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Alf Morris, the 'quiet revolutionary'

Derek Kinrade
Biographer of Alf Morris

"Ah'll tell thee sumthin'. It's for thee own good. When tha famous, don't forget me or where tha's cum frae."

Harold Watkins to William Woodruffe in Beyond Nab End.

Lord Morris
Alf Morris was the UK's first Minister for the Disabled

Alf Morris served as Labour and Co-operative MP for Wythenshawe for 33 years before moving on to the House of Lords in 1997.

His life has been a testimony to one who, born in a squalid Manchester slum, triumphed over adversity to devote and concentrate himself to changing the social and economic balance in favour of people disadvantaged in Britain's society.

The whole of his parliamentary career has been characterised by championing the 'less fortunate', usually against stiff opposition.

His deserved reputation is one of prevailing in seemingly lost causes, and the qualities that have made this possible are dogged persistence and absolute integrity.

His parliamentary career has been conspicuously free of the self-serving that has characterised so many latter-day politicians.

Even those of his colleagues who wish he would go away and leave them alone still regard him with the utmost respect.

Childhood experience

Today, he is rightly regarded as Britain's 'quiet revolutionary'.

In particular, his tenacity in changing attitudes to disabled people has resonated across the world, making him one of the foremost reformers of our age.

The impetus for his life's work had its roots in the experiences of a childhood spent in the industrial depression of the 1920s in a northern family impoverished below even the common level of destitution by the war disabilities of his father.

When his dad died in 1935 at the age of 44, Alf's mother, Jessie, was for three years denied a war pension.

It was only through the intervention of local MP Harry Thorneycroft that this injustice was righted.

Such was her abiding gratitude to her advocate that Jessie told ten-year-old Alf that he would be delivering Mr Thorneycroft's leaflets when he was old enough.

Alf reflects that he did not join the Labour Party; he was volunteered!

The pioneering politician

The story of his subsequent political life is inextricably linked with that single event.

He gained a scholarship to Ruskin College, Oxford and from there seized the opportunity to gain an MA at St Catherine's.

Ricahard Crossman
Minister Richard Crossman was opposed to the bill.

As a young MP, Alf was particularly fortunate to come first in the Private Members' ballot of 1969 and thus to secure the opportunity to introduce the Bill that became the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act.

But the complex bill did not command the support of the then Secretary of State for Social Services, Richard Crossman, who asked Alf who he thought he was, after barely five years at Westminster, to be instructing him on social priorities.

The seminal measure nevertheless reached (and has remained on) the statute book, thanks in no small measure to the support of Dr Duncan Guthrie and other volunteers and finally through the intervention of Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who ensured the passage of the Bill just before the general election of 1970.

The frenetic rush to prepare its second reading marked the beginning of a lifelong co-operation with the voluntary sector, not bound by commercial contracts but united by mutual trust.

The Act in its final form represented a turning point in the emergence of disabled people from the shadows of neglect and indifference, and was the foundation stone of Alf's subsequent parliamentary career.

When Labour was returned to power in 1974 Alf became the world's first Minister for Disabled People, an opportunity he used to dramatic effect.

Just one of the many measures he secured - the setting up of Motability in 1978 - has provided over 2 million vehicles for more than 700,000 disabled people.

But his initiatives were not confined to the provision of services and benefits.

An unconventional agenda

He also set in motion the thrust for disability rights which in the United Kingdom eventually came to fruition through the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and were promulgated world-wide through Rehabilitation International's Charters for Disabled People.

Man in a wheelchair
The 1970 Act did much to improve access for disabled people

Alf also played a conspicuous part in the struggle to achieve justice for those damaged by the drug Thalidomide, and through his transition to the House of Lords to the present day has led the long campaigns for successive governments to do right for haemophiliacs infected by contaminated NHS blood products and for members of the armed forces damaged by their service in the first Gulf War.

In a long and remarkable political life, Alf Morris has remained devoted to an agenda outside conventional political priorities, but unfailingly close to the concerns of the most vulnerable members of our society.

He has remained faithful to the principles of the Co-operative Movement, serving as President of the Co-operative Congress in 1995.

Despite spending most of his working life in London, Alf has remained thoroughly true to his Mancunian roots, as much a son of that city as Charles Hallé.

His record is one of solid achievement, and his legacy is one for which many millions of disabled people have cause to be grateful.

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