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Royal Courts of Justice

Royal Courts of Justice, Photo: Elliott Brown / cropped from original / licensed under CC BY 2.0, linked at bottom of article

John Westmoreland reports on a court case that has exposed the state’s use of violence and intimidation against workers in the 1970s

After nearly 50 years, a group of wrongfully prosecuted building workers have had their day in court. The Shrewsbury 24, as the pickets in the 1972 builders’ strike came to be known, have insisted from the time of their trial in 1973 that they were set up, by covert forces of the state. The 24 pickets are now down to 14.

Ricky Tomlinson, now famous as an actor, was a plasterer back in the day and was an active picket. He was sentenced to two years imprisonment for crimes including unlawful assembly, intimidation and affray. His friend Desi Warren, now deceased, got three years. The CPS framed the charges under conspiracy laws dating back to the eighteenth century. These laws were aimed at preventing rebellion, not trade union activity.

The use of conspiracy charges shows that the prosecutions were politically motivated. There were much more important strikes taking place in the mines, the docks and the car industry. In any case North Wales, where the ‘crimes’ are alleged to have taken place was not the main centre of strike action.

Much bigger strikes in the building trade were happening in London, Birmingham and Liverpool. It appears strikers in Wrexham were targeted for two reasons. Firstly, Tory donor and construction boss, Lord McAlpine, was enraged that his sites were being hit. And secondly it was felt that the Wrexham pickets were isolated and would be easier to scapegoat.

Evidence has come to light that the case against the 24 was manufactured. During the picketing the police never intervened to stop violence and intimidation. Instead after the strike ended, 25 police officers were sent to stay at a hotel in North Wales, from which they set about gathering after-the-fact testimony against the pickets.

The dark forces of the British state

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 played a part in convicting Warren, a Communist Party member, and Tomlinson, by scripting an ITV documentary called Red Under The Bed, that was aired the night before the jury at Shrewsbury Crown Court were deliberating their verdict. The conspiracy charges helped to frame the pickets as a “threat to national security” and the two were convicted.

Ricky Tomlinson has campaigned ceaselessly to get his and Desi’s names cleared. They never did anything that was considered criminal at the time they were picketing. However, he has been up against powerful forces. MI5 had the files that Ricky’s campaign needed to access classified until 2021. Surprise, surprise some of the files have ‘gone missing’.

The Shrewsbury 24 challenge to the British establishment is a time bomb set to explode. It reveals the connections between big construction firms and the secret state. 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.

Tomorrow – read Dave Freeman’s eyewitness account of the strike

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John Westmoreland

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.

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