Jimmy Knapp

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James Knapp, railway signalman and trade-unionist: born Galston, Ayrshire 29 September 1940; Hurlford Branch Secretary, National Union of Railwaymen 1961-65, Amalgamated Kilmarnock and Hurlford Branch Secretary 1965-72, Glasgow and West of Scotland District Council Secretary 1970-72, Divisional Officer 1972-81, Headquarters Officer 1981-82, General Secretary 1983-90; president, Unity Trust Bank 1989-2001; General Secretary, Rail, Maritime and Transport Union 1990-2001; member, TUC General Council 1983-2001; married 1965 Sylvia Yeomans (one daughter); died London 13 August 2001.

In the public perception, Jimmy Knapp was the last incumbent example of a genre of trade-union leader that played a central part of the political industrial scene in the bygone 20th century. Such a perception is misleading. Dinosaur, Knapp certainly was not.

Jimmy Knapp was born in the small Ayrshire town of Galston into a railway family. He was immersed in the industry from his early boyhood at Halford Primary School; with a chuckle, he would tell us that he would play truant simply to watch the trains go by on the Glasgow main line. "I have ate like that, slept and breathed railways all my life. And," he would say in addition, "I have not seen railway workers making the advances that they should."

He went on to an undistinguished career at the then excellent Kilmarnock Academy: truth to tell, he was more at home in the Socialist Sunday School to which his very left-wing parents sent him. The week after he left his secondary education at 15, his first wage from the railway was a princely £2 18s 4d, handed over in the dummy brown manila envelope that was usual at the time. All his life he kept this wretched envelope and its contents as a memento, just as Mr Speaker Weatherill would keep a tailor's thimble in his pocket, to remind himself whence he came.

Knapp learnt the hard way. He was made redundant three times in his early working life. The Socialist Sunday School, part of a network of independent Labour and Marxist colleges which covered much of industrial Britain, had introduced him to books such as Hewlett Johnson's The Socialist Sixth of the World (1939) and glowing accounts of life in Soviet Russia.

After a five-year apprenticeship in which he became an NUR branch collector at 18, Knapp emerged as a fully fledged signalman at 20 and, at 21, was the secretary of the local branch. One of his first campaigns was on the issue of "walking time", the payment for relief signalmen like himself, dating from when men had to walk perhaps several miles along the lines to reach their signal box. British Rail were trying to remove what they saw as an anachronism and Knapp saw as a benefit to which they were entitled, albeit most of them had a car in which to reach the box.

At the age of 31 he was a trade-union official with experience as secretary of the big Glasgow and West of Scotland NUR District Council. He applied to be a full-time divisional officer and was posted, from 1972 to 1981, to look after the London Underground. He went about his work with courtesy and honesty and not a little wry humour, which endeared him to his irreverent cockney members.

On one occasion he was at a London Underground tribunal when the somewhat portentous employers' barrister declared that, if the union policy on seniority-based promotion had existed in Nelson's time, he, Nelson, would never have made the position of Admiral. The streetwise and quick-witted Knapp replied to the barrister that he wasn't sure about that – adding with a grin (and Knapp's grins were very broad indeed): "But with one eye and one arm he would certainly have failed the railway medical."

As later events made clear, it was ironic that Knapp should have been elected on a very left-wing ticket in 1983, when he broke the right-wing stranglehold, imposed by Sidney Green and then Sid Weighell, an extremely able operator on the NUR. His opponent was the formidable and effective ex-marine Charlie Turnock who, from my experience of him on the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party, would also have made a very effective major trade-union leader.

During the campaign Weighell denounced Knapp as an extremist: "Wet behind the ears. A stooge of the Communists and the Trotskyite left. A disaster for the union." These were only some of the less rude phrases employed by Sid Weighell, who unluckily had to step down from his job after a thundering row over the manner in which he was supposed to have miscast the NUR vote at the 1982 annual conference of the Labour Party.

Actually Jimmy Knapp was a man of considerable charm who made himself popular in rather unexpected ways. For example, he became famous at the cricket matches between the TUC General Council and industrial journalists for diving to the ground to hold well-nigh impossible one-handed catches. Knapp's love of cricket – unusual in a working-class Scot – also led him to make the incautious remark that the England cricket captain Mike Atherton should give up the captaincy to someone else and go: "It's clear-cut. He's done wrong, he's lost his authority and that should be the end of it."

Knapp had a passionate belief in "fair play and the eradication of injustice", words which would sound terribly pious, appallingly pompous or simply glib from one of the new kind of smart trade-union leaders. Because he was a nice man he got away with it, as indeed he did with various pronouncements on his beloved Kilmarnock football club and his adopted passion in the English League, Crystal Palace.

He turned out, contrary to expectations, to be a serious trade-union leader far removed from a figure of fun, earning the respect of the hardboiled British Rail chief Sir Bob Reid, a lifelong railwayman. Knapp got on far better with the tough Reid than with Bob Horton, who became chairman of Railtrack after 35 years with British Petroleum.

Knapp's central point of difference with railway leaders and government was his belief that subsidies alone could deliver cheaper fares and fuller trains. Since this was indeed precisely the experience of the successful railways of Europe, maybe he was not wrong.

Thrown in at the deep end, he found that the ballot had ended in failure when he called a vote against strikes on the introduction by British Rail of driver-only trains. After the experience of Arthur Scargill and the miners' strike, Knapp was absolutely adamant that he would not sanction industrial action without the explicit mandate by vote of the members.

In 1991 there was union opposition to new flexible working contracts for 6,500 British Rail signals and telecommunications staff. There was a ballot and it went against Knapp. He was unsurprised: five years earlier in 1986 he had been defeated on a ballot to resist British Rail workshop closures. He used to explain on his frequent visits to the NUR Parliamentary Group, of which I was a member, that it was extremely hard to gain broad votes for industrial action by the union when only a section, albeit an important section, of the membership was affected. "How on earth am I expected to deliver sustained industrial strike action if I cannot carry the majority of the membership with me?"

In the 1994 rail dispute he and Horton, the former BP hatchet man (at least in public perception), were pitted face-to-face in a 1960s- and 1970s-style industrial dispute. Knapp was prepared to go further than usual because he sensed that the chief executive of Railtrack, another lifelong railway man, John Edmonds, and his industrial relations team had sympathy with the union case.

The 1994 dispute came to the boil when Knapp was surreptitiously given internal company memoes indicating an early willingness to make an offer of 5.7 per cent to the union. This had trumped the government of John Major, in which the chief minister concerned was the Transport Secretary John MacGregor. His policy was to avert any risk of a settlement which would break the Government's public-sector guidelines and thus create a situation where a dispute would flare up so soon after the privatisation of the British Rail network which Knapp had strongly opposed.

Knapp was particularly angry at attacks on long-term railwaymen by those whom he would describe as "city slickers" who knew as much about running a railway "as Len Shackleton [the Sunderland and England prince of dribblers] suggested that the chairmen of football clubs knew about the game of football – a blank page in his book".

In particular Knapp was incensed by Horton's description of Colin Hall, author of the memo made public by the union, as "an overzealous, very junior manager". In fact Hall, production manager of Railtrack's South Zone, was a friend of Knapp's from the time when he had been the trade union's full-time officer responsible for the Southern Region, in 1981-83.

One of the biggest challenges of Knapp's time as a trade-union leader was overseeing the merger between the railwaymen and the seamen. Ever since the seamen's strike which had so infuriated Harold Wilson as Prime Minister, they had been a badly organised, fractious and ill-disciplined set-up. Through his friendship with the late Sam McCluskie, Treasurer of the Labour Party, and stand-in General Secretary of the seamen's union, an accommodation was arrived at, greatly to the advantage of those who served in the Merchant Navy. Knapp persuaded his members to devote considerable funds to the cause of the impecunious seamen. He was a man of broad vision.

One of his consuming passions was safety on the railways. Lord Cullen, the second part of whose report on the 1999 Paddington rail crash is due to be published next month, remembers Knapp coming before him in December 2000:

I had the strong impression of how knowledgeable he was; and in addressing the issues of safety he was firm and fair.

In 1989 Margaret Thatcher accused the NUR men of not giving a damn about the inconvenience to passengers. Knapp exploded that it was a disgraceful comment to make about people who carry millions in safety every day, people who had risked life and limb at the King's Cross Station Underground fire: "It wasna' only fire-fighters who went into the midst of that wreckage."

On 27 July 1994, Alastair Campbell, later Tony Blair's press secretary but then writing for the Today newspaper, had a perceptive article under the banner headline "Why Does (Almost) Everyone Love Jimmy Knapp?":

The battle for public opinion has made Knapp's face, and voice, well-known. He does not relish the public role. "I am fond of a quiet life and I'm not one of those people who gets an orgasm at the sight of a microphone," he says. "But you have to do TV as part of the job."

It is a matter of fascination why Knapp should not have attracted the kind of public odium which descended on the head of Arthur Scargill. Time and again I have stood on cold railway stations waiting for late trains. The feeling is not directed at Knapp but rather towards his cause, his constant demands for more investment in the railways and a better lot for railwaymen.

For a quarter of a century and more he was sustained by his wife, Sylvia. To all of us his private life seemed to conform to the image of a middle-aged man safely ensconced in the steady working-class values of his childhood. It became a matter of jealousy among those attending trade-union conferences that he would never stay overnight after meetings. Wherever he was and however late the hour, he would make a point of getting back to Sylvia and their Kent home.

Then, in 1990, to the astonishment of the trade-union world and his huge number of Labour Party friends, he was at the centre of a tabloid scandal about his marriage. He had left Sylvia, it transpired, for Eva Leigh, a divorced lady from Germany. The parting with Sylvia was reported as somewhat dramatic. There were many column inches in the tabloids about a stand-up row in Ashford Hospital, Kent, where Sylvia tracked her husband down as he was waiting for a hernia operation. This press exposure culminated in a sad statement from her confirming that the marriage was over with the words:

All my life was devoted to Jimmy – ironing his shirts, boxer shorts . . . whatever. Until this happened he was the perfect husband.

In candour, after the end of the relationship with his wife, Jimmy Knapp was never to be the effective trade-union leader which he had once been.

Tam Dalyell