Sidney Weighell

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The Independent Online

Sidney Weighell, trade unionist: born Northallerton, Yorkshire 31 March 1922; Assistant General Secretary, National Union of Railwaymen 1965-75, Senior Assistant General Secretary 1969-75, General Secretary 1975-83; President, Great Yorkshire Railway Preservation Society 1986-2002; married 1949 Margaret Hunter (died 1956; one son, and one daughter deceased), 1959 Joan Willetts; died Harrogate, North Yorkshire 13 February 2002.

Sidney Weighell, General Secretary of the National Union of Railwaymen from 1975 to 1983, was a right-winger during a period of industrial history when it was not fashionable in large sections of the trade-union and Labour movement to be known as a moderate. He possessed all the working-class credentials that could have given him left-wing status but his hatred of Communists, Trotskyists, the Militant Tendency and other leftist groups ensured that he stayed firmly on the right of British politics.

Unfortunately for him personally and his union, in particular, a proud career had an inglorious and ignominious ending. At the Labour Party conference in 1982 he deliberately withheld his union's block vote in favour of the National Union of Mineworkers' candidate, Eric Clarke, in the party's National Executive Committee elections. When he was caught out he tendered his resignation and was bitterly disappointed when a special delegate conference of his union later voted 41-36 to accept it.

He said his conscience was clear, because he thought Labour had little chance of winning the next election if it was run by the far left and he believed his actions were in accordance with the wishes of the majority of Labour Party supporters. One cannot help feeling, however, that if the extreme left had conspired in smoke-filled rooms to achieve a rigged vote Weighell would have been the first to protest.

His favourite saying was Edmund Burke's "For the triumph of evil it is only necessary that good men do nothing". And it was this obsession with the left that brought about his downfall. He fell, in effect, on his own sword. Triumphant leftists rejoiced in his departure, calling him a working-class traitor. But Weighell fought to improve his members' pay and conditions as well as any rail-union leader in history. He stood for a planned economy, public ownership, the redistribution of income and wealth, social justice and equality, and defended the trade-union closed shop in the defence of trade-union rights.

Sid Weighell was one of the most outstanding, articulate, resolute and forceful trade-union figures of modern times, and steadfast in his democratic socialist beliefs. During his period of office he was a pivotal figure in an industry most affected by Britain's economic decline, and he fought the Conservative government over pay as bitterly as he fought his enemies within his union and the wider movement. Before calling one strike he told the media: "The days of the cheap railwayman are over. We will put our snouts in the trough like everyone else." His determination not to let his members fall behind in the pay league saw him rub shoulders with the Prime Minister Harold Wilson over beer and sandwiches in Downing Street and the pair narrowly averted a national rail strike in 1975.

He was a slender, dapper man, immaculately dressed like his predecessor, Sir Sidney Greene, with a sleek hairstyle that made him resemble a film actor from the Roaring Twenties. To complete his image of sartorial elegance a pair of white spats would not have looked out of place. He was also a perfectionist in his dealings with people and nobody could claim he did not give them an honest answer. He made many enemies, particularly because of his political conviction, and appeared to thrive on confrontation.

In his 1983 autobiography On the Rails he painted a chilling picture of how left-wing activists had risen to power within the unions and the Labour Party, describing their methods and how he opposed them at great personal cost. Journalists and colleagues knew him best as a combative, spiky character, with a razor-sharp mind and gift for oratory. Like many leaders of his ilk, he tended to be a loner and was often regarded as an autocrat, and he was never seen imbibing in conference bars.

He was at regular loggerheads with his rival rail union Aslef, which represented train drivers, and this division gave ammunition to his political enemies in Downing Street who thought of railways as a drain on the public purse rather than as a national asset. In one embarrassing encounter at TUC headquarters in London, an Aslef executive member, Derrick Fullick, got hold of him by his braces and threatened to throw him down the lift-shaft. He was neither a pessimist nor a clairvoyant, but he warned that lack of investment in signals and track would lead to calamity. Later disasters, particularly at Clapham and Paddington, would appear to justify his foreboding.

Weighell was a self-taught man, like so many of his generation, left school at 15, and arrived in the Labour movement through the experiences of living and working in the depression of the Thirties. He was born in 1922 in Northallerton, a small, rich Tory town in the North Riding of Yorkshire. He had a brother and two sisters and said his mother wanted call him Sydney after the inchoate Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia. The Registrar of Births refused to register the name with a "y" but his mother spelled it the way she had chosen.

He was from a railway family, with his granddad Bill a guard and his father, Tom, a signalman. Young Sidney inherited his father's oratorical skills as a Baptist chapel lay preacher. The Weighell family was not wealthy but he said that they were all well fed and clothed. He was an 11-plus failure but his inability to make it to grammar school only harmed his ego and did him no long-term damage. He blamed his lack of academic success on his preference for playing football and cricket instead of doing homework.

When he left school in 1937 he became an apprentice motor mechanic and the following year he took an apprenticeship at the road motor engineering depot of the London and North Eastern Railway Company at Thirsk. In January 1940 he transferred to the locomotive department at Northallerton as a fireman and, because of staff shortages caused by the Second World War, he experienced excessive overtime working. He later recalled that in the winter months he did not see daylight. He became a qualified engine driver in 1943. At 20 he was a union activist and he chose the NUR rather than Aslef because he thought the drivers' union was élitist and selfish.

He excelled at football and had trials for Sunderland, Newcastle United and Sheffield United. On 12 October 1945 he signed for Sunderland for a fee of £10 and played for two seasons as a full back in the reserves. He was paid a basic £3 a week, plus win bonus, on top of his £3 a week railway wages. This affluence gave him a second-hand MG sports car.

He joined the Labour Party in 1945, became a member of the local trades council, and was elected to the union's National Executive Committee in 1953. In his early days he was regarded as a disruptive influence and a left-winger and was even expelled from the trades council for introducing politics into the council. He flirted with the idea of becoming a Labour MP but his political aspirations got him nowhere in a rock-solid Tory area in spite of his becoming a Labour agent in the Richmond constituency of Yorkshire between 1947 and 1952.

After only a year on the National Executive he was elected a full-time divisional officer, which meant a move to the union's London headquarters in Euston Road. By then he had married Margaret, a Northallerton girl, and had two children. They set up home in St Albans, Hertfordshire. On 21 December 1956 he was involved in a head-on crash at Newark railway bridge and his wife and four-year-old daughter, Jennifer, were killed. His son, Anthony, survived, and Weighell himself escaped with a broken jaw but spent three months in hospital. The other driver, whose pregnant wife was also killed, was charged with dangerous driving.

After convalescence he considered giving up union work but, at 34, he realised that he a son to raise. In November 1959 he remarried. He had met Joan in Manchester, where she was a market researcher.

In his maiden speech to the Labour Party conference in 1966 Weighell had the audacity to oppose the legendary Frank Cousins of the giant transport union over incomes policy and his belief in pay restraint as part of a planned economy led him into numerous battles with the left. The previous year he had been elected Assistant General Secretary of the NUR and in 1969 became Senior AGS, deputising for Greene whenever the need arose. In October 1972 he was elected to the trade-union section of Labour's National Executive Committee and stayed for three years.

He ran for the post of General Secretary early in 1975 when Greene retired after 17 years and won convincingly. His first battle with the government of the day was over pay and he won a handsome deal for his members after going to the brink of strike action. He felt justice had been done and that the union had emerged from a crisis with its reputation intact.

It was a tragedy to see him hissed to the rostrum at conferences by left-wingers who dished out the same childish treatment to the right-wing electricians' leader Eric Hammond. His speeches were short and to the point and always hit a raw nerve with his critics. He was an admirer of the former Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan but criticised him for delaying the general election and introducing a pay limit that could not be sustained. But he put the full blame for Labour's electoral disaster in May 1979 on his brother unions.

In his autobiography he dismissed his predecessor, Sir Sidney Greene, in just a few lines and observed that he was a man he could not understand. He dismissed his successor, Jimmy Knapp, even more contemptuously, describing him as a creature of the "hard left" and bemoaned the fact that his preferred successor, Charlie Turnock, did not win the election.

In retirement he moved from his home in Bishop's Stortford back to Yorkshire, to Harrogate, where he pursued his hobby of trout fishing and found time to become president of a railway preservation society.

Terry Pattinson