By Mike Phipps
Today the Court of Appeal is due to hear the cases of the Shrewsbury 24. This follows a decision on 26th May 2020 by the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) to refer the convictions of Ricky Tomlinson and Arthur Murray to the Court for reconsideration.
The Court is being asked to consider two things. The first is new evidence, consisting of a note dated 17 September 1973 and revealing that some original statements had been destroyed. Neither this note, nor the fact that statements were destroyed, was disclosed to the defence at the time of the trial.
The second is new legal arguments relating to the screening of Red Under the Bed during the 1972 trial. This was a TV programme highly critical of trade union organising. Some of its the content was contributed to by a covert agency within the Foreign Office. These new arguments touch on the way the airing of the documentary was handled by the trial judge.
Ricky and Arthur are two of the Shrewsbury 24 – a group of ordinary trade unionists who were arrested for their involvement in the national builders’ strike in 1972. In 1973 Ricky, along with Des Warren, was sentenced to prison for unlawful assembly, conspiracy to intimidate and affray. Other cases involving the group have also been referred by the CCRC to the Court.
The background to the case is the national builders’ strike of nearly 50 years ago. Building sites of the 1970s were highly dangerous and health and safety measures were conspicuously absent. On average one building worker died every day in the UK. Attempts by workers to organise union activities or raise health and safety concerns were frequently met with dismissal. Blacklisting was a common practice.
The combination of poor pay and dire working conditions led to a national builders’ strike. Between May and September 1972, building sites were picketed to spread the dispute. On 6th September 1972, during the final stages of the dispute, builders from north Wales were asked to go to Shrewsbury to help on the picket line. Coaches were organised and activists visited a number of sites to ensure the strike was solid.
Union activists behaved appropriately in appealing to workers to shut the sites. Des Warren, later jailed for his activities, wrote in his account of the strike: “Toward the end of the day, Chief Superintendent Meredith shook my hand and congratulated me on the conduct of the meeting we held. He made no complaint about the activities of the pickets.”
Despite this, months later, under pressure from the government and the National Federation of Building Trades Employers, 24 pickets were arrested and charged with 243 offences. Some were convicted and jailed for a range of offences from conspiracy to intimidate to unlawful assembly and affray.
In total, six received prison sentences and 16 received suspended prison sentences. Only two were found not guilty.
Tomlinson and Warren successfully appealed against the affray charges but their appeals against the convictions for conspiracy were dismissed and they were returned to prison. Des Warren warned from the dock of the implications of the verdicts: “We are all part of something much bigger than this trial. The working class movement cannot allow this verdict to go unchallenged.”
Warren died in 2004. He served all but four months of his three-year sentence and was punished with solitary confinement and denied family visits. He was confined to a wheelchair for the final five years of his life and blamed the onset of his ill-health on the cocktail tranquilliser drugs administered to him as an awkward prisoner. For his ill-treatment he got a mere £3,000 compensation. Ill health and blacklisting ensured that he never worked again following his release at age 39.
It has taken years of campaigning for the cases to be re-examined. The New Labour Home Secretary Jack Straw refused to release the papers on grounds of ‘national security’. While the TUC was only lukewarm, the issue was kept alive thanks to the support of grassroots trade unionists. Just less than two years ago, the CCRC originally refused to refer the cases back to the Court and it took a judicial review to get it to reconsider.
The appeal is also the result of years of investigation by the Campaign’s Researcher and Secretary, Eileen Turnbull. She said, “I have visited every possible archive and library to obtain documents about the trials, including several trips to the National Archives at Kew. I unearthed the evidence that the CCRC finally accepted as grounds to refer the convictions to the Court of Appeal.”
For those concerned about the ramifications of the spycops bill, previously reported by Labour Hub, there are references in the files of the Special Demonstration Squad, the body which undertook the vast majority of the undercover policing, to its infiltration of the Shrewsbury Two Defence campaign. The concern is that the government’s new legislation, supported by the Labour front bench, will continue to sanction such inappropriate use of public resources.
Speaking in the light of the new developments, Ricky Tomlinson said: “It will have taken nearly 50 years for us to have our day in Court, and for the truth to come out. People will be shocked to know the lengths the establishment went to in order to punish the working class for trying to improve their working and health and safety conditions. We now have evidence of political interference during the trial that I think will concern the general public who believe in our justice system.”
The Shrewsbury 24 Campaign can be contacted here.
Image from the Shrewsbury 24 Camapign: Pickets and Campaign members come together to celebrate and prepare for the Court of Appeal hearing. Back row (L-R) Mark Turnbull, Terry Renshaw, Kevin Butcher, Michael Pierce, John Bohanna and Joe Sim; front row (L_R) Ann Dobie, John McKinsie Jones, Eileen Turnbull and Harry Chadwick.
Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at https://lists.riseup.net/www/info/iraqfocus. His book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.
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