Intransigently brave

Mark Fischer remembers Paul Whetton, a former member of the CPGB and an outstanding rank and file miners' leader during the Great Strike of 1984-85, who died on March 3

I have two particularly fond memories of Paul Whetton. I first interviewed the comrade in August 1984, travelling to his home in Notts to meet him.

I recall laboriously unwinding leads and disentangling plugs from the antiquated recording equipment I had lugged up there with me. Meanwhile Paul - sitting silent and inscrutable at his kitchen table - suspiciously eyed this flustered and fussing 21 year old youth from some dodgy Communist Party faction with a wordy paper called The Leninist.

I inserted what I thought was a blank cassette. I pressed a button. The wrong one, as it turned out, and the abrasive, white noise howl of the Gang of Four's 'Anthrax' filled his small kitchen.

"What the fuck was that?", he asked me. "Well, they're like a sort of Marxist-Leninist funk band", I told him - and watched as he dissolved into laughter. On subsequent visits, I was always made wonderfully welcome in his home and treated as a comrade - even if I was also teased about my "shite" musical tastes, his rather snap judgement on GoF from that day.

If that recollection tells you something about the warmth of the man and his ability to put you at ease, the other captures part of his greatness as a leader.

The strike was in trouble. Everyone with a brain knew it. The Miners Defence Committee had convened what purported to be an action conference in London on December 2 1984. Despite the efforts of comrades from The Leninist and Workers Power - the only two groups to come out of the Great Strike with any genuine political honour, the malign influence of Socialist Action and its Labourite ilk was to succeed in limiting this event to a rally instead of what was desperately needed - a gathering that hammered out an action plan to win active solidarity from other sections of the class with the beleaguered miners.

Paul stood up to speak at the start of the day. He expressed the hope that the coming meeting would be a "working conference, not a talking shop". He told us of the iron determination of the miners and Women Against Pit Closures movement. He spoke of their undiminished resolve that they would win. He urged us to have courage and stamina, no matter how the odds appeared stacked against us. It was inspiring, but it wasn't the whole truth.

Then somewhere in bowels of the Camden town hall, an idiot flicked the wrong switch and the whole conference was momentarily plunged into darkness. With exquisite comic timing, and with a mocking sincerity in his voice, Paul said as the lights came back up - "Bugger me, I hope that was a power cut".

It was a good joke, but it also said something very profound about the state of the strike. There were not going to be power cuts, of course. The miners desperately needed other sections of the class to move into battle if they were not to go down to defeat. In its way, the joke was emphasising to us that anything else was grasping at straws.

During 1984-85, Paul Whetton was the secretary of the unofficial Notts Rank and File Strike Committee in the fatally split area. The state recognised the strategic importance of Notts and deployed huge resources. Thus, comrade Whetton was probably the most important rank-and-file miners' leader in Britain at that time. The Leninist interviewed him on numerous occasions and he spoke at a number of our events.

I remember a modest, kind and profoundly human man, an intransigently brave workers' leader. We send our condolences to his family, friends and comrades. We all have our memories of this fine comrade, but some I have read seem to me to be a tad political selective. Thus, we felt the best farewell tribute we could make to this fiercely independent man was to let him speak in his own words.

The general strike

I think it's got to be a general strike. When the dockers came out that absolutely put the shits up the authorities, they bent over backwards, they bought off the NUR, they bought Aslef off and they've bought the dockers off. I mean it may well be that the dockers are quite happy with the short term benefits that they've got out of it; I still think they were sold out.

I still think that all they've got is an immediate short term benefit that might look very rosy now but when the miners' dispute is over and they've got to go back and talk again, it might well be that they've missed the boat, I'm certainly sure that a good many trade unionists are going to say over the next 12 to 24 months 'By god I wish we'd gone when the miners had gone' "¦.

It's going to be one hell of a demand and there is no way British capitalism is just going to sign a piece of paper and say well there you are. There will be fierce resistance but I believe that if we can heat the situation up enough to get that call for a general strike it may well be that the bureaucrats in the TUC are in charge of a horse that they cannot control and the only people that can control it are rank-and-file members who are aware of what's going on, in touch at a grass roots level, and subject to the right of total recall so that nobody's going to build a career up for himself or he'll feel himself snatched back by the seat of his pants and told 'get back in your place and you know where your place is and we'll get somebody else' "¦.

My attitude to a 24 hour general strike is that what it would mean to the ruling class in this country is another royal wedding and that's virtually all! "¦Therefore we have no option but to call for a general strike and, I would say, for an open ended general strike and not a 24 hour general strike.

The Leninist, September 1984 and March 1985

Do we need workers defence corps?

That's certainly true. We've got lads at the pit who've served in Northern Ireland and have said that the tactics of a snatch squad, dressed in lighter gear not so heavy body armour underneath, that go in, snatch the victim and out again, are the same. There are two or three of the lads who know quite well what the tactics are"¦.

But it is very difficult to convince the ordinary working bloke that there's something just over the horizon and you've got to be ready for it and you start talking about arming them up even if you're talking about pick shafts which is fair enough, it's what the Irish did with hurling sticks, I mean you'd get laughed out of the bloody Welfare.

The Leninist, September 1984

The role of women

 "¦a lot of the men came to recognise and admit that yes, a woman's place is on the picket line and they readily recognised the hard work that they'd done. Some of them were surprised that women could actually do these sort of things. Its certainly done the women good, it's certainly opened the men's eyes and I would hope that even if this dispute was settled tomorrow that that sort of thing needs to go on. Women need to be able to continue organising, not just in relation to strikes and disputes but actually having a full role to play in society whether it is in industrial disputes or just ordinary day to day living.

The Leninist, September 1984

The role of Solidarnosc and Polish coal

You've got to realise that with Solidarity, anything the church has got its dirty little paws in I'm suspicious of immediately. I mean we made ourselves very unpopular by saying so at our branch meetings, we had meetings when Solidarnosc first got off the ground and we had Poles and second generation Poles and moderates and all sorts getting up and praising Solidarity down to the bloody ground "¦We were saying at that time that if Arthur Scargill started to make the same demands as Lech Walesa he'd finish up in jail never mind with a bloody peace prize."¦

I've got a certain amount of sympathy with them but having said that the basic argument is that they must know coal is being exported to this country, they know that there is a miners' strike on, and they know that by sending that coal they are strike breaking. I think that it is the fault of the leadership and the bureaucracy, that there isn't enough contact between the rank-and file in this country and the rank-and-file in Poland.

The Leninist, September 1984

Can the Labour Party change?

Yes, but how effective that change is going to be I don't know. But I do know that what this dispute has done is politicise a hell of a lot of people; and we've gone into areas where for years the Labour Party has lain dormant and because of the need to galvanise support for the dispute it has awakened in many local parties a realisation of what they actually can achieve if they stretch themselves.

I would imagine that there is a hell of a lot of rank and file activity taking place that is going to come to fruition in a very short time when those sort of people who are being thrown up as leaders and activists at grassroots level are going to start to take over and say to the old guard, like they did when they went into Kerensky and stopped the clock, you know, 'your time's up!'

The Leninist, March 1985

Socialism and revolution

Socialism to me is inevitable. Socialism will not be achieved overnight: the first thing we have to do is destroy capitalism and it seems to me that the deeper capitalism gets into crisis the worse things get for it. The more they screw the working class of this country the more they will encounter resistance.

I think there is a possibility of a real socialist Britain. I do not see it being achieved by, you know, grabbing the rifle off the wall and dashing out into the street, but I do see it being achieved by rank and file political awareness and people saying 'well, we can actually change the system, we can play an active role', and rank and file members becoming involved in industrial disputes, political argument, political debate; and I think that that will be the first stage of a long and hard road towards a socialist Britain.

The Leninist, March 1985

Independent' trade unions in the USSR

Many people seem to have been drawn into the delusion that if anyone over there stands up and says: 'We're a democratic organisation, we're fighting for freedom', then that's automatically good, that they've got to be cheered on and supported. But I would caution comrades that there is some nasty stuff crawling out of the woodwork. There are semi-fascist organisations that have been allowed to fester inside the Soviet Union itself. And now they are raising their ugly heads.

The Leninist, August 31 1990

On trade union unity

I'm a member of an organisation, the NUM, that not so many years ago was rightwing, in particular in the Yorkshire Area. There were some very shady characters. We had Joe Gormley as national president and Len Clerk as area president! I had no time for either of them, or their politics. Scargill himself will tell you a story about being beaten up before and after branch meetings. But to say 'I don't like the organisation - sod it. I'll go and start my own union' is wrong. That is exactly what the authorities would like us to do. They would like 50,000 miners in 50,000 unions, that is, every man for himself.

The Leninist, August 31 1990

On the possibility of militants joining the scab Union of Democratic Miners to gain a hearing

I could see the logical and tactical reasons for doing that. Again, it is a matter of the pace at which you do it. I'm telling you now, if I was to go and suggest at my pit that workers say 'We're on a loser, let's go in with [the scab leader] Roy Lynk and try to change it from inside', then in 24 hours you'd find me hanging from the head stocks "¦ it may be an option we've got to come to eventually, but it will be a last resort.

The Leninist, November 1985