‘Powerhouse’ Ron Atkins celebrates 100th birthday

Photo Neil Cross'Ron Atkins, Preston's former MP, celebrating his 100th birthday
Photo Neil Cross'Ron Atkins, Preston's former MP, celebrating his 100th birthday
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As the UK’s oldest living ex-MP, Ron Atkins is on Monday celebrating his 100th birthday.

SARAH CARTER meets the “exceptional” man, who represented Preston North in Parliament, and finds out his greatest achievements.

“THE devil looks after his own”, laughs Ron Atkins, the country’s oldest living ex-MP.

Photo Neil Cross'Ron Atkins, Preston's former MP, celebrating his 100th birthday with his wife Elizabeth

Photo Neil Cross'Ron Atkins, Preston's former MP, celebrating his 100th birthday with his wife Elizabeth

The former teacher and Preston Labour councillor turns 100 today, and cites good genes, an active lifestyle, and wild Atlantic salmon as the secrets to his longevity.

“And some luck too”, he adds. “I’ve escaped assassination as an MP.”

Sitting in his home in Frenchwood, Preston, with his wife Elizabeth and dog Rosie, Ron smiles as he tells of his early involvement in politics, and setting up dance classes for the Labour Party when he lived in Essex.

“Until I was a fair age I was dancing”, he says.

“I used to dance in St Matthew’s at the Labour Club while I was a councillor.

“The president of the club said I was as good on my feet as Cassius Clay.”

Ron was born in Barry, South Wales, where he grew up on a smallholding.

He went to Barry Grammar School, and then began working rather than going on to university, because he had developed a life-long psoriasis problem.

He eventually went to Southampton University, but his studies were interrupted by the Second World War, and his battles with severe psoriasis.

But Ron, determined to join the forces, lived on virtually nothing but carrots for more than a month to try to clear his skin.

He volunteered for war work and went to work at a chemical company in Barry as a chief greaser.

He recalls: “It was a non-union firm and I decided it should be a trade union firm.

“I got every person on the floor a member of the union except one person.”

But Ron was sacked for delivering a union application form to the one last remaining worker.

However, he says the workforce rebelled, drove away the police with some “choice words”, and Ron was given his job back.

He says: “I’ve been a union man and a socialist all my life.

“I think my biggest achievement was when I was being walked off the site at the big chemical works with a crowd of men behind me.”

Eventually, Ron went to Essex as a teacher, and was subsequently offered to stand as the Preston North candidate for the Labour Party.

He recalls: “I became an applicant to become an MP, but I thought it was hopeless because I was so left wing.”
After winning the seat, Ron says one of his proudest moments was working to bring a polytechnic to Preston - the precursor to the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan).

He says: “(Harold) Wilson decided on a new status which was really a technical university with science emphasis. They were precursors for the universities.

“There was only two for Lancashire and I raised the question in Parliamentary questions and I asked Wilson whether they would consider one more for Lancashire.

“Wilson agreed.”

Ron also fought to save the railway line between Preston and Ormskirk, which was under threat of closure.

He says: “I was a newly-elected MP and no one was doing anything, so I decided to form a campaign.”

Ron and his team managed to win the case at an appeal, and save the line.

He lost his seat in 1979 to Robert Atkins, but later served on Preston Council until standing down in 2010 as the council’s oldest member.

Last year, Ron did the introductory speech for Jeremy Corbyn, when he visited the Continental in Preston.

He remembers: “About 500 turned up. I was there on time but Jeremy hadn’t arrived, so I got to speak to them.

“I went on for about 15 minutes - at the end Jeremy was there but they were queuing up to see me.”

Ron is married to Elizabeth, who became a Labour councillor for Ashton ward in 2012 and stepped down ahead of this year’s elections.

Elizabeth, 58, more than 40 years Ron’s junior, said the pair got married shortly after she won her seat.

She says: “I think Ron had an idea that he was going to make things respectable and make an honest woman of me.
“I don’t think Ron knew what he was taking on! We are both quite strong-minded individuals, and we don’t agree just for the sake of it.”

Elizabeth describes her husband as a “powerhouse” of intellect. She says: “Ron is exceptional. He’s got an exceptional intellect.

“When I met Ron again in recent years, I told anybody who would listen that having a conversation with Ron was like academic keep-fit.

“You cant let lazy statements get past Ron.”

The couple is spending Ron’s birthday in the Lake District.

Elizabeth explains: “There is nobody like Ron, nobody would come near to Ron.”

Turning to her husband, she says: “As far as I’m concerned, I’ve never met anybody like you.

“It’s like Ron is in colour and everybody else is in black and white. This isn’t me being romantic. It’s worth us having this intensity.”

Ron describes his politics as a “kind of religion”, and says: “I think it’s the biggest thing in my life.”

He described his friend in politics Ian Mikardo as a “man of great ability who refused office”.

He said: “He knew as I know that if you go fishing around for office that you lose your spirit and you lose your soul, because to get advancement, you have to compromise your principles.”