Britain: The Shrewsbury pickets, political policing and the state

Ricky Tomlinson speaks about the injustice against the Shrewsbury pickets at the Campaign for a New Workers Party meeting in Liverpool, April 2007 (photo: Harry Smith)

Paul Heron looks at the recent victory in the battle for justice for the Shrewsbury pickets. This was a landmark case from the 1970s in Britain – of political policing against the working class movement.  Paul is a solicitor and founder of the Public Interest Law Centre. He is a Socialist Party (CWI England & Wales) member and sits on the executive committee of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers.

On Tuesday 23 March 2021, the Court of Appeal, London, made the following judgement in the case of our clients Ricky Tomlinson, Arthur Murray[i] and the ‘Shrewsbury 24’.

“It follows that under Ground One, the convictions of all the appellants are unsafe. Their appeals are allowed and all the verdicts in relation to them are quashed”. (pt.99 of the Court judgement)

The convictions of the ‘Shrewsbury 24’ were quashed. The convictions were ruled unsafe, and as such the pickets walked from the court – as they have always been – innocent men.

They are however victims of police corruption, they are victims of a political trial, and they are victims of a Tory government – who at the time were looking to take revenge against the trade union movement.

I represented Ricky Tomlinson and Arthur Murray. Piers Marquis and Annabel Timan, barristers from Doughty Street chambers – a leading human rights set – were instructed to act in the Court of Appeal.

The case presented to the Court of Appeal was based on two broad grounds. First, there had been a destruction of evidence by the police, and additionally that this destruction was not disclosed. Secondly, a television documentary ‘The Red Under the Bed’ was broadcast during the course of the trial. We argued that not only was this broadcast seriously prejudicial but that the secret state was involved in its making. We also believed the government or security services were instrumental in its scheduling. We were unable to conclusively prove this last ground – but questions still remain.

Writing in The Guardian after receiving the judgement, and commenting on the original trial in Shrewsbury, Ricky said: “I heard the judge say it wasn’t a political trial, that it was just an ordinary criminal trial – that too was absolute rubbish. Of course it was a political trial. Everyday hundreds of police officers stood outside the Court. The Conservative government wanted this trail, wanted the convictions, and wanted to put not just me and Dessie on trial but the whole trade union movement. We were used and punished as a warning – they were telling the working class: ‘Don’t step out of line!’.” (23 March 2021)

This in a nutshell sums up why the Shrewsbury 24 were pursued with so much vigour by the state. Anyone who still says the law is neutral needs to understand this case and understand that these trade unionists were pursued by government, political policing and the security services.

1972 a rising tide of industrial militancy

During 1972 there were three major industrial disputes; although there were also many official and unofficial ones. There was the national miners’ pay strike which started in January 1972; the dock strike leading to the jailing and dramatic release of the Pentonville Five in June and July; and the thirteen-week building workers’ strike which spanned July, August, and September 1972.

There was also the work-to-rule on the railways in April 1972, when the then right-wing leadership of the NUR, the largest rail workers’ union now the RMT, was pushed by its membership into a pay claim and had a ‘cooling-off order’ imposed on it under the Tory Industrial Relations Act. There was also serious political industrial action by engineering workers during their national pay claim for improved basic rates and other benefits which was fought out in the first half of 1972. This dispute escalated to multiple sit-ins and factory occupations.

The miners’ national pay strike started on 9 January 1972. It was the first national coal strike since 1926 and closed all of 289 pits. There had been a restructuring of the coal industry, and in response a reorganisation of the left in the National Union of Miners (NUM) during the 1960s. The formation of the miners’ forum gave Arthur Scargill (later leader of the NUM) a significant organisational base. The threat of restructuring alongside a resurgent left in the union laid the basis for the national strike. This newly reorganised left (heavily influenced by the Communist Party) was able to mount heavy pressure on Joe Gormley, the then right-wing president of the NUM, a pressure which forced the strike.

A turning point in the miners’ strike was the battle of Saltley Gate in Birmingham. The success was due partly to the solidarity action Midlands engineering workers gave the miners.  This was to be a turning point of the strike. Thousands of car and engineering workers walked out of their factories and marched to the Saltley Gate coking coal distribution depot and closed it down.

Despite the Tory government at the time declaring they would not give in, after six weeks the miners won their full claim in a stunning victory. It brought them back into the centre of working-class struggle after years of decline and retreat in the industry. This rise in industrial militancy was certainly not going to end there.

The story of the Pentonville Five is one which began as a struggle against containerisation. This operational shift would, if introduced, threaten to destroy thousands of jobs on the docks.  But the struggle in the Port of London was also a bitter internal struggle between the unofficial port shop stewards’ committee and the leadership of their own union, the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU, now part of Unite the Union).

The trade union leadership had accepted containerisation and the employers’ reorganisation proposed through a joint report from the TGWU general secretary Jack Jones and the chair of the London Port Authority, Lord Aldington, the Jones/Aldington Report. As a result of unofficial action through the shop stewards committee, the dockers had come out on a national unofficial strike to defend their jobs. This was in defiance of Tory anti-union laws – specifically the National Industrial Relations Act.

Dockers at the Chobham Farm container depot in East London had taken unofficial strike action. They decided to picket the site. The National Industrial Relations Court (NIRC) created further to the Tories’ Industrial Relations Act, had issued an injunction barring continued picketing. This was done at the behest of the Midland Cold Storage Company following an application to the court. Despite the injunction picketing carried on.

Five shop stewards were named by private investigators for the cold storage company. They were Conny Clancy, Tony Merrick, Bernie Steer, Vic Turner and Derek Watkins, and warrants were issued by the court for their arrest for contempt. The five stewards were brought before the NIRC for refusing to obey a court order to stop picketing the container depot in East London. They were found guilty of breaching the National Industrial Relations Act that outlawed closed shops, sympathy strikes and action in support of trade unionists, and they were imprisoned on July 21, 1972. The reaction among the whole trade union movement was to come out on strike and support them.

A series of rolling strikes began to create and build serious industrial action until there was virtually an unofficial national strike. Thousands of striking workers marched through North London to Pentonville Prison which became a focal point of protest. This movement from below forced the TUC general council to call for an official national one-day general strike for 31 July 1972 to demand the release of the five shop stewards. Shocked, the government sought ways to  defuse the situation and within days of their arrest, the Pentonville Five were released on July 26 in response to the growing strike movement. The victory of the Pentonville Five dealt a major blow to the Tories’ Industrial Relations Act. This was the background to the next major national dispute – the national builders’ strike.

National builders’ strike 1972

The building workers’ strike started as a series of selective stoppages, demanding improved basic rates and the renegotiation of the national agreement for the industry. It additionally raised issues of health and safety. In 1971 there were 201 fatalities on building sites.

The national builders’ strike was propelled by rank-and-file pressure into an all-out strike which closed 900 building sites. It involved upwards of 270,000 building workers.  Mass picketing of cement works, and other building suppliers, took place as a matter of routine.

The strike turned increasingly into a struggle against ‘the lump’. This allowed the construction bosses to pay a ‘lump sum’ to a worker who would be regarded as ‘self-employed’. As a result, a builder would be on a daily or a weekly rate and would be responsible for paying tax and national insurance, not the employer. It also undermined trade-union organisation in the industry. When the official leadership of the unions sought a compromise, tens of thousands of angry building workers mounted demonstrations, rallies, and protests across the country in opposition.

The workers were able to place significant pressure on the leadership. Prior to the strike, an unofficial shop stewards’ structure was built on the sites. That structure was typified by the London Joint Sites Committee and similar organisations in Manchester, Liverpool and elsewhere. The development of the Building Workers’ Charter magazine edited by Lou Lewis, a leading member of the Communist Party, was a significant rallying point in the strike. By the end of the strike the building workers won substantial increases on their basic rates, though short of the full claim. The skilled grades got 30 per cent – which was the full demand. Most militants were convinced that the full demands could have been won for all grades had the strike continued, but this industrial dispute was settled, and it was a significant victory.

Cutting across the rising tide

The Builders’ Charter Group, the rank-and-file organisation, was crucial to building workers’ organising. It helped galvanise the industry’s main trade unions, the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians (UCATT) created in 1971 by the merger of three unions, and the TGWU, for action. As a rank-and-file body it had the ear of the workers, it caught the mood for change and mobilised even the most recalcitrant workers.

On 6 September 1972, during the final stages of the dispute, builders from North Wales were asked to go to Shrewsbury and Telford to help on the picket line. Coaches were organised and activists visited a number of sites to ensure the strike was solid. The trade union activists behaved properly in appealing to workers to shut the sites. Des Warren wrote in his account of the day: “Toward the end of the day, Chief Superintendent Meredith shook my hand and congratulated me on the conduct of the meetings we held. He made no complaint about the activities of the pickets”. (The Key to My Cell, Des Warren, p11)

Despite the words of the senior police officer on the day, some of those involved in the pickets were arrested months later. There is little doubt that the arrests were as a result of pressure from the then Home Secretary Robert Carr and the National Federation of Building Trades Employers. Both the Tory government and the construction bosses’ organisation were keen to see arrests and charges, and send a warning shot to the labour movement. Those arrested were narrowed down to 24 trade unionists who were charged and prosecuted.

Unusually, the trial of the Shrewsbury 24 was split into three parts. The first trial was held at Shrewsbury Crown Court and began on 3 October 1973. Des Warren, Eric ‘Ricky’ Tomlinson and John McKinsie Jones were convicted of conspiracy to intimidate, unlawful assembly and affray, and sentenced to three years, two years and nine months of imprisonment respectively. It sent shock waves through the trade union movement.

The second trial began on 15 January 1974. Nine trade unionists were charged with unlawful assembly and affray. Brian Williams, Arthur Murray and Mike Pierce were found guilty of both charges and were sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for affray and four months for unlawful assembly. The final trial began on 26 February 1974. A further nine building workers stood trial on charges of unlawful assembly and affray. Several defendants were given suspended prison sentences.

Appeals against the sentences were submitted immediately. Applications for bail were initially refused by the courts but later granted. The convictions for affray were quashed. However, the substantive offences were heard in October 1974. Whilst the Court heard the appeal against the convictions for conspiracy to intimidate – the appeal application was dismissed. Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson were returned to prison. On 3 December 1974, the Court of Appeal considered further applications for leave to appeal to the House of Lords but refused to refer the case.

In the years following the trial and appeal in 1973 and 1974, many of the Shrewsbury 24 were blacklisted. The Economic League were active in maintaining records of trade union militants. Ricky Tomlinson served the majority of his two years sentence. He came out of prison and was unable to secure meaningful employment in the construction industry. He documents this in his autobiography: “Having been released, I always figured I would pick up where things left off, working as a plasterer, playing the banjo and raising my kids. The reality was delivered very bluntly every time I walked onto a building site looking for work. I was blacklisted. The bigger, organised sites put my photograph on the window of the site office as though I was some sort of outlaw”. (Ricky, 2004, pp231-232)

Ricky has pointed out at many public meetings that although it was tough for him, and the other pickets, it was even worse for Des Warren. The leadership of the trade union movement failed to mobilise, they abandoned the ‘Shrewsbury Two’ and this affected Des Warren deeply. He was a loyal Communist Party member and expected them to mobilise their points of support in the movement. He refused to wear prison clothes, saw himself as a political prisoner, spent months in solitary confinement as punishment, and was forcefully sedated by the prison authorities with the ‘liquid cosh’. His family said this brought on Parkinson’s Disease in later years which killed him in 2004.

The road to appeal

In order to appeal a criminal conviction, an applicant needs to send legal submissions to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC). In 2012 the CCRC received applications from Patrick Butcher, John Clee, John McKinsie Jones, Arthur Murray, Kenneth O’Shea, William Pierce, Terence Renshaw, Ricky Tomlinson, Dennis Warren and Bernard Williams. The CCRC was asked to review the case and refer the convictions for appeal. This was not the first application made to the CCRC – Arthur Murray had some years before made an application but was unsuccessful.

Things looked bleak when in October 2017, the CCRC refused to refer the case to the Court of Appeal. However, following a successful Judicial Review challenge, brought by the Shrewsbury 24 Campaign, the CCRC deigned to revisit its decision. On 4 March 2020, the CCRC agreed to refer the cases of 14 of the Shrewsbury pickets to the Court of Appeal. It was at this point I was formally instructed by Ricky Tomlinson and Arthur Murray to act for them at the Court of Appeal.[ii]

As stated above, the case to the Court of Appeal rested on two broad legal issues. First, the issue of destruction of evidence, specifically a note dated 17 September 1973, revealing that some original statements had been destroyed. Neither the existence of this note nor the fact that statements were destroyed, were disclosed to the defence at the time of the trial. (The Shrewsbury 24 Campaign were central to finding some key documents that led to the legal challenge progressing.)

Secondly, new legal arguments relating to the screening of The Red Under the Bed, a TV programme highly critical of trade union activity, during the 1972 trial. We provided arguments including an analysis, applying modern standards of fairness, of the way the airing of the documentary was handled by the trial judge. In addition, the documentary, we argued, caused prejudice and the trial judge at the time failed to properly warn the jury as such.

The case in the Court of Appeal

On Ground One: Destruction of evidence, the judgement from the Court found that the destruction of the original statements (in addition to the fact that the destruction was not disclosed) was individually and cumulatively, with the fact of the non-disclosure, enough to render the trial unfair and the convictions unsafe.

The number of original statements destroyed was significant. The Court broadly accepted this and exonerated the Shrewsbury 24. As a result, the convictions of Des Warren, Ricky Tomlinson, Arthur Murray and the Shrewsbury pickets named in the action were quashed.

However, it is important to add that the statements were destroyed rather than lost. This destruction was significant as it caused Ricky Tomlinson, Des Warren, Arthur Murray and the rest of the pickets to suffer serious prejudice to the extent that no fair trial could be held and that, accordingly, the continuance of the prosecution would amount to a misuse of the process of the court. I say this was wholesale and deliberate destruction of evidence that was enacted to assist the state prosecution. The Court’s judgement did not however stretch this far, and whilst it did exonerate the pickets, it failed to draw that conclusion.

Ground Two of the appeal was Prejudice: that on the 13 November 1973, Granada Television broadcast a documentary (The Red Under The Bed). The programme was also produced in conjunction with Anglia Television and Yorkshire Television. It was ‘researched’ and presented by the journalist and former Labour MP Woodrow Wyatt, well on his way at the time to becoming the reactionary confidant of Margaret Thatcher that he ended as. The broadcast took place in the course of the first trial of the Shrewsbury pickets – when Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson gave evidence and were cross-examined. The programme was broadcast directly before the defendants were due to give evidence.

The documentary itself 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 the journalist Simon Regan as an ‘eyewitness’ to the violence during the building strike. The News of the World journalist Regan gave the following account in the documentary programme, which to a great extent mirrored the allegations that the Shrewsbury defendants faced:

“I joined the flying picket squad in Yorkshire, which grew from a small one of about 200 into one of about 800, where pickets from Liverpool had come in with pickets from Leeds and we’d gone over a motorway site… and about 800 of us stormed this motorway site picking on individuals who were working there, telling they had to get off the site or there would be trouble and other incidents, especially in Birmingham outside the cement works where things got very, very rough, where drivers were getting stoned, being pulled from the cabs. The Communist Party must have realised that there was physical violence going in because there were reports coming in from all over the place to Lou Lewis personally, every single day”.

The programme presented the Regan allegations as fact, supported by ‘documentation’, overlaid with supporting footage of ‘violence’, and showing this with police lines. It was endorsed by the programme makers.

The problem with this evidence from Regan was that 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, had investigated the allegations earlier. 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 of The Red Under the Bed. The Information Research Department (IRD), a branch of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the Industrial Research and Information Service (IRIS), a private company monitoring industrial militancy in the 1970s, provided the programme makers with information – including an introduction to Simon Regan. These organisations were funded by the security services and the British state.

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 (another branch of government) were aware that the allegations of the journalist Simon Regan were “completely fabricated” and “a figment of imagination”.

Yet, at some stage after February 1973 – the month in which Woodrow Wyatt approached the IRD for help in producing the programme – the IRD, with the authority of the Department of Employment and the Security Service, were putting Simon Regan forward as a reliable enough source to build the programme around, despite the fact that at least one other branch of government had solid evidence that he had lied and fabricated his story.

Thus, as we stated in court, the state colluded in the making of the programme and put forward a journalist they knew to be discredited. Regan’s ‘evidence’ was used 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, and the Shrewsbury pickets were due to give their evidence.

Sadly the Court of Appeal was not convinced that the programme caused sufficient prejudice to render the trial unsafe. Further, because we were not able to conclusively establish that the government had been involved in scheduling the programme to take place in the course of the trial, “it follows that the criticisms, for instance, of the involvement of the Information Research Department and the apparent attitude of the then prime minister are irrelevant to this Ground of Appeal”. The Court went on to say: “The issue is the impact of the broadcast on the safety of the conviction – whether the content would have affected the jury’s fair appreciation of the evidence – rather than an assessment of the motives of those who participated in its creation”.

Courts are reluctant to enter into the realm of politics. They are even more reluctant when submissions accuse the secret state of complicity in the framing and convictions of innocent trade unionists.

Nonetheless, we felt it important to lay these claims in open court and specifically that The Red Under the Bed framed these trade unionists as criminals when they were not. The programme began with footage of the Shrewsbury 24 – including Ricky Tomlinson and Des Warren – outside of the Crown Court in which they were being tried. It was an attempt to link them to accusations of violence which were made in the rest of the film. Footage included material that erroneously suggested that leaders of the building strike pickets (which the defendants were) were effectively conspiring to “overthrow the state”. The programme included material that mirrored the allegations that the Shrewsbury 24 faced in Court, but which was fabricated. Crucially, three branches of government had provided fabricated material to the programme makers when at least one other branch of government knew that it was fabricated.

The programme was shown in the course of the trial, when the programme makers, broadcasters and government must have known that the trial itself was ongoing. The prime minister at the time, Ted Heath, signed off the programme in a ministerial document – saying “we want more of this kind of thing”.

Despite the obvious link between the programme, its prejudicial effect, and the direct and indirect involvement of the secret state, the Court was not convinced by this second ground of appeal. Given the Court’s view, the only way we could have convinced them is if we had shown that the government itself intervened and directed it’s scheduling as to broadcast. This was too high a bar for us to reach at this stage – notwithstanding the clear evidence we were able to show of involvement by the secret state.

The case of the Shrewsbury pickets and their involvement in the national builders’ strike is rich in lessons about the determination of working class people to struggle. It is also rich in lessons about the nature of the state, and the steps it will take to derail movements. The Tory government had become concerned with a high tide of industrial militancy. First the miners and then dock workers. With the building workers they were happy to use the Courts to criminalise innocent men. The police destroyed evidence. That destruction was not disclosed. Additionally, the use of the mass media framed the debate and prejudiced a fair trial.

But the tenacity and determination of the Shrewsbury pickets has forced a hard won victory.

In 1973 Des Warren addressed the Shrewsbury Court just prior to sentencing. Despite knowing he was facing a prison sentence he said: “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”.

After 50 years these words seem more relevant now than even at that time.

[i] Ricky Tomlinson and Arthur Murray were represented by Piers Marquis and Annabel Timan of Doughty Street Chambers, instructed by Paul Heron, Public Interest Law Centre.

[ii] In addition to Ricky and Arthur, the following cases were heard by the Court of Appeal: Those of Dennis Michael Warren, Alfred James, Samuel Roy Warburton, Graham Roberts and John Kenneth Seaburg. All five men are deceased but represented by family members. The cases of John McKinsie Jones, John Malcolm Clee, William Michael Pierce, Terence Renshaw, Patrick Kevin Butcher, Bernard Williams, Francis O’Shea were also heard at the Court. They were all represented by Bindmans solicitors.

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July 2021