Eileen Turnbull, A Very British Conspiracy: The Shrewsbury 24 and the Campaign for Justice (Verso 2022), 384pp. Eileen Turnbull, A Very British Conspiracy: The Shrewsbury 24 and the Campaign for Justice (Verso 2022), 384pp.

Eileen Turnbull’s account of the Shrewsbury 24 campaign is a very engaging and meticulous exposure the routine complicity of media, law and politics with injustice, finds Richard Allday

The weekend of 15-16 July will see the annual commemoration of the fitting-up by the British state of six agricultural labourers from Dorset in 1834: the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival. Their only crime was to protest, and organise, against their wages and conditions. Their punishment was transportation.

How we have progressed! One hundred and forty years later, in 1974, after the last of three trials of 24 building workers from the North Wales/Chester area, six were jailed, and sixteen received suspended sentences (one picket was found not guilty, and one was found to have no case to answer).

In both cases, the only ‘crime’ committed was that ordinary working-class folk had organised collectively to improve the conditions in their industry, or, as Turnbull puts it: ‘to stand up against the criminal conditions in which they were being forced to work’ (Preface, p.xix). In the case of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, it took two years of protest and campaigning to get the sentences overturned. In the case of the Shrewsbury pickets, it took nearly half a century. So much for progress. Eileen Turnbull has written a wonderful, and highly readable book detailing the story of the Shrewsbury pickets.

The first half of the book locates the strike in the context of the industrial struggles of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the government’s attempts to use the law to crush them. It further provides the background leading to the first-ever national strike in the building industry and gives a detailed narrative of strike activity in North Wales and Shrewsbury.

Turnbull also gives an intensely personal account of the nature of the construction industry at the time. Her husband and a workmate of his were severely injured in an accident on the site of the Fiddlers Ferry power station. They were both hospitalised as a result, and Tommy ‘decided there and then in that hospital bed to leave and look for work elsewhere. I remember walking away from the hospital so grateful he was still alive but angry because I knew nothing would change on the sites to make sure it would never happen to anyone else’ (Preface, p.xiii).

This ability that Turnbull displays to paint the big picture but bring it to life with illustrations of individual experience, gives the book its readability, and in the process prevents it from being what could have been a very worthy, but tedious narrative account of the trials themselves, and the campaign to clear the pickets’ names.

Turnbull’s account is a chilling indictment of the moral bankruptcy of the class that lords it over us, politically and economically, and their willing accomplices in every part of the state: government, local and national; the police; the media; the judiciary; and the legal profession, including whole sections of those who earn their livings claiming to be on our side.

Bosses’ revenge

The Shrewsbury 24 (among whose number was a ‘scally’ later to become better-known as the actor/entertainer, Ricky Tomlinson) were building workers from the North Wales/Chester area who had actively supported the national strike across the construction sector to raise the miserable level of wages, and improve the abysmal health and safety record. They were selected by the state to be sacrificial victims, to cow a restless working class which had caused the great and good serious alarm. The detailed planning which went into the state’s show trial was meticulous.

If that were all, Turnbull would deservedly join the ranks of those who do our class service in exposing the rotten core of British ‘justice’. It demonstrates, in painstaking detail, how ordinary men and women, when confronted by class injustice, are capable of remarkable persistence and tenacity, develop skills and capabilities way beyond their expectations, and in the best of cases can hold the merchants of misery to account.

In that regard, Turnbull’s book also serves as a testimonial to the unsung campaigners who drove the fight for justice at Orgreave, Hillsborough, the Birmingham 6, Bloody Sunday and all the other campaigns down the years from Tolpuddle on (and before).

Additionally, Turnbull has written an account of the extraordinary journey she undertook, unflagging, for fifteen years. If the preface gives a deeply personal account of what drove her, then the introduction locates the vindictive prosecution and sentences in the context of Britain’s rulers’ determination to retaliate for the humiliations they endured at the hands of the ‘big guns’ of the trade-union movement. The TGWU, in the persons of the Pentonville Dockers, the AEUW’s refusal to bow before the Industrial Relations Court, and the NUM’s victorious mass picket at the Saltley coking plant, all rubbed the ruling class’s noses in the unpalatable fact that their grip on power is more precarious than they care to admit. Hence their choice to exorcise their humiliation by lashing out at an easier target.

As Bernie Steers (one of ‘The Pentonville 5’ dockers jailed in 1972 under the Tory anti-union laws and released by the threat of a general strike) put it: ‘These people are not finished … they are vicious people … They will retreat in a corner; they have had three good wallops and now they are going to start slashing out’ (Chapter 3, p.47). The Shrewsbury 24 were the selected victims.

The book presents the reality of construction at the time (much the same as now) – hard physical labour in unsanitary conditions, with employers cutting corners wherever they can, and an implacable opposition to workers organising collectively. Then as now, the construction industry topped the league table of industrial accidents and fatalities at work, and Turnbull evokes the raw injustice of the period and the industry. (The maximum penalty facing an employer at the time for allowing death or injury in a workplace was just £300. The average weekly wage was around £30.) The anger Turnbull evokes is not that of a bystander; as referred to above, her husband was a labourer in the ’60s and early ’70s, and only left the industry after a major accident hospitalised him and another labourer, on the Fiddlers Ferry Power Station site.

Little has changed in the industry. Forty years on, that site, the Fiddlers Ferry power station, was the subject of a campaign by rank-and-file building workers, protesting the blacklisting of Steve Acheson, an electrician and union activist who had campaigned around health-and-safety concerns in the industry for many years. The company’s response was not to try and resolve the problem; it was to take out an injunction on Steve.

Media complicity

In chapters 4, 5 and 6, Turnbull reveals the manufactured outrage whipped up by the employers and their mouthpieces in the press (not of course against the disgusting conditions endured by building workers, but against their temerity in protesting them and – worse still – organising effectively to demand change). The role of the press is perhaps best illustrated by the way the employers created a ‘dossier’ of alleged outrages by pickets; then presented it to the press, who reproduced it as ‘facts’; the press in turn then used it to put political pressure on government to intervene: ‘The Financial Times noted,

‘Fresh pressure on the government to take action against mass picketing in labour disputes is likely to build as a result of a report sent to the Home Secretary alleging “virtual mobster tactics” by “well organized, well directed and well financed” groups of pickets…’ (FT 30/10/72, quoted p.80).

Turnbull also references supportive articles in the Daily Mail, News of the World (NotW), and the Sunday Times. As far as the NotW ‘investigation’ was concerned, with its allegations of brick-hurling pickets injuring workmen, slashing car tyres and setting huts on fire, Turnbull quotes the investigating officer, Detective Sergeant

‘10. It is the contention of the investigating officers that the author of the article, Simon REGAN, was either:

  1. Never present at the … site at Corby … or
  2. If present, completely fabricated the incidents referred to in this article.’ (p.101).

This did not stop Regan repeating the story to camera in a documentary produced by Woodrow Wyatt, Red under the Bed (p.102). This is the infamous documentary broadcast by the BBC on the evening the prosecution concluded its case in the first Shrewsbury trial.

The Conservative Party then took up the baton through its local associations, encouraging MPs to lobby ministers (in this case Lord Hailsham, the Lord Chancellor) to ‘…do something about forcible picketing …’ (p.85).

It is this meticulous attention to detail that means page after page illustrates the duplicity of the establishment. Chapters 7, 8 and 9 illustrate the way the state utilised a compliant police force, prosecution and judiciary to prepare, present and prosecute, ending in the dress rehearsal of the Mold trials to prepare for the actual show trial in Shrewsbury.

The second half of the book outlines the prejudices inherent in the class justice meted out by our rulers, and it is this last half of the book that displays the grit and determination, the unrelenting commitment to right a manifest wrong, that Turnbull and her fellow campaigners – but Turnbull above all – displayed in getting the convictions overturned.

Hard graft campaign

From the understanding of the essential need for raising financial support, (Turnbull’s original role in the campaign) to the need for a proper campaigning structure to keep the issue alive in the labour movement, the seemingly endless round of travelling to speak to (mostly small) meetings to engender support, explain the travesty and injustice, persuade others to come on board, all this was carried out year on year by a handful of committed individuals, each of whom at times faltered, and at times supported the falterers.

And that is to say nothing of the indefatigable research, going back over transcripts and witness statements; interviewing (and at times consoling) individuals about events years after they occurred; the uncovering of the lies told by court officials, to ensure convictions (see pp.190-192 for the lengths to which the judiciary were prepared to go to serve the wishes of the state); the vast bulk of the new material uncovered in the course of the campaign, and which eventually forced the state to overturn the convictions; all this was gathered by lay activists. It would have done credit to professional researchers but, as Turnbull points out (p.233) the cost would have been in the order of £50,000 and at that time the campaign had precisely £1,500 in funds.

For Des Warren, whose treatment inside permanently scarred him, and eventually caused his premature death, the eventual victory came too late. Indeed, if his conviction had been overturned twenty years earlier it would still have been too late. But for the other victims – not just those convicted because, as Turnbull points out, the injustice punished their families too – the public affirmation that they are not criminals, that they are wronged against, not ‘wrong uns’, at least puts the record straight.

I have included too few of the jaw-droppers that Turnbull recounts in the book – partly because there are too many to list, and Turnbull is entitled for the reader to experience them in the order, and with the background, that Turnbull provides. I will only say that in fifty years of political activism I complacently thought I had acquired a thick skin when it comes to our rulers’ contempt for truth and justice. It surprises me every time I discover new depths to which they will sink. This is after Bloody Sunday, Kincora Boy’s Home, Orgreave, Guildford 4, Birmingham 6, Maguire 7, Hillsborough … the list goes on. And then Eileen Turnbull produces A Very British Conspiracy and you think: ‘Here we go again.’

More complicity

Perhaps the most disgusting revelations in each of these cases is the way in which we are betrayed by persons who claim to be on our side. Turnbull exposes this collusion in the case of the Shrewsbury 24. The General Secretary of the pickets’ own union, UCATT, who at the time dissociated ‘his’ union from ‘criminal activity’ had to be pushed even to support a fund to aid the families of the convicted.

The culture in the courtroom itself showed a less than total commitment by the defence to their clients: whereas ‘Drake and Fennel [prosecuting counsel] attended every single day of the first trial”, three of the defence QCs didn’t turn up till the fourth day, and one ‘Keith McHale QC, representing Tomlinson, missed 22 days of the trial’ (p.177). Despite the fact that they were allegedly opponents in court, prosecution, defence and judge displayed ‘total courtesy on both sides in the courtroom. The judge had counsel to lunch and to supper at his lodging; we had him to dine in mess’ (p.178). One defence counsel, Rhys-Roberts ‘would occasionally invite all counsel, including the prosecution, to a feast at a convenient hotel. It was based on some delicacy as venison or wild swan or hare from his family estate in Wales’ (p.178) – no mention of the invitation being extended to the pickets they were paid to defend!

This hypocrisy extends to Labour ministers, who actively worked against exposing the role of the state in imprisoning innocent people – for Jack Straw’s despicable defence of the right of the security service to be above scrutiny or accountability, see pp.233-4; or sought (successfully) to lean on Amnesty International to withdraw their support for Des Warren as a Prisoner of Conscience (for the illustration of how dogged Turnbull could be, read her exposure of Labour Minister Alex Lyon’s approach to Amnesty, pp.262-5). To be fair (and Turnbull is scrupulously fair in her narrative) she pays credit to the role played in 2015 by Sadiq Khan and Jim Kennedy in getting the Labour Party to adopt as a manifesto commitment support for the release of all files relating to the Shrewsbury trials (p.270). More pertinently, she notes (p.205), the support given to the imprisoned pickets by ‘members of the left-wing Tribune group of Labour MPs, principally Martin Flannery, Tom Litterick, Dennis Skinner and Stan Thorne.’ Litterick offered a damning assessment of the Labour Party’s parliamentary cretinism when he wrote in 1976 (to Elsa Warren, Des’ wife):

‘We, the Labour MPs who tried to help, are part of the general failure of the labour movement to help its own people when the crunch comes; it’s grimly ironic that the London dockers were able to do more for their people when a Tory government was in power than we could for you with a Labour government.’

The only reservation I would hold relates to the surprising statement by Turnbull on p.274. Having exposed the collusion of the BBC with the state, in the infamous ‘Reds under the Bed’ ‘documentary’, Turnbull says: ‘There is no way that such a film would be allowed to be broadcast today during a trial dealing with the same subject matter.’ Really? After Orgreave and Hillsborough? I think Turnbull here displays a remarkable optimism. But this is a very minor criticism of a book that is a fascinating story, well-told, by a very generous individual. It serves as an exemplary lesson in the bias of the state, the justice system, the media and the government, but also as a testament to the tenacity of ordinary people (insofar as it is just to describe Turnbull and her fellow campaigners as ‘ordinary’).

Thank you, sister, and I hope it contributes, to whatever extent, to winning the argument among working-class readers of the need to sweep away this rotten system, its defenders and apologists in its entirety as the first step in building a world free from exploitation and repression.

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Richard Allday

Richard Allday is a member of Unite the Union’s National Executive, a branch secretary and shop steward in road haulage.  A member of Counterfire, his comrades know him better as 'the angry trucker'.