On 23 March, the Court of Appeal exonerated my clients Ricky Tomlinson, Arthur Murray and the ‘Shrewsbury 24.’ They were trade unionists arrested for their involvement in the 1972 national builders’ strike.
In 1973, Ricky Tomlinson and Des Warren were sentenced to prison for ‘unlawful assembly, conspiracy to intimidate and affray’ – a historic miscarriage of justice that has now been righted nearly 50 years after the events.
The challenge in court was on two broad grounds. The first was that new evidence, consisting of a note dated 17 September 1973, revealed that some original statements had been destroyed. Neither this note nor the fact that statements were destroyed, was disclosed to the defence in 1973.
The second is related to the prejudicial screening of ‘The Red Under the Bed’, a TV programme highly critical of trade union organising.
The Court of Appeal decided that the failure to disclose important documentation caused the trial to be unsafe and quashed the convictions.
The second ground, although rejected by the court, remains important.
On 13 November 1973, Granada Television broadcast a documentary (produced in conjunction with Anglia Television and Yorkshire Television) produced by the journalist and former right-wing Labour MP Woodrow Wyatt.
The programme was broadcast directly before the defendants were due to give evidence. The defence cases of Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson were, in essence, that they took no part in and were not aware of intimidation and violence, and that allegations of such were exaggerated.
The documentary featured footage of Ricky Tomlinson and also Des Warren in its opening minutes. The programme’s narrative concretely, but wrongly, linked our clients with disruption and violence. How did it achieve this?
A feature of the programme was to use News of the World newspaper journalist Simon Regan as an ‘eyewitness’ to the violence during the building strike.
The programme presented the Regan allegations as fact, but two separate police forces had already concluded that it was all lies. The Northamptonshire Police and Birmingham City Police, at the behest of the Attorney General and the Director of Public Prosecutions, investigated the allegations.
They concluded that Regan was “never present” at the Corby site he referred to or “…if present completely fabricated the incidents referred to and was either mistaken in the location of the [Birmingham] incident or suffered at the time a figment of imagination.”
That is not where the story ends. A number of organisations had a big role in assisting the programme-makers.
The Industrial Research Department, a branch of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the state-sponsored, covert, anti-communist Industrial Research and Information Service, provided the programme-makers with information – including an introduction to Simon Regan.
Crucially, the Northampton and County Constabulary Report into Simon Regan’s allegations was dated 16 November 1972. Thus, by that date, the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Attorney General’s Office (the legal branch of government) were aware that the allegations of the journalist Simon Regan were “completely fabricated” and “a figment of imagination”.
The state colluded in the making of the programme and put forward a journalist they knew to be discredited, to build the programme around. The programme was then shown at the conclusion of the prosecution case in 1973, and just prior to when Ricky Tomlinson, Des Warren, Arthur Murray and the Shrewsbury pickets were due to give their evidence.
Tory prime minister Ted Heath signed off the programme in a ministerial document – saying “ we want more of this kind of thing.”
Even today, the state has yet to release all the papers surrounding the national builders’ strike and the Shrewsbury pickets’ case. What have they got to hide? On behalf of Ricky and Arthur, we will be demanding their release.
At the close of the trial in 1973, Des Warren addressed the court. Facing a prison sentence, he exposed the fact that it was a political trial, going on to say: “Was there a conspiracy? Yes, there was, but not by the pickets… the conspiracy was one between the Home Secretary, the employers and the police.” True then – and even more true today.
Socialist Party members Dave Nellist, Lois Austin, Hannah Sell and Youth Against Racism in Europe are represented by Paul in the current Undercover Policing Inquiry (‘Spycops’).
‘Chingford skinhead’ spills the beans over government surveillance of union activists
Lois Austin, Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance (COPS) campaigner and Socialist Party
A recent meeting was held in parliament at Westminster giving non-state, non-police, core participants (NSNPCPs) in the ‘spycops’ Undercover Policing Inquiry (UCPI) the opportunity to explain to MPs the shortcomings of the inquiry. It was hosted by Socialist Campaign Group Labour MP Richard Burgon.
Right-wing former Tory minister, Norman Tebbit (now Lord Tebbit) also decided to attend. After heckling speakers and trying to disrupt the meeting, the politician, known as the ‘Chingford skinhead’, who was a right-hand man for Margaret Thatcher in her Tory cabinet was given the floor.
Tebbit revealed that when Minister for Employment in the Thatcher government between 1982 and 1984, he regularly met with EETPU (former electricians’ union) officials and Special Branch officers to be briefed on left-wing activists in the union.
He repeated these claims in the press the following day and added that he brought these union collaborators the back way into Parliament so that no one would see them.
NSNPCPs, their lawyers, the Unite union, and the trade unionist Blacklist Support Group, are all demanding that Tebbit is called to give evidence to the UCPI.
His public utterance proves, the long-time claim of NSNPCPs that undercover political policing was not because a small band of police officers had ‘gone rogue’, but was orchestrated by the British state against the labour movement and came from the very top of the political establishment, i.e. from government ministers.
John Spellar, currently a Labour MP and former minister in the Blair government, was an EETPU official at the time. He is also vice-chair of right-wing Labour Friends of Israel and serves on the neoliberal Henry Jackson Society advisory council.
There are calls from Unite the union and blacklisted workers for Tebbit to clarify whether Spellar supplied him and the Thatcher government with information about union activists and colluded with Special Branch. Activists are also demanding that Spellar be called to give evidence to the UCPI.
The next UCPI hearings start on Monday 26 April. The Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance (COPS) and Police Spies Out Of Lives (PSOOL) campaign will be organising lobbying events then. For more information go to COPS website: campaignopposingpolice-surveillance.org