"I can't hold my members back any longer" was Ray Buckton's favourite and ominous quote during spells of industrial strife on the railways; and it would provide an appropriate epitaph for the man all commuters loved to hate. Once dubbed "The Most Unpopular Man in Britain" in a newspaper poll, railway passengers probably detested him more than they loathed politicians. Buckton's public image, however, was known to them only via the hostile media. Had they known Buckton as an individual they would probably have learned to respect and even to like him.
Buckton was leader of the train drivers' union Aslef (Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen) during some of the labour movement's most tempestuous years. When rail passengers vented their spleen after waiting on cold platforms during periods of industrial action, he accepted that, as general secretary, he was paid to take the blame - even though he did not have a vote on the union's national nine-man executive committee. His was the face and the voice behind the union and militant officials at regional and national level were more than content to let him bear the opprobrium for their decisions.
An "idealistic socialist", Buckton was reluctant to reveal his own personal feelings during times of rail disruption, a stance which infuriated many interviewers. Instead, he blamed British Rail bosses for problems, particularly over pay, and never his members; at the same time he took great pains to sympathise at all times with the long-suffering public. Commuters, however, accused him of insincerity and were not shy to let him know their feelings when they met him. In the East End of London someone hurled a tin of paint over his car when he stopped at traffic lights.
His small but irritatingly powerful union was often regarded as a rogue elephant within the union movement and Aslef's enemies even included the former National Union of Railwaymen (now RMT). Only in recent times have the two enjoyed genuine fraternal relations and much of the credit for that was due to Buckton's charm and a desire to wipe out bitter memories of the past.
He was admired within the labour and union ranks as a staunch trade unionist and defender of the weak. He was a big, gregarious, amiable man who loved a drink and a chat with everyone who wanted to speak to him. He was never the type to hide behind his wife or secretary and he always faced the flak when the going got rough.
Buckton possessed the genial features of a comedian or an old Red Indian chief like Sitting Bull, and had a great sense of humour. When he was seriously ill in hospital he was visited by a union official he disliked. Buckton pretended to be asleep and feigned snoring, opening his eyes only when the man had left. "I thought that bugger would never go," he told the nurse. Singsongs after conferences were never complete without Buckton and his mouth-organ accompaniment.
During times of industrial action he and his wife, Barbara, suffered death threats, violence, broken windows, abusive telephone calls and poison- pen letters, not to mention filth pushed through their letter-box. Buckton was kicked, punched, battered with brollies and abused more than once during strikes. On one occasion he was attacked after a train from Chester to Euston, on which he was a passenger, arrived a minute early. One commuter wrote to him calling him the "greatest traitor since Guy Fawkes". In the media's eyes, he was a left-wing ogre, although he maintained a close friendship with a handful of industrial correspondents.
In TUC circles, he was a character, always approachable and always helpful to newcomers, even the press.
Consumed with self-interest I once asked him if trains would be running normally from Waterloo station in London that night. "No problem," was the reply. "My men won't do anything without instructions from their national executive." When I arrived at Waterloo all trains had been grounded by unofficial - some called it wildcat - industrial action. When I pointed out to him the following day that his members had "jumped the gun" and defied their leadership, he said: "It just goes to show how angry they are. Even I didn't realise how furious they had become because of the intransigence of the railways board."
He was a friend of the publishing tycoon Robert Maxwell, a friendship which caused him great embarrassment when the extent of Maxwell's frauds became known. Buckton was not alone, however, in falling for Maxwell's charisma, and supported him when he became the Labour MP for Buckingham in 1970.
Maxwell did not forget his old friend, and when, years later, he heard about Buckton's illness he paid for his treatment in a private ward. He also embarrassed the union leader by sending him exotic food too rich to eat.
In an era of impressive left-wing public speakers Buckton was no great orator, but his warmth and sincerity won the hearts and minds of many an audience. During one passionate transport debate at the annual Trades Union Congress he almost fell backwards from the rostrum, an action which endeared him even more to the faithful.
His real skills lay in negotiating and he was a negotiating-table gladiator, much respected by the employers.
Ray Buckton was born in Yorkshire, one of a family of seven, and his upbringing was hard. His father was a farm worker on a large estate and it was a background which led to his being dragooned into the Tory Junior Imperial League. "You had to be a member," he remembered, "to get to their sausage and mash supper." It was his first and only link with what he described as the Conservative enemy.
Two of his uncles worked on the railway and it was there that he found his future, first as an engine cleaner and then on the footplate chuffing along the York-to-Scarborough line. It was the start, too of a life in Labour politics, and he boasted that he became the youngest alderman in Britain at the age of 33 in York.
Although he witnessed a revolution in the working of the railway system, he was told once by a former chairman of British Rail, "You belong in the steam age." This was cruel and probably meant that Buckton had won another one per cent rise at the negotiating table. Buckton believed in a fully integrated national transport system and could not understand why, for the sake of the economy and jobs, successive governments did not invest heavily in every aspect of public transport.
Buckton's work and his colleagues were his university and he even interrupted his honeymoon to attend a TUC course. His wife did not mind because she was a train driver's daughter. In later years he even called his Jack Russell terrier "TUC". Politically, he stood unrepentantly on the Left of the Labour Party but when he became chairman of the TUC during the 1983-84 coal strike he demonstrated qualities of healer and peacemaker. He was one of the few TUC elders respected by the militant miners' leader Arthur Scargill.
During the miners' dispute he urged fellow trade unionists to respect picket lines and not do the work of the strikers. When he opened the 1984 Congress as President he condemned Margaret Thatcher's anti-union rhetoric and declared that "mutual solidarity" was the theme of that year's conference. He said: "Solidarity can sometimes be hard to deliver. Some of our own members require a lot of argument and persuasion before they will take a risk on someone else's behalf. It is all too easy to ignore someone else's problems, but it is no good in the long run."
He accused Thatcher of "sheer ferocity" in her attack on the unions and condemned her decision to smash the unions at the GCHQ "spy" centre. He said her comments on the "enemy within" were "venom". Referring to rising unemployment and poverty, he said: "Britain is now a country ruled by fear, the fear of being ill, of losing your job, of not being able to keep up at work, of growing old."
He told the Labour conference that same year: "The most important things in life are not videos and home computers but a job, decent housing, a proper standard of health care and good schooling for our children."
Like other union chiefs of his generation, he fought hard for better pensions, and condemned the Government for abolishing the state earnings- related pension scheme (Serps).
Buckton had joined the railways at 16 and became active in the union in 1940 when employed in the York locomotive deport. He was proud to have served as fireman on the Flying Scotsman. He joined the union as soon as he started work, combining union activity with membership of the Labour Party League of Youth. He was elected assistant general secretary of Aslef in 1963 and won the top job in 1970.
He was a member of York City Council before resigning to take up full- time work with Aslef and was a member of the TUC General Council from 1973 to 1986. He led Aslef for 17 years from 1970 until his retirement in 1987. His years in power were not all victorious and his union even lost its seat on the General Council while he was in hospital. "That's democracy for you," he quipped, but his wife was furious at his "betrayal".
Aslef's most humiliating defeat was in 1982 when they were bushwhacked by the resilient rail board over "flexible rostering". The TUC even twisted the knife by urging the train drivers to return to work.
Aslef under his leadership made more sacrifices than any other supporting union during the miners' strike and he said the trade unions' failure to implement the TUC's resolution in support of the miners was the biggest disappointment of his life.
During his early months of retirement he helped a friend open a Brazilian restaurant in Bushey, Hertfordshire, before settling with his wife in a villa in Albufeira, Portugal, where he said the climate agreed with him.
He continued to serve on a host of advisory committees because he was a natural committee man. He suffered criticism over his decision to join the board of Nirex, the British nuclear waste executive, but explained that he was not against nuclear power, only nuclear weapons.
He worked until 5pm on his last day at Aslef, arranging help for the widow of a driver killed in a crash. His departing words to the 1987 TUC were: "May the people of the world unite in peace and friendship."
Terry PattinsonReuse content