Ian Whyles, a member of the Socialist Party and its predecessor Militant for 34 years, has died aged 78. Ian was a miner at Whitwell Colliery, North Derbyshire, where he played an important role in the 1984-85 miners’ strike against pit closures. Whitwell was closed in 1986 but Ian continued the struggle to change to society for the rest of his life.
Ian’s father fought in World War One but never spoke about it. He refused to go on Armistice Day parades, telling his young son that some of those on them never had anything to do with the real war.
During Ian’s childhood his dad was seriously injured at Whitwell pit. Ian recalled how he couldn’t work and “was chucked on the scrapheap.” Their home had a shared outside toilet down a long yard. “We were so poor it made you want to change the world,” said Ian. He won a place at grammar school and could have continued in education, but went down the pit aged 15.
When he was 43 a workmate introduced him to Alan Alberry, a Militant supporter in the nearby village of Clowne. Ian found there were others who shared his views and who organised to change society. He joined Militant.
A few months later Ian had a heart attack while underground. He later wrote a vivid article for Militant describing being stretchered out of the pit.
“I used to sell up to 22 copies of the Militant outside the pit each week,” Ian recalled. “The NUM Secretary, a right-wing Labour Party member, said to me, ‘You can’t stand on the road selling those.’ I said, ‘That’s a good idea. I’ll stand inside – in the [pit-head] baths!’ ” He would go up and down the rows of lockers delivering papers, collecting the money on pay day.
Local right-wing Labour Party members “didn’t want us in the party. All they wanted to do was talk about drains. I’d had a heart attack when I’d applied to join and my mate came to see me. ‘I’ve got some bad news,’ he said. ‘They don’t want us. They’ve turned us down!’ Dennis Skinner had to put pressure on the branch to accept us.
“Then at our first meeting, I sat down to be told I was sat in someone’s chair! After we started to speak, one right-winger threw his hat down and said, ‘That’s it – if this is going to be political I’m not coming again!’ (He never did.)”
Ian took part in Militant miners’ national meetings and understood that the coming battle was for the future, not just of the immediately threatened pits, but also pits like Whitwell and their communities.
“When the strike started in Yorkshire I was getting ready to go down the pit. Three youths got out of a car and asked for directions to Welbeck pit in Notts. I said to them, ‘You’d better come and stand on our gate.’
“The NUM branch president came over to talk to them and said ‘We’ll have a meeting.’ They spoke in the canteen, when the shift voted to walk out. Then there was a meeting of all shifts at the Welfare, which voted to stay out.”
Some months into the strike, his son who also worked at Whitwell, went back to work. TV and press reporters returned to this for the rest of Ian’s life. After bitter experiences where his words were distorted, Ian refused to speak to the media when they contacted him. But earlier this year in the run-up to the 30th anniversary, a Radio Times reporter turned up on his doorstep. Ian agreed to talk about the village 30 years after the strike, but when he saw the article that was printed, his only comment was “Terrible.”
In the final week of the exhausting year-long strike, Ian had another serious heart attack. He didn’t get back to work until September, almost 18 months after walking out. “At the end of the strike, it affected people who’d fought so hard to win,” said Ian. “It was like bursting a tyre – after all the effort, it was no longer needed. People felt deflated.
“I didn’t see it though. I was in hospital. It gave me time to sit and think. I read our paper and Trotsky’s autobiography, ‘My Life’. We had ‘Militant’ meetings and discussions. ‘Militant’ saw the reasons for how it ended. We realised it had needed a general strike to win and had been calling for this for months.”
Ian could have finished work on health grounds but chose to return underground and keep up the fight in the NUM. After Whitwell closed Ian never got another job. Instead he threw his energies into his local community.
In 1989 as a voluntary youth worker, he took five young people on an overnight coach trip to Glasgow to join the demonstration against the poll tax.
He became a school governor, then chair of governors. When the county council made cuts to school meals, two men in suits came to see the kitchen staff. Ian joined the women, fighting to stop cuts in their hours. Only at the end of the meeting did they find out that one of the ‘suits’ – silent throughout – was actually the union convenor!
Ian’s integrity, willingness to help others, modesty and dry humour won him many friends and widespread respect. When he stood in local elections, he got one of the highest percentage votes of any Socialist Party candidate in the country.
In recent years Ian’s care responsibilities and travel difficulties prevented him from attending Socialist Party meetings but he kept up his interest with regular discussions and maintained his generous financial support. Only two days before his unexpected death he bought his copy of Socialism Today, paying £5 as usual.
Ian was a fighter for his class. His commitment and selflessness remain an inspiration to his comrades. East Midlands Socialist Party members send their condolences, particularly to Muriel and Rachel.
- Ian’s funeral is on 7 July at 1.30pm, Chesterfield Crematorium
This is a longer version of the obituary carried in issue 817 of the Socialist.
A Civil War Without Guns
The lessons of the 1984-85 miners’ strike
by Ken Smith
Just £7 + p&p
- Available at www.leftbooks.co.uk or call 020 8988 8789