Thursday, 26 April 2012
The sad passing of Lord Ashley of Stoke on 20 April 2012 shows that we have moved into a new era of disability politics. In the last 12 months, not only have we lost Lord Ashley, the most prominent disabled politician of his time, but also Vic Finkelstein, arguably the most influential disabled academic and Steve Bradshaw, the founder of the Spinal Injuries Association. They shaped the landscape of disability politics in the 60s, 70s and 80s. It is impossible to write the history of it without these men, and now seems like a good opportunity to revisit this period.
Jack Ashley entered Parliament in 1966. His time in Westminster is almost exactly concurrent with what most would term the “disability movement” in the United Kingdom. In 1965 the Disablement Income Group had been founded which was the first organisation created by disabled people to lobby government for changes in policy towards them. When Jack Ashley became fully deaf after an operation to improve the hearing, his first contribution to the Commons was to introduce a Bill for a commission to be set up to monitor benefits for disabled people.
In the 1970s he worked tirelessly with the editor of the Sunday Times, Harold Evans, to bring the case of thalidomide-affected children into the public eye. Complex (and, frankly, anti-democratic) rules governed what could be printed and discussed about the case.
A number of children were born with deformities after their mothers had taken the drug thalidomide. Distillers, the company that marketed the drug in the UK, hid behind their lawyers, forbidding any family from speaking to the press about the case. Jack Ashley introduced a motion in Parliament to discuss the issue, and by using “Parliamentary privilege” was able to speak freely without being found in contempt of court.
This was no easy task: Parliamentary rules forbade the discussion of cases sub judice, or currently in court. He had to skilfully negotiate with the Speaker about how he could word his motion without mentioning the case directly but still discussing the needs of the children and their families and drawing attention to a gross miscarriage of justice.
He continued to campaign for those injured by private companies and the state who could not fight back themselves – not as a result of any impairments, but simply because they lacked the legal and financial clout to battle rich, vested interests. Later causes he would champion included those brain damaged by the whooping cough vaccine, old people disabled by the drug Opren and those receiving inadequate care from the state after serving in the armed forces.
My contact with Jack Ashley was as an historian and sadly was incredibly brief. When I started my PhD on the history of disability policy, I knew that he was one of the first people I needed to write to. Despite his failing health and the death of his devoted wife Pauline, he took the time to respond to my questions and offer as much help as he could. Of all the other people I have interviewed and corresponded with since, all acknowledge his immense contribution.
The history of Disability Rights UK is inextricably linked with Jack Ashley’s career. When Jack Ashley created the All-Party Parliamentary Disability Group in 1968, the Central Council for the Disabled was asked to perform the secretarial work. The CCD merged with the British Council for the Rehabilitation of the Disabled in 1977 to create the British (later Royal) Association for Disability and Rehabilitation. RADAR is, of course, now DRUK. DRUK’s archives, which I am most grateful to have been given permission to study, show in the old minute books discussions between Jack Ashley, the CCD and Conservative politician John Astor, the first co-chair of the group.
The Disability Alliance, another group which merged into DRUK, was also important to this whole story. DA’s founder, Professor Peter Townsend, was a prominent academic and sociologist who had campaigned primarily for people in poverty: including disabled people. He had gone to university with Jack Ashley, and, as Jack Ashley notes in his autobiography, Townsend was one of the many people who convinced him that he was much more use to disabled people as a deaf MP than he would be campaigning on the sidelines. DA’s archives, now part of the Peter Townsend Collection at the University of Essex, also show that Jack Ashley was an active part of the campaign for disabled people, often speaking at events and corresponding with ministers on behalf of the major disability organisations.
Some have said that there aren’t any politicians like Jack Ashley anymore. This is probably true. Like the other champion for disabled people in Westminster (the world’s first minister for disabled People, Alf Morris), Jack Ashley grew up in relative poverty in poor-quality housing in the industrial north of England. Both men rose through the unions (Jack Ashley in the chemical works in Widnes; Morris through the Co-operative movement in Manchester) and both gained scholarships to Ruskin College Oxford in their twenties. Despite their Oxbridge degrees (Morris in Oxford, Jack Ashley in Cambridge), neither could be considered aloof or out-of-touch with the common citizen, a criticism often launched at the front benches of both major parties today. Their backgrounds and educations meant that they saw the whole range of British society – and they were determined to change it for the better.
I’m often sceptical about “Great Man” history, or the idea that key people change history simply on the force of their ability and personality. Certainly, Jack Ashley and others could not have achieved what they did without the backing of voluntary organisations, the general will of the people to do more for disabled people, and the political climate of the late twentieth century. But it is clear that Jack Ashley was an incredibly able campaigner who channelled his efforts to campaign for what he felt was right and just.
What we can learn from Jack Ashley’s career is that politics and politicians can change things. Since the All-Party group was founded, we have seen numerous improvements in education, social security, independent living, transport, civil rights and equality.
The pace of that change has been slow. We now have the ability to look back over the events in a 52-year Parliamentary career and maybe say, “yes, things are better than they were”. This is no consolation to the millions of disabled people who cannot wait years for the services and support that they need. This is particularly true in a political climate where the lessons of the 1960s appear to have been forgotten and things appear – though we will only know with hindsight – to be regressing to an earlier stage of development.
The Disablement Income Group wrote in the early 1970s that disabled people were always promised “jam tomorrow, but never today”. It seems that some things have changed little in 40 years. Jack Ashley and his contemporaries achieved much: but the lesson to be learned is that there is always more that can be done.
 All the major newspapers wrote glowing obituaries about Lord Ashley, so there is no need to go over his biographic details again here. For more information about his background, he wrote two autobiographies, one entitled Journey into Silence published in 1973 and the other Acts of Defiance after his retirement as an MP, published in 1994.
Posted by Radar at 14:32