The Court of Appeal has been forced to admit some particles of the truth about one of the greatest injustices ever imposed on striking workers in Britain.
On Tuesday judges cleared 24 trade unionists who picketed during the 1972 national builders’ strike. In a series of political show trials they were fitted up for offences including unlawful assembly, conspiracy to intimidate and affray.
It has taken nearly half a century for a bit of the truth to come out.
The cruel sentences imposed were as high as three years imprisonment. Workers and their families had their lives wrecked. Many never worked again because of the slurs on their names.
Ricky Tomlinson, who was sentenced to two years in jail, told Socialist Worker after the verdict, “It’s right that these convictions are overturned.
“But what’s happened is an outrage.
“They’ve let themselves off the hook, but this verdict makes no difference to me. It won’t bring back Des Warren, it’s no justice for the treatment he received. He went into prison a well-built man and came out a skeleton. They destroyed him with the drugs they used.
“The truth is we should never have been in the dock. They used conspiracy laws against us. Conspiracy? I didn’t really know Des Warren until I met him in court.
“Guilty? They asked me to be a prosecution witness, and it was only when I refused that they went for me.
“This won’t be justice for the 31 days I spent on hunger strike, the many, many days in solitary confinement.
“Des and I made a pact we wouldn’t wear prison clothes or cooperate. We were political prisoners.
“We were right to resist, we made it harder for them to use that law against other people. I’d do the same again tomorrow.
“And people fighting now against new laws are right to resist too.
“There should be a full public inquiry and all the papers released.”
“This was a political trial not just of me, and the Shrewsbury pickets but was a trial of the trade union movement.
“Like me, Dezzie was victimised by the court for defending the interests of the working class.’’
The Court of Appeal had heard that a covert government unit helped to convict the pickets. Declassified documents suggested that Edward Heath, the then Tory prime minister, personally approved of the unit’s campaign to undermine left wing union militants.
It was a time of near-unprecedented class struggle in Britain, and the state wanted to hit back at activists.
Documents show that in 1973 the secret unit gave a dossier about activists to the makers of an ITV television programme.
This programme, called Red Under The Bed, was broadcast by ITV just before the defence was set to begin its evidence.
It was fronted by former Labour MP Woodrow Wyatt.
Campaigners said that the programme biased the jury against the trade unionists, helping to get them convicted.
The conspiracy went right to the top.
Heath’s aide, Robert Armstrong, noted in a memo that a transcript of the programme had been shown to the prime minister. According to the memo, Heath “commented that we want as much as possible of this sort of thing”.
However, this was not the ground the court accepted should clear the 24.
Instead what proved crucial was that police were found to have destroyed witness statements and denied crucial material to the lawyers defending the men.
Eileen Turnbull, the tenacious researcher for the Shrewsbury 24 campaign, played the key role in prompting this week’s court decision. She found a letter and memo written by West Mercia police showing that original witness statements had been destroyed by the police. This material also confirmed this fact had not been disclosed to the defence or the court.
No amount of money or apologies can give justice to the Shrewsbury 24 and their families suffered.
But if any of those who orchestrated the manoeuvres against them are still alive then they should be prosecuted. And the survivors and families should be fully compensated.
The Tories and bosses fitted up the Shrewsbury 24 as an act of class revenge and intimidation. But Labour also played a role.
The Labour government elected in 1974 under Harold Wilson refused to release the men from jail. Nor did subsequent Labour prime ministers James Callaghan, Tony Blair or Gordon Brown.
They did not even release all the papers relating to the case.
And the union leaders did not call the action needed to force the pickets’ freedom.
Des Warren wrote, “The TUC leaders had the key to my cell in their pocket all the time and refused to use it”.
It is the dogged pressure from below that is crucial in shaping events.
What happened in 1972?
Building sites were killing fields in the 1970s. Between 1971 and 1975, 970 building workers were killed at work and 365,000 accidents recorded.
Work was seasonal and temporary, which meant most employers treated their workers as if they were self-employed and simply paid them a “lump” sum. They had to pay their own tax and insurance from this money.
Organising a union under these conditions was difficult as employers rooted out and blacklisted activists.
In 1972 building worker unions decided to put in a claim for higher pay, calling out their members in well-organised sites mainly in the cities. Some employers conceded, but many others refused and an all-out strike began.
Workers on smaller sites were particularly vulnerable to employer intimidation. One such area was Shrewsbury.
Flying pickets arrived in August 1972. “At one site we were met by the son of the contractor with a shotgun, and was threatening to use it,” said Des Warren. He was later to be imprisoned for intimidation.
By September the union had won a partial but important victory increasing pay, and increasing union membership.
The employers and government were furious, and decided to move against the activists.
The building firms’ federation, major financial backers of the Tories, asked employers to help compile a dossier of allegations of intimidation and violence on picket lines.
When the dossier emerged even the bosses’ newspaper, the Financial Times, was forced to write the following. “This document is itself flawed since it suggests the existence of a sinister plot without being able to substantiate the allegations,” it said.
“The publication reads more like a politically motivated pamphlet than a serious study.”
None of this deterred a cabal of local Sheriffs, the McAlpine building company and high-ranking politicians from pursuing trade union activists. Tory home secretary Robert Carr instructed the police to investigate on the basis of the dossier and pickets were hauled before the courts.