The case of the Shrewsbury 24 remains one of the most grotesque injustices ever inflicted on the working class. Most of the men are now sadly dead. But the issues of class justice and corrupt law enforcement are every bit as relevant today as they were in 1973.
The background to the Shrewsbury trial was the 12-week national building workers’ strike that ran through the summer of 1972. A group of building workers from North Wales were charged in political show trials the following year for offences including unlawful assembly, conspiracy to intimidate and affray. Eileen Turnbull, author of A Very British Conspiracy—the Shrewsbury 24 and the Campaign for Justice, was a tenacious researcher and secretary of the justice campaign. Her book details the conspiracy between the British state and construction bosses that led to the convictions.
Building workers had traditionally been difficult to organise, and trade unionism had only a tenuous hold in the industry. Many sites were small local developments. But even the biggest sites were only ever temporary, with different trades employed at different times. There was another malignant problem facing builders’ trade unionism—“lump” labour. This was the widespread practice of employing men cash-in-hand off the books. “Lumpers” didn’t care about site safety and cared even less about union solidarity. These problems were particularly difficult in rural areas, such as North Wales, where sites were often especially small and dispersed and the lump was rampant.
During the ten weeks of the strike, militants confronted these problems by customising a tactic that had first been used in the 1972 miners’ and dockers’ strikes. It was the “flying picket”. Coach loads of strikers would cruise an area, stopping off at working building sites to make the case for joining the strike. It was an approach that had some dramatic successes in spreading and holding the strike. But in September the building union leaders called off the strike with a settlement that was more a defeat than a victory.
It was then that the conspiracy against the Shrewsbury 24 kicked in. All of the legal vindictiveness that followed centred on the flying pickets’ visit to the Telford area on Wednesday 6 September. In view of the tsunami of lies and deceit that would be told about “violence” that day, it’s important to emphasise that the police had escorted the flying pickets for the entire day.
There were absolutely no reports of any outbreaks of violence. Indeed, during the course of the day the police actually reduced the numbers of officers on duty and four of them were re-assigned to traffic watch. Turnbull quotes one of the senior police officers, superintendent Landers. He says, “There were no shouting or acts of violence, but several of the workers did not want to hear what was being said… I saw no damage or violence at that stage and no-one made any complaint to me.” That was the truth about what happened on 6 September. But truth would play almost no part in the witch-hunt that followed, because powerful class interests were now in play.
The Tories had won a surprise victory in the general election of June 1970, and their mission was to cure what they called “the British disease” of militant trade unionism. Their weapon of choice to achieve this was the Industrial Relations Act. But, by the end of 1972, that strategy was in the dumpster. First the miners and then the dockers had defied the Act and ripped it into pieces. Although there were defeats and set-backs, 1972 was a high-water mark for militancy in Britain and the Tories were running scared.
The building companies were always an important part of the Tory gang. Sir Keith Joseph, the minister for health was a shareholder in Bovis Construction. And all the big builders paid regular donations to Conservative Central Office. The biggest single donor in the year of 1973-4 was McAlpine with £43,540, and now McAlpine would be a key part of the conspiracy against the Shrewsbury 24.
The state’s game plan was as obvious as it was cynical. The Tories had taken a serious beating at the hands of the better organised groups, such as the miners and the registered dockers. They re-directed their attack on building workers where union strength was much patchier. And while North Wales had never been a key battleground in the builders’ strike, it was a region where trade unionism was even feebler.
Shrewsbury was deliberately chosen as the site for the show trial because it was a reliably conservative rural backwater. It had never even returned a Labour MP, so a jury there could be assumed to be compliant.
Turnbull’s book describes how the construction bosses, their pet government, the police and lawyers started work within days of the strike ending. The National Federation of Building Trade Employers (NFBTE) produced a 10-page dossier on “violence and intimidation” which it presented to the Tories. Meanwhile, the police began a trawl looking for informers and grasses, as the lawyers searched for useful legislation that obliging, right wing judges could interpret in favour of the NFBTE and the Tories.
The opening salvo was a series of sensationalist articles in the Tory press, especially the Sunday People, The Observer and the News of the World. They told familiar lies about “violence on the picket line”, and zoned in on Des Warren who had long been a prominent militant in the North Wales area.
The scale of the judicial conspiracy that followed was a massive undertaking by the ruling class. The police interviewed over 700 potential witnesses and took 334 statements. The police also had to re-draft all of the 73 statements from their own men. Where previously there had been “no acts of shouting or violence”, now the poor little policemen had been “terrified” by an orgy of violence.
Meanwhile extensive, and highly expensive, legal opinions were collected from a gaggle of right wing legal chambers to make the law fit the Tory strategy. Finally, the Tories chose exactly the judge they wanted to dispense their class justice—Sir Robert Hugh Mais. This creature was not a senior judge. Indeed, his specialism was church law. But as head of a Manchester chambers, he was “very reactionary and did not allow Jews or Black people” to work for him. Just the man for a dirty job.
The upshot of this conspiracy was that on 14 February 1973, 24 building workers were arrested and charged with a variety of serious offences. And six hand-picked “ring-leaders” were charged with the most serious crime of conspiracy.
It’s important to stress just how weak the legal case was—and the Tories knew that only too well. Turnbull reveals a letter from the Attorney General, the senior lawyer for the government, before the trial. Sir Peter Rawlinson said quite explicitly, “Proceedings should not be instituted”. So, in secret, Rawlinson was forced to acknowledge that there was no legal case to answer for. But in public the Tories were going for the jugular.
The British state has never given much of a toss about the laws it supposedly abides by. As Turnbull says, “The government was subject to significant political pressure from employers and Conservative Party members to take conspicuous action against picketing. A trial was necessary despite the weakness of the evidence.”
Through a toxic mix of police lies, judicial corruption and media propaganda, the Tory machine got the verdicts it wanted. Of the 24 pickets, two were found not guilty, 16 were given suspended prison sentences and the six “ringleaders” were given lengthy prison terms. Des was given the harshest sentence of three years. When he was sentenced, the foreman of his jury stood up to publicly protest at both the verdict and the sentence.
It would be nice to be able to close this review with the story of how the trade union movement responded to a class injustice. A story of how it organised a campaign to free the six, just as we had freed the Pentonville Five—a group of arrested dockers—just a year earlier. But it never happened. Instead, the six were effectively left to rot in jail by the official union apparatchiks. There were a few ceremonial protests, but the fear of being associated with “intimidation” and “violence” scared off the union machines. The main building workers union, Ucatt, even refused to provide union legal aid for their members for the same reason.
There was to be another, even bigger betrayal to come. In October 1974 the Tories lost the general election and Labour returned to office. Most of the Shrewsbury pickets had done their time by then but Des and Ricky Tomlinson were still in prison. Several left wing Labour MPs pressed the new home secretary to release them, even to offer full pardons to the 24. But ever loyal to the capitalist class, Labour’s Roy Jenkins refused to use his powers and they were left in prison.
As Turnbull recounts, there would eventually be some kind of vindication for the Shrewsbury 24. But it hardly adds up to a happy ending, still less anything resembling justice. For almost 50 years a dedicated group of volunteers campaigned however they could to win pardons.
Finally, after years and years of frustrated appeals and unexplained delays, the Criminal Cases Review Commission referred the case back again to the Court of Appeal. On 23 March 2021 the appeal was upheld. It was a victory for the dedication and tenacity of the Shrewsbury 24 campaign. But there was to be no apology, no compensation. In fact, many of the 24 were by now dead, Des dying in 2005.
The balance of forces in the class struggle had tilted firmly in favour of the bosses’ class. The flying picket tactic, which was entirely legal in 1972, has long since been outlawed. The whole idea of spontaneous walkouts was squashed through anti-union laws. By 2021, the ruling class clearly felt the victimisation of Shrewsbury 24 had long ago served its purpose. The upholding of the appeal was little more than a gesture to acknowledge what we had all known for 50 years. That the Shrewsbury 24 had always been innocent and their prosecution was a politically-charged injustice.
But the sacrifice and the suffering of the Shrewsbury 24 deserve to be remembered, and Turnbull’s book does that well. In particular, I recommend it to anyone who still harbours the illusion that we live in a genuine democracy governed by the “rule of law”. The injustice meted out to the Shrewsbury pickets shows yet again that the British capitalist class, their police force and their state will stop at nothing to ensure that their interests are served.
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