Profile: Trying to save our trains and his skin: Jimmy Knapp, driving force behind the railway strikes

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The Independent Online
JIMMY KNAPP, the man behind the rolling rail strikes, has been looking a little pained recently. But it is not the thought of infuriated commuters - or fear of confrontation with the Government - that has disturbed the bruiser with the almost incomprehensible Ayrshire accent.

Mr Knapp's pain is physical. The poor chap has a hernia, which is playing up. Recently he was called into St Thomas's for an operation. At the last moment it was postponed. Mr Knapp was minded to complain to the local health authority. It turned out that the chairman was Sir Bob Reid, who also chairs British Rail. Mr Knapp abandoned the idea, but has been heard to say with a chuckle that Sir Robert is not only incapable of running a railroad, he cannot even schedule a minor operation.

Jimmy Knapp, who runs the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (the old NUR), is not the dour and threatening trade union dinosaur he seems. He is younger, jollier and more pragmatic. Though he looks a good decade older, Knapp is only 52. He enjoys a joke and a Scotch or two, follows Crystal Palace, is a keen hill walker and a serious gardener.

Three years ago he shocked his colleagues when he left his wife, Sylvia, after 25 years of marriage, in favour of a German trade union official, Eva Leigh.

BR's public relations experts suspect that Knapp comes across unexpectedly well on television. 'No doubt he is kind to animals, too, but that is not the point,' says one BR man who has been negotiating with Mr Knapp for years. 'The question is not whether Brother Knapp is as menacing or antediluvian as he seems. It is whether he is as smart as he would like to think he is. He is hardly a grammar school boy, you know]'

This is a sly dig. Shortly before he was elected general secretary for life back in 1983, Mr Knapp, then a little known national officer, had wanted to stand for the post of assistant general secretary. In those days, the union had a curious rule: those hoping to run for full-time jobs (except, conveniently, the top spot) had to sit an examination. It was regarded as a formality. Mr Knapp managed to flunk and was debarred from standing.

His friends mutter that the results were fixed by conspiratorial right-wingers. His enemies enjoy keeping the issue alive. Meanly, they draw people's attention to the thought that Jimmy was not even bright enough to stand for the NUR's second slot.

The critics' point is that the current dispute, which many see as doomed to failure, is very much Mr Knapp's personal idea, in spite of the evidence that his executive committee is looking for a scrap. He is the driving force behind the series of one-day strikes that resumes next week. They have been called in an effort to force British Rail to renounce the hypothetical possibility of compulsory redundancies at some stage on the way to privatisation.

To the outsider it may well seem a bit pointless. The board insists that it has no plans for large-scale redundancies. In any case, the indications are that many railway workers would take redundancy voluntarily. Last year, when BR sought to buy out some 8,000 jobs, thousands too many applied.

However, BR has said, predictably enough, that to give in to Mr Knapp's demand would be to guarantee railway workers jobs for life; a guarantee which - now the Dock Labour Scheme has gone - no other British workers can boast. As such it is an impossible, non-negotiable claim, one which BR and the Government suspect will attract little sympathy from commuters, aware that their own jobs are not necessarily secure. What is Our Jimmy playing at?

The answer is that Mr Knapp thinks he is being smart. First, he knows his members are genuinely angry and afraid about the implications of the complex privatisation plans now being drawn up by John MacGregor, Secretary of State for Transport.

Moreover, Mr Knapp was much impressed by the wave of public support for the mine workers last autumn during the dispute over pit closures - and the damage done to the Government. He is convinced that the public is even more fed up with the Government's inept treatment of the railways than it is with Michael Heseltine's handling of planned pit closures.

If Arthur Scargill can re-emerge unexpectedly as something of a middle-class, home counties folk hero, why not Jimmy Knapp? This question must have occurred to the leader of the RMT. (There is a particular irony here. In the Seventies, Scargill was one of Knapp's heroes. But Knapp was horrified by the arrogant and undemocratic manner in which the miners' strike of 1984/5 was conducted - and by the casual manner in which the mine workers alienated public opinion and the support of other unions. He vowed never to make the same mistakes.)

Now Mr Knapp reckons that he can capitalise on both the unease in his union and the changed national mood. 'They (the public) ride on the bloody trains,' he told a sceptical colleague recently. 'They know it's not our fault the service is lousy. They'll support us.'

Mr Knapp probably does believe that the public will rally behind striking railwaymen in defence of the latter's jobs within a nationalised rail system. He comes from a decent, if ingrown, Scottish socialist culture where everybody but everybody rallied round and fought redundancies and defended the public sector.

When he left Kilmarnock Academy at 15, Mr Knapp went to work in a signal box. Immediately the union became his life. Within three years he was a lay official. At 31 he became a full-timer, first in Scotland and then in Unity House, the NUR's London headquarters.

It was a career conducive to the preservation of eternal socialist verities. He once boasted: 'I'm no different now to what I was then. Without the principles I got then, I would be nothing.'

But there is a further, strictly pragmatic reason for bellicosity on the part of Mr Knapp. He is up for re-election next year - ironically as a result of Margaret Thatcher's union reform legislation, which imposes periodic re-election on union officials. Mr Knapp may feel he must flex his militant muscles.

He faces likely challenges from the hard left and the old right. If Mr Knapp could somehow put himself at the head of a dispute, popular with his members and tolerated by the passengers - and gain some sort of victory - he could protect both his flanks. It is a big if.

During the campaign for the union's leadership in 1983, Mr Knapp was denounced as an extremist by his predecessor Sidney Weighell. 'Wet behind the ears. A stooge of the Communist and Trotskyite left. A disaster for the union.' These were some of the milder phrases employed by Mr Weighell, the right-winger who stepped down unexpectedly after a row over the manner in which he had miscast his union's vote at the preceding annual Labour Party conference.

In truth, Mr Knapp was never part of the hard left, which emerged in a number of unions in the Seventies and early Eighties. When he ran for the top job in the NUR, the hard men and women sought a candidate to oppose him. It was only when they failed to find one that they offered Mr Knapp their reluctant endorsement. He rejected it and won anyway. Like so many of his kind, Mr Knapp subsequently proved a loyal supporter of Neil Kinnock and the Labour Party's revisionist policy review. He is now a dedicated John Smith man.

Knapp is a professional union official by trade, and an old-fashioned Bevanite by origin. He won in 1983 because he was seen as the anti-establishment candidate by an electorate that had grown increasingly vexed by both the arrogance of Mr Weighell and the extremism of his left-wing enemies.

Mr Knapp's quarrel with his predecessor was then a matter of style as well as substance. Weighell had allegedly failed to follow instructions from annual conference, just as he had supposedly withheld correspondence from his executive, which he held in contempt. Mr Knapp was a strict constitutionalist. He also believed, as did so many left-wingers of his generation, that the membership shared his old-fashioned socialist convictions.

Then, two years after his election, Mr Knapp suffered humiliation at the hands of those members. He misinterpreted the militant mood of his national executive committee as being at one with that of the rank-and-file. He became an enthusiastic advocate of strikes against the introduction of driver-only trains. The issue went to ballot. Mr Knapp campaigned hard for stoppages, but the voters rejected his advice.

Since then - at least until now - Mr Knapp has been careful not to mistake the zeal of activists for the views of the rank and file. For example, he proclaimed his acceptance of statutory strike ballots before it became fashionable on the left to do so. By 1985 he had persuaded his conference that it would be both impractical and improper to defy the trade union legislation. Other unions were less far-sighted and lost substantial sums before coming to terms with the law.

Similarly, Mr Knapp has been aware of the need to woo rather than alienate the public. This was why he allowed the trains to run yesterday. And it was at his instigation that the union some months ago hired a snazzy PR company, Union Communications, in an attempt to persuade restive rail commuters that they share a common interest in confounding Mr MacGregor's knavish tricks.

The tactic has been to persuade the public that the Government is unfairly denying investment to the railways and that this - and not union Luddism - explains falling standards. The union has tried to make common cause with Tory MPs whose constituents fear services will be cut and lines closed. It has, with considerable success, presented the complex privatisation plans as unworkable and ideologically motivated.

But the new alliance between railway workers and passengers is far from secure. BR and the Government are gambling that it will be strained to breaking point if disruptive stoppages over some apparently arcane issue continue for long. However unfairly, Mr Knapp could come to personify the unacceptable face of unionism for the Nineties.