Ricky Tomlinson at New Brighton, Wallasey, Wirral, Merseyside, England Ricky Tomlinson at New Brighton, Wallasey, Wirral, Merseyside, England. Photo: Flickr - Andrew Hurley / cropped from original / licensed under CC 2.0, links at the bottom of article

The victory for the Shrewsbury 24 lays bare how the state conspired to lock up striking workers in the 70s, reports John Westmoreland

It took nearly fifty years but at last, the convictions against the Shrewsbury 24 have been overturned. They were taken to court on trumped-up charges simply because they were active pickets in the 1972 building workers’ strike.

The Shrewsbury 24 as they became known, have long argued that they were the victims of a frame-up. This was summed up by picket turned actor Ricky Tomlinson as he left the Court of Appeal on Tuesday.

“Whilst it is only right that these convictions are overturned, it is a sorry day for British justice. The reality is we should never have been standing in the dock. We were brought to trial at the apparent behest of the building industry bosses, the Conservative government and ably supported by the secret state.”

Ricky was sentenced to two years imprisonment on charges of unlawful assembly, intimidation and affray. Today he paid tribute to his fellow picket Des Warren. ‘Desi’ was jailed for three years – a sentence that badly damaged his health. Ricky also called out the original prosecutions as “an attack on trade unionism itself”.

British justice in the dock

The judgement in favour of the Shrewsbury pickets comes in the wake of demonstrations against the Tories’ Police and Crime Bill and demonstrates that the British state, like all states, exists to protect the interests of the ruling class.

Every demonstrator on the streets confronting enhanced state and police power needs to know about the Shrewsbury 24.

The Court of Appeal heard about how the witness statements against the 24 were ‘unsafe’, but to be more frank they were simply made up.

During the picketing, the police never intervened to stop any alleged violence and intimidation. Instead, after the strike ended, 25 police officers were sent to stay at a hotel in North Wales from where they set about gathering after-the-fact testimony against the pickets.

But even more, sinister forces were at work than the political dirty work of the police.

Red scare tactics

The Information Research Department (IRD) was a secret propaganda wing of the UK Foreign Office, dedicated to disinformation warfare, anti-communism, and pro-colonial propaganda. It was set up by the 1945-51 Attlee government.

The IRD helped produce an ITV documentary called Red under the Bed that was aired the night before the jury at Shrewsbury Crown Court delivered their verdict on the 24.

The Court of Appeal has ruled that this was “deeply prejudicial” to the defendants. The conspiracy charges helped to frame the pickets as a “threat to national security”.

A rotten system

Clearly, the Shrewsbury 24 have been branded criminals on manufactured charges and evidence. They suffered imprisonment, fines, blacklisting and their families were suffered too. And this was not because of a few bad apples in the justice system. The whole travesty was driven by powerful forces in the establishment and it tells us that their commitment to justice and democracy is a façade.

MI5 had the files on the case classified until 2021 to stop Ricky Tomlinson’s campaign for justice from seeing them. It came as no surprise that some of the files have gone missing.

Ricky Tomlinson is absolutely right to point to a joint effort by giant construction firms, the secret state and the Tories in conspiring to criminalise innocent pickets.

When Ted Heath, the Tory Prime Minister at the time, saw Red under the Bed his comment was, “we want more of this”. That Heath said okay to the actions of the IRD is highly likely.

There are likely to call for an official inquiry into this shameful affair, but we cannot trust any inquiry instigated by this government of liars. Trade unionists and campaigners should demand a trade union sponsored inquiry. Let’s call into question the attitude of the state to trade unions and use it to start a meaningful campaign to abolish the anti-trade union laws. We should also redouble our opposition to the Police and Crime Bill.

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John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.