On Friday 3 March Paul Whetton, miner, trade union militant, socialist and Workers’ Liberty collaborator, died aged 66. It was the 21st anniversary of the end of the great miners’ strike of 1984-85. John Bloxam remembers him.
On 3 March 1985, the National Union of Mineworkers delegate conference voted 98 to 91 to return to work without a settlement, but as a still-intact union. Paul lobbied against the return, arguing with other left wingers that the strike should continue until 700 sacked miners got their jobs back. Having been out-voted, however, he was part of the disciplined return to work.
In most pits, the strikers marched back to work en masse behind the union banner. At Bevercotes, Paul’s pit in the North Notts coalfield, there was a no less defiant return to work, but by then the strikers were a small minority. Even at the height of the strike, a majority of the Nottinghamshire miners were scabbing; by the end less than 10% were still out, remaining loyal to the strike despite huge odds.
Paul came from a Derbyshire mining family, and quickly absorbed the history of miners’ struggles. As he explained: “Ever since I started in the pits, I’ve been preached at, talked at and argued with about the 1926 strike by people like my grandfather and others who went through it.” His family were forced to move for work to the neighbouring Nottinghamshire coalfield in the late 1960s, when the Labour government’s pit closure programme decimated the Derbyshire coalfield. Paul started work at the new Bevercotes pit and at the time of the strike was NUM branch secretary. He was also a left wing activist both nationally in the NUM, and locally in the Notts Area through the Notts Miners’ Forum.
The Notts coalfield has a history of conservatism and right wing domination — the first to return to work in the 1926 strike; the home of the breakaway, “Spencer” company union; the champions of the 1977 bonus incentive scheme. In the 1983 national ballot only 19% of Notts miners voted to support the South Wales strike over pit closures. At the beginning of 1984 there was strong resistance from both leaders and rank and file miners to supporting the strike that had started in South Yorkshire.
There was also resistance in other NUM areas, but they nevertheless joined what was becoming a national strike. In Nottinghamshire there was a different outcome because of the Area’s history, because of the vacillation of the Area officials in the crucial first month of the strike, and because the Tory government threw the full weight of the state behind ensuring that the Notts coalfield kept working and the pickets were kept out.
Paul was out on strike from the beginning, and worked tirelessly with his comrades for the next year to win the strike. Despite being an embattled minority in an area which the Tory government turned into a semi-police state, the Notts strikers and their families maintained picketing at both the pits and neighbouring power stations; organised fundraising and feeding; and spoke at countless meetings throughout the country, and abroad, arguing the case for solidarity. Later in the strike they sent pickets to help stem scabbing in the South Yorkshire pits. The then NUM National Secretary, Peter Heathfield, described the Notts strikers as “the foundation of the NUM”.
If there had been a strong lead from the Notts Area officials from day one, when the Yorkshire pickets came into Nottinghamshire, then a significant section of the coalfield could have been brought out; without this lead, there was confusion and many militants were isolated. In response to this situation the Notts Miners’ Rank and File Strike Committee was established in Ollerton on 10 April, and remained in existence throughout the strike.
Paul was the strike committee’s secretary. Paul: “If it hadn’t been for the formation of the Rank and File Strike Committee... the strike in Notts would have crumbled very quickly; and we would have had the whole of the Notts coalfield churning out its full quota of coal. In fact, the Rank and File Strike Committee made a very valuable contribution in keeping the police away from other areas; keeping production down and raising the political debate, the political arguments.”
As a socialist, Paul saw the politicisation of mining communities during the strike as tremendously important, and he did what he could to contribute to that. He wrote a “Diary of a striker” in the pages of Socialist Organiser (forerunner of Solidarity), organised SO meetings in the coalfield and spoke on SO and many other platforms outside. He applauded and supported Women Against Pit Closures, and the women’s involvement in the strike. He remained active in the Labour Party, and encouraged strikers to join “the working class political party” to change it, and get rid of right wing domination.
He was Newark Constituency Labour Party’s conference delegate in 1984. At Labour’s Conference he issued an open letter to then Labour leader Neil Kinnock, calling on him to support the strike and get off the fence. He spoke at the Conference:
“If you want to back us, show this by firm commitment .... ‘This conference condemns the police violence used against the miners’.” Paul called for “clear, unequivocal, out-and-out commitment to the miners, not walking past the bucket, dropping a fiver in and saying ‘we like the miners’.”
Throughout the strike, the fighting spirit of Paul and his comrades was magnificent. This was one of the greatest strikes, one of the great heroic battles, in the history of the British working class movement. In the end the miners were defeated because they were isolated, not through any lack of militancy or commitment. Faced by a Tory government with 100% ruling class support and power at their disposal, the miners fought on despite insufficient support and sometimes outright sabotage from the leaders of most of the labour movement.
If there had been a Paul Whetton in many, if not most, of the major workplaces in Britain, then the miners could have won. The tragedy of the strike was that this situation did not exist. Paul spoke about this in the middle of the strike:
“The fight has got to go on after this dispute .... The Triple Alliance fell flat on its face because it had been organised and conducted by full-time officials, and the rank and file did not get involved. (We need to) organise rank and file members in the pits, docks and factories, and take forward the arguments about a workers’ government and workers’ control...” (speaking to a Socialist Organiser meeting in July 1984).
When they returned to work, Paul and his comrades had to face both management and scab organisers at the pit, intent on keeping the NUM weak and working for a tame, breakaway company union. Paul and his comrades organised a fierce campaign in defence of the NUM, and to win back the rank and file from what became the scab Thatcher-loyal UDM. For this activity Paul was sacked and, although he won a tribunal against unfair dismissal, the bosses refused to reinstate him at Bevercotes. They said, “the future of Bevercotes colliery might be jeopardised by industrial unrest”. He was forced to get a job at Manton pit, where he remained active until injured in a pit accident in the 90s. Paul was medically retired and didn’t work again.
Throughout this he kept up his union and political activity. Paul was a regular face on the Justice for Mineworkers stalls at every labour movement event, and fought tirelessly for his victimised comrades, including the 26 Notts miners sacked by the Coal Board. He continued to speak at Socialist Organiser events and meetings, and carried on his “Whetton’s Week” column in Socialist Organiser into the 1990s, commenting as a working class socialist militant on developments in the coalfields and political events outside.
Seeing the need for political organisation and activity, Paul publicly associated himself with Socialist Organiser and encouraged miners and their families to join the organisation. He was proud of Socialist Organiser, and the role it played in the strike and afterwards. Many considered Paul a member, although in fact he did not join but remained a close collaborator.
Paul argued his own point of view in Socialist Organiser’s “Whetton’s Week”, even when he occasionally disagreed with us. Sometimes he thought the criticism of other left wingers too public and too harsh; he also felt the paper was too ready to support opposition movements in the Stalinist states. This last view, however, was put into perspective when miners were faced with increasing imports of Polish coal during the strike. Paul was characteristically clear about where he stood on this – against the role of the Stalinist bureaucrats and their “official unions”, trying to profiteer from the strike, and for the underground Solidarnosc miners who supported the British strikers.
There are many memories of Paul as working class socialist, and mine include his love of songs celebrating solidarity and union organising. He needed little prompting to start singing, and it was no surprise that one of the first contacts Socialist Organiser had with Paul was when a group of miners burst into a song about Rosa Luxemburg in the Ollerton Miners’ Welfare.
“The ballad of Joe Hill” was one of Paul’s favourites. Joe Hill was shot in Utah, USA on trumped up charges in 1916, aged 33. His real “crime” had been that he was a militant union organiser. Shortly before his death, Joe Hill gave an interview expressing sentiments that Paul shared:
“Tomorrow I expect to take a trip to the planet Mars and, if so, will immediately commence to organise the Mars canal workers into the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) and we will sing the good old songs so loud that the learned stargazers will once and for all get positive proof that the planet Mars is really inhabited … I have nothing to say for myself, only that I have always tried to make this earth a little bit better.”
In the last years of enforced unemployment, Paul spent more time with his close family — his wife Mo, children and grandchildren. He spoke with pride and joy about watching the new generation growing up. He left the Labour Party during the 90s, in disgust at the Blairite takeover and feeling increasingly isolated. But he remained a staunch socialist and militant.
Paul spoke at the AWL Summer School in 2004 on the miners’ strike. There was still the huge smile and firm greeting (“hello comrade”) and the same speaking style — always without notes (they confused him, he said), but always eloquent. He spoke about the strike and its lessons with the same sparkle, spirit and pride that we had heard many times before, 20 years ago and more. And the message at the end remained unchanged: “The fight goes on, comrades.”
Paul’s death is a personal blow to those who regarded him as a good friend and comrade, but he would have been the first to say “don’t mourn, organise.” He was a lovely man, and we will miss him. And to his family, who supported him throughout his life, we would like to express our condolences and solidarity.
• Comrades who want details of Paul’s funeral should ring 020 7207 3997.