react? In my own case I took on the landlord, got on to the council, became a shop steward and organized a trade union which then became a cohesive force seeking to improve conditions and wages. Not that we succeeded in all of these things, but at least we tried.
You left school aged fourteen to work as a factory labourer. Did that also seem part of the natural order of things at the time?
It was certainly part of the natural order of things in Widnes because everybody left school at fourteen. I vividly remember going on the bus with my tea-can to the factory, feeling quite at home really, enjoying the banter and the friendliness and the all-in-it-together kind of feeling. Had it not seemed part of the natural order, one would have felt very apprehensive. I didn’t.
Didn’t you feel at the age of fourteen that you were missing out on childhood years?
Not in the least. What could one miss out on in Widnes? If you didn’t have a job, you stood on a street corner. But as a young man with a job I was earning money and I could take home part of my wages and have a little pocket money. That was something positive and constructive.
Application to the local grammar school was out of the question because it was non-Catholic. Were you aware of being disadvantaged as a Catholic in this way?
No, because I was never outstanding at school. I was always about tenth, maybe a bit higher or a bit lower, but I didn’t feel the grammar school applied to me. I was content to go with the gang.
You write in your autobiography of the power and authority of the priest, something which you seem to have resented from an early age. You describe, for example, the way in which the priest would call each week to collect money from your widowed mother. Why do you think you were unwilling to accept the authority of the priest like everyone else? So you remember your feelings about that?
Yes I do, very vividly. My mother was dreadfully poor, and we scrimped and scraped all the time. The priest lived in quite a posh house – I can see it now – a fine high building with highly polished brasses and smelling of furniture polish. To see a well-fleshed man living there in those conditions and taking money from my mother who didn’t have two pennies to rub together – that stuck in my throat and I resented it.
You first became interested in trade unionism when you stoked furnaces at the copper factory. After an operation for appendicitis you asked for lighter work and were refused. I imagine you had a terrible sense of injustice…
Yes, and what I found when I tried to organize a union was that practically everybody else had a sense of injustice. But it was a far more deferential society then that it is now, and people just did obey the authority figure, whether it was the priest, the policeman or the factory boss. The men were passive and submissive, and when I organized a union it was fertile ground for people wanting to object who hadn’t ever objected before. It became a kind of catharsis for people.
At the age of only twenty you were elected chairman of the shop stewards’ committee. Was it not a daunting responsibility for a young man without much formal education at the time?
Indeed it was, and I remember being taken aback at the readiness of people to accept my leadership. I found it rather gratifying, but I was also anxious for a sense of responsibility to prevail, to make our objections disciplined. The easiest thing was to incite the men to violence. I remember when the secretary of the union in London addressed our meetings, he had a fine rhetorical line. He used to say: ‘We won’t have these employers dictate to us, we will tear this factory down brick by brick if they try to diminish us.’ And of course the workers loved the idea of tearing a factory down brick by brick, but it was the last thing I wanted.
To what extent would you say that the struggle you were engaged in on behalf of your fellow workers was a class struggle?
I think it was finally a class struggle. We were the working class and the people we were opposed to were management who on the whole were middle class. There were one or two foremen who had been workers and they had just gone up a notch or two, but in the main they were middle class people. Even though it was a class struggle, however, we didn’t see it as that then. We saw it as a battle between us in our kind of job and them in their well-paid, cushy, collar-and-tie job. We had the tough jobs, loading furnaces, emptying wagons; we had the dirty clothes, the clogs, the scarves, the overalls. We saw it in black and white, not in political terms, more in material terms.
Do you think it will ever be possible to remove class from British society?
I’m always suspicious of the term ‘classless society’. Early on at Ruskin College I decided that I was against the Communist Party because I didn’t like their idea of a classless society. To try and impose uniformity on people is silly and obnoxious. The objective should be to try and reduce the inequalities; I don’t think I would go further than that.
Your time as a shop steward was very much characterized by ‘them and us’ attitudes, the workers versus the management. Did you thrive on confrontation, or was it alien to your character really?
This is slightly tricky. I think of myself as a mild man and yet the truth is I did thrive on confrontation. I wanted to please people, wanted them to be happy, but I recognized the need to press the case strongly and pinpoint weaknesses in the opponent’s case. And so I was forever confronting authority because my ultimate judgement is that if you don’t persist you don’t win. But it is a paradox in me.
You were completely dependent on your mother throughout your childhood. Were you acutely aware of the absence of a father figure, or do you think your mother did the work of two parents, so to speak?
There’s no doubt that she did the work of two parents, and she was fantastically courageous in the way she brought up three children on her own in those days, because the poverty was absolutely devastating. Having said that, I was very aware of the lack of a father, though I didn’t talk about it very often with my sisters. Of course, the love for our mother was the most important thing, and it was a wonderfully intimate, close, warm relationship, but underlying it was the fear that if anything happened to her, we would be off to the orphanage.
You were seventeen when the war broke out, but after joining the army you were discharged after less than a year on health grounds, because of your increasing deafness. How much of a disappointment was it for you to not be able to fight for your country?
In a sense you are diminished by being categorized as unfit, and no one likes to be sent home. It was a great thing to be in the army with its wonderful sense of comradeship and esprit de corps, but you can’t argue with the medical men.
In 1946 you were awarded a scholarship to Ruskin College, Oxford, a so-called ‘working man’s scholarship’. Was there a particular pride attached to going to Oxford as a ‘working man’ as opposed to, say, a public schoolboy?
I suppose I would have felt that more if I had gone to a normal Oxford college; as it was, Ruskin catered for people like me, so it didn’t really arise. I was much more conscious of being a working man rather than a public schoolboy when I went to Cambridge. In fact – though I don’t say this in a hostile way – my room was shared with a pompous public schoolboy who was very cruel for the first few months. We gradually did become friends, but I was very much aware of that kind of snobbish attitude, though I did feel a certain pride in having got there on my own as it were, without the privilege of a public school.
You must have had mixed feelings going up to Oxford, leaving your beloved family behind, giving up your wage which was important for the family budget, and the contrast between Oxford and your home town must have been huge. Did you have any doubts about leaving all that was familiar behind?
I had many doubts, but the main thing was the wage. I was so poor in Oxford that I went working part time for an old couple who had advertised for a girl to clean the house. They were astonished when I turned up but they gave me the job anyway. Another basic problem was having no educational background. Many of the students at Ruskin had been to night school or grammar school, and many of them were extraordinarily well read. I felt my lack of any formal education keenly. Happily, Ruskin was established in order to meet that kind of problem, and so it didn’t become a great drama, but I was not wholly comfortable.
Did you feel when you went to Cambridge that you were competing on a more equal basis with your fellow students?
Yes, I think the two years at Ruskin really did make a difference to me. I learned how to read properly, how to handle books, how to listen to university lectures, and so on. I can’t define why exactly, but somehow going to Cambridge felt quite different. I felt happier, more confident, more at home.
In what ways did university change you? Did it distance you from the idea of the working man at all?
No. One of the things I like to lay claim to, if I may, is having changed very little. This may not be a good thing, but it’s true. When I became the MP for Stoke-on-Trent I was as much at home meeting working men as I always had been. And going back to Widnes is like slipping into an old overcoat. My approach to people in high position and to working-class people is exactly the same as it always was. I’m less deferential now to toffs, so to speak, than I would have been in my younger days, but apart from that I see no significant difference.
At about the same time, according to your autobiography, you were questioning your religious beliefs ‘to the point of rejection’, and you refer in passing to your ‘loss of faith’. Loss of faith, particularly perhaps for a cradle Catholic, is usually traumatic. What happened in your case?
What happened, I regret to day, was not traumatic – it would make a better story if it had been. I simply began to question the idea of a God and all the accompaniments, like the Resurrection, for example, or the idea that prayer could get you anything that you did not get if you didn’t pray. I began to reject, not only the whole concept of Catholicism, but religion generally.
What about heaven and hell?
That’s a bit of nonsense to me. It’s just that anyone should go to hell for eternity for committing one mortal sin. In my day a mortal sin was missing mass on a Sunday, and though I was devout as a child, I cannot believe as a responsible adult that you could be condemned to hell for missing mass on a Sunday, and though I was devout as a child, I cannot believe as a responsible adult that you could be condemned to hell for missing mass on a Sunday, for maybe sleeping in for an hour. It’s preposterous. There are other matters too. The Catholic Church says you can’t have contraception, which in this age of AIDS is beyond belief to me. I also cannot accept the infallibility of the Pope. Of course, I’m well aware that there are millions of distinguished minds who are believers in Catholicism, and I respect that. I would never ever criticize anyone for religious beliefs; I say only that it’s not for me.
Has your religious faith ever been restored in any shape or form since?
Not at all. In fact the older I get the stronger my lack of faith becomes.
At Cambridge you met Pauline, a Girton girl who became your wife and your steadfast and loyal companion through good times and bad. To what do you attribute the success of your long and happy marriage? Is it something that can be defined?
It can be defined easily. Quite simply, Pauline is understanding and tolerant of my foibles. We have had an intellectual and physical marriage which has lasted forty-nine years now, and whenever there has been a difference of opinion or a misunderstanding she has always been able to say, let’s sort it out. I tend to stand on my dignity, which she thinks is silly, and she’s right, and she’s not as silly as I am. It is her rationality that is the key to the whole thing. I wish I were like that – it would make me get on better with other people – but I don’t have her capacity for tolerance and understanding.
There is a notoriously high rate of marriage breakdown among politicians, often attributed to the stress of the job and other related factors. You had the extra stress of disability to cope with. How did you manage to succeed where others failed?
I don’t know. It’s a good question, because the stresses of total deafness were unbelievable, not only on me but on Pauline just as much. The burden on her was phenomenal. But somehow it brought us even closer together. She accompanied me to the constituency all the time and shared the work of all the campaigns. I couldn’t have continued to be an MP without Pauline – it was a fifty-fifty partnership. When I won the Campaigner of the Year Award I said it was half for Pauline, because she did as much campaigning as I did. It has been a fantastically successful duo.
When you became MP in 1966 you describe entering the House of Commons as ‘the stuff of dreams’. Was that your proudest moment?
It certainly was a proud moment, but oddly enough, and this will sound bizarre, my actual proudest moment was becoming a councillor in Widnes. I remember very vividly when the town clerk read out my name in front of hundreds of people from my home. I thought, gosh, I’m on the council, now I can battle. That moment beat the House of Commons by a short head.
After the onset of total deafness you seriously considered resigning. Looking back, how much do you think that was an emotional reaction to the devastating change in your life, and how much was it a rational thought process?
Very much the latter, because it seemed an impossibility to sit in the House of Commons, the greatest talking shop in the land, with no sound. Time and again I tried to talk to my colleagues; they would answer politely, but there was no way in. No, there was a certain emotion about my decisions, but basically it was a rational one given the bloody good reason that I couldn’t do the job.
You write with great candour, that your own attitude to disability for many years had been ‘casual indifference tinged with pity’, an attitude which you say characterized your generation. Is there any evidence, would you say, of a radical shift in attitude today?
There is no doubt that there has been a definite shift in attitudes towards disability; there is more tolerance, more understanding. And there’s going to be another tremendous change now because of the law. The Disability Discrimination Act has now been passed and it is about to be fully implemented. This will mean that no service providers will be allowed to discriminate against disabled people, a radical piece of legislation which will make huge improvements in the provision for disabled people.
You write that failure to tackle disability is ‘a failure of democracy’. Can you elaborate on that?
In so far as you leave people to their own devices, they do not on the whole help disabled people; indifference and neglect prevail. Admittedly when there is a blind person trying to cross the road some people will help and feel they’ve done their boy-scout thing for the day, but if you get someone in a wheelchair, someone who is deaf or someone who is mentally handicapped or has epilepsy – all the unfashionable disabilities, and they constitute the majority – people simply don’t want to know. When they manifest this indifference through the ballot box, governments react to their indifference and don’t do very much. Happily, as a result of our campaigning to amend the legislation, we are changing, not the public mind, but the government’s mind in order to lead the public. And that’s no bad thing in a democracy. When the Conservative government was in power and we demanded legislation, they killed the bill which I moved in 1982, saying what you need is education and persuasion, not legislation. But that has been tried for years and it has not worked. What you need is the full rigour of the law.
With your background in the unions and in working-class Lancashire, you can probably be described as Old Labour. Would you be happy with that designation?
Yes. I think there is a lot to be proud of in Old Labour, though that does not mean opposition to New Labour. The two can go hand in hand, but there is a very clear difference of emphasis, I would go much further than Tony Blair and his colleagues do, but, having said that, I’m happy with the general direction the government is taking.
You say that you lost none of your friends when you became deaf, but that it was not until you were deaf that you knew who your friends were. It was obviously a severe test of real friendship. Were you surprised by those who passed the test and those who failed?
I was not surprised by those who passed the test, I was surprised by those who failed. When you are an up-and-coming, successful MP on very good terms with many people, you can be naive enough to assume that these people are real friends. So it was a great shock to find that no matter how regretful they were, they nevertheless didn’t want to continue the relationship because it might mean speaking a bit more clearly. It was a stunning experience, almost a disorientating one. But I very quickly and realistically came to terms with it. Gradually, some of the old friends tried to come back a little bit, no more than a little bit, but as far as I was concerned the relationship was at an end.
You describe how some of your fellow MPs would refer to you in the Commons rather as Victorian men did to ladies, or would treat you a bit like ‘a courageous invalid’. This must have dismayed you, but did you never think that it was perhaps a question of ignorance – in other words, they simply did not know how else to behave?
It was very definitely a question of ignorance, and although at first I was irritated by it, I gradually came to recognize that some people didn’t know how to handle it, and that they were in fact trying to be helpful and friendly. And so I would make a joke of it, and once it became a matter of humour and goodwill then the problem vanished.
One of the most telling passages in your book, it seems to me, is where you write, ‘I came to realize that the loss of some relationships, can be as useful to a man as shedding fat is to an athlete.’ Was this a painful lesson to learn, or was it perhaps invigorating?
It was both really, though I wouldn’t like to exaggerate the extent to which it was invigorating. The fact that I had lost some of my friends meant that I paid more attention to those I had, and in that respect it was invigorating. Perhaps the word ‘invigorating’ is slightly overegging the pudding…I think I could say it was stimulating.
You seem to have spent quite a lot of your life being angry, mostly on behalf of others, I should say. Or perhaps you don’t see it like that…
It’s a fair point really. But to be successful advocate you have to really feel things. You’re right, I do often get very upset and very angry with injustice, particularly where disabled people are concerned, but I think it’s no bad thing to articulate it. In the early days I used to try to be polite all the time, but now I believe there’s nothing wrong with expressing your anger, especially if a minister is prevaricating or refusing to help people who can be helped. If you don’t, you will be brushed aside, and by being brushed aside you’re letting down the very people who are looking to you to champion their cause.
You say that you never became reconciled to your deafness. How best would you describe your attitude to it?
To me deafness is appalling, dreadful, a truly wretched thing. And I also had tinnitus, a screeching roaring in the head, so I couldn’t even have silence when I wanted it. Fortunately, there are now cochlear implants which can help people who have been afflicted by total deafness in later life, and also children up to the age of ten who have been born deaf. Sadly, there is conflict in the deaf community about these implants. Some people, mainly those who have been born deaf and who say they are proud to be deaf, oppose them. They want to keep their deaf culture and their sign language and to have more interpreters – I’ve even fought for this in Parliament – but I find the opposition to cochlear implant bizarre. To me it’s a miracle to be rescued from the appalling world of total silence, a real miracle. I bless it every day. I myself can now walk in the park and listen to the birds. And I sing with them.