Bob Crow: Beligerent, Bolshy, British

I'm currently reading Dominic Sandbrook's book about Britain in the mid-70s. "Seasons in the Sun" runs through the political and industrial malaise of forty years ago, and it really does feel like another age.

It's one of big personalities, harsh enmities, and intractable divisions. Bob Crow probably wouldn't have been as big a name in the era of Red Robbo, lost in a sea of left-wing activism.

But in our time, Bob Crow became a brand-name - the symbol of a strident union activism we thought had been killed off by the Thatcher era. Without question, Britain's best-known trade unionist.

Bob Crow sometimes called himself a "communist-socialist" -- but whether he really was, or whether it was just clever branding, is perhaps up for debate.

What's without question is that he believed unions were central to securing justice for working people -- as much in the 1970s, even though their power had manifestly faded.

You would never have imagined Bob Crow as powerless. For London commuters, he was a pantomime villain -- his name became synonymous with threats of transport chaos. Often, those threatened strikes never materialised -- the threat alone enough to wring concessions from managers.

Even those he most virulently opposed came to admire his tenacity.

Just as many loathed him, especially those forced to fight for space on an overcrowded bus on another Tube strike day. But he consistently got the best deal he could for his members -- the high pay enjoyed by Tube drivers is in large part down to his refusal to compromise.

The RMT's motto is "Agitate, Educate, Organise". Bob Crow was a living embodiment of that philosophy, often seeming to relish his status as a bolshy villain.

His sudden death comes at a time of great change for the workers he led. It's too soon to establish how they will fare without him -- but breaking free of his shadow will be a huge challenge for whoever succeeds him.