Obituary: Johnnie Walker

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The Independent Online
Johnnie Walker, engine driver and trade-union leader; born Millhill, Edinburgh, 27 January 1921; Scottish Secretary, Aslef 1971-86; married 1942 Agnes (Nessie) Towns (one son); died East Kilbride 13 October 1994.

'ALEC DOUGLAS-HOME knows all about hunting and shooting - but I know more than the Prime Minister does about hooting and shunting.' Such was the style of Johnnie Walker when he came to public notice as a firebrand member of Aslef (the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen) in the early 1960s.

Over the following 25 years, Walker grew into a considerable trade-union leader, welcomed by trade-union colleagues in Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa as a serious thinker and a kindred spirit, and chairman of the Labour Party in Scotland in 1986.

Walker was born in 1921 into a railway family in the east of Edinburgh, attending Musselburgh Grammar School. Obliged to leave school for family financial reasons at the age of 14, he became a lifelong champion of spending on education, believing passionately that the working class deserved nothing but the best. He acknowledged his own debt to his scholarly teacher James Craigie, head of the English Department at Musselburgh Grammar School and later President of the Education Institute of Scotland. Walker would tell friends that Craigie gave him his first love of reading books.

Craigie in turn would purr with pleasure at his unlikely pupil's success in public life. And, like his left-wing friends and contemporaries in the Scottish trade- union movement Lawrence Daly, Mick McGahey and Jimmy Jack, secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress, Walker was very well read.

Woe betide anyone so foolish as to try to patronise him.

Walker left school on a Friday afternoon and started work at St Margaret's Depot, Meadowbank, at 6am the following Monday morning as an engine cleaner.

Throughout his life he held that no youngster should be in the position of leaving school without knowing what he or she would be doing within the week. 'I believe every young person should know that they have a function in society.' No man was more scornful from a public platform at the suggestion that there was no such thing as 'society'.

Promoted to Edinburgh Haymarket as a fireman, Walker was one of a number of young men encouraged to be active in the trade- union movement, and his own Society (the word was very important to him) of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen, by the then Secretary of the Edinburgh Trades Council, George Lawson, later MP for Motherwell, and arguably the best Burns orator of his generation. Walker was no mean Burns orator-philosopher himself.

At the outbreak of war, Walker was assigned to the Carlisle depot as a driver. A frequent visitor after the war to the Soviet Union, he would dwell on the sufferings of the Russian people in Kursk, Stalingrad and Leningrad and elsewhere, saying as an aside: 'I only had a taste of it, taking trains from the north into London during the Blitz and the V-bombers, which was no joke.' Walker used his position in the Scottish Trades Union Congress to promote the concept of Scots-Russian relations arising out of the Murmansk convoys and much else.

In 1971, Walker was appointed full-time Scottish Secretary of Aslef and for the next 15 years served his members with outstanding effect. He was also a stalwart in forging a close bond with the National Union of Mineworkers. His period of greatest influence and political activity came during the dispute of 1984-85, when, incensed by references to 'the enemy within', he gave the miners enormous support both during and particularly after the strike, when he was an active member of the Victimised Miners' Trust Board. After retirement he continued to take a special interest in the problems not only of railwaymen but of miners as a founding member of the Scottish Pensioners' Forum.

Those MPs who were involved in constituency cases know at first hand that Walker was held in affectionate respect and took enormous trouble to help his individual members. Not surprisingly, he was held in equal regard by the management of the railways in Scotland, who recognised him as a genuine socialist, a dour fighter for his members' interests, but a man who when he had reached an agreement would keep it through hell and high water.

Yesterday, Chris Green, General Manager of ScotRail from 1979 to 1986 and later Managing Director of Network SouthEast and of InterCity, told me: 'I worked closely with Johnnie Walker throughout the 1980s. He held the respect of every railwayman regardless of their position and was never slow to express his opinion. He combined an innate common sense with a love for both ScotRail and Aslef.'

Above all, Johnnie Walker, supported by his wife Nessie, will be remembered by his many friends as wonderful company over a dram and a raconteur of screechingly funny and good-humoured anecdotes. He was a life-enhancer to the trade-union movement and the Left in Scotland.

(Photograph omitted)