Shrewsbury 24: some belated justice

Submitted by martin on 24 March, 2021 - 11:01 Author: John Bloxam
Workers' Fight 22

On Tuesday 23 March, the Court of Appeal overturned the convictions of 14 North Wales trade unionists who had been sentenced for picketing in the 1972 building workers' national strike. They were part of the "Shrewsbury 24": 24 workers were originally put on trial 48 years ago.

The appeal was granted because some of the original police statements in the trial had been destroyed by the force, and the defendants had not been notified of this basic fact. The secret destruction was uncovered about a decade ago in the archives by the Shrewsbury 24 Campaign’s researcher, Eileen Turnbull.

The discovery also included a note between the police and the chief crown prosecutor explaining the destruction – “In most cases the first statement was taken before photographs were available for witnesses and before the officers taking the statements knew what we were trying to prove.” (emphasis added). This clear statement of political motivation against the pickets was also part of the evidence submitted to the Court of Appeal, but not accepted by the judges, who also rejected the claim that a "documentary" (“Red Under the Bed”, focusing on the Shrewsbury 24 case) shown across ITV regions on the day the prosecution ended their evidence in court could have prejudiced the outcome!

There is written evidence that the Tory government at the time had a direct hand in the production of “Red Under the Bed” – “The prime minister has seen the transcript (of the TV programme)… He has commented that we want as much as possible of this sort of thing.”

It was a clear political trial and aimed at the whole trade union movement. The government had been defeated twice in the first part of 1972 – the miners' strike, and then the freeing of five jailed dockers under the 1971 Industrial Relations Act, the Tories' first attempt on anti-union laws. The Shrewsbury 24 trial, with the urging of the building bosses, was an early example of ruling class attempt at retribution. For this purpose they bought out 19th century conspiracy laws to use against militant trade unionists.

Two of the North Wales pickets were jailed for lengthy terms. Des Warren got three years, and died in 2004 partly because of the prison treatment he received. Five of the other trade unionists also convicted died before Tuesday’s court decision. Ricky Tomlinson, now a well-known actor, got two years, and was in court to hear the vindicating result.

In July 1972 militant rank and file working class action, of near general strike proportions, forced the government to free five jailed dockers after a few days in prison. Although many working class activists fought hard for similar action to free the Shrewsbury building workers, they were unsuccessful. Much of the responsibility for this defeat must lie with the trade union and labour bureaucrats.

At best, they gave grudging, half-hearted support at best, but said that the "law' – the naked class justice on display – must take its course. At worst, there was open hostility to the jailed pickets, including from the leadership of the builders’ own union, UCATT. The TUC instructed local Trades Councils not to support action to free the pickets “unless requested to do so by the NECs [National Executive Committees] of the Unions concerned”. The 1974-79 Labour government resisted a powerful campaign to pardon the convicted pickets.

In 2014, backbench MPs voted overwhelmingly for the government to release all documents relating to the jailing of the pickets. Andy Burnham, then in the shadow cabinet, was a prominent spokesperson. But at that level the Shrewsbury 24 case has never been a central campaign, nor one tied to the class nature of the convictions.

As from the beginning, that work has been done at the rank and file level throughout the nearly 50 years of naked injustice. At the start, Workers Fight – a predecessor of Solidarity – played a central role in initiating the local North Wales Defence Committee and the solidarity campaign.

Since the 1974 jailings, much of the work has been undertaken by the Shrewsbury 24 Campaign and the surviving falsely imprisoned workers. Today’s legal victory is a result, first and foremost, of their tireless activity and continued struggle.

Comments

Submitted by Gerry Downing (not verified) on Sat, 27/03/2021 - 06:53

Socialist Fight [note added by AWL: we think this is meant to say Workers Fight] may have played a part in the Shrewsbury 24 campaign but it was the WRP Des Warren joined and who led the main campaign at the beginning. Deal with it critically and say why and do not be so economical with the truth 

That said you are nowhere near as economical as the CPB Morning Star and the WRP News Line themselves now who have not a word of criticism of the trade union bureaucracy and Labour party leaders and CPGB Morning Star who refused to use The Key to my Cell, as Des Warren wrote in his book. 

Submitted by John Bloxam (not verified) on Sun, 28/03/2021 - 17:41

In reply to by Gerry Downing (not verified)

“…it was the WRP Des Warren joined and who led the main campaign at the beginning.” What actually happened?

The building workers national strike was in the second part of 1972. At the end of that year initial charges were made against a number of north Wales pickets, and then dropped. At the beginning of 1973 the state brought much more serious ‘conspiracy’ charges against 24 pickets, which ended with 14 of the pickets being sentenced towards the end of 1974. Des Warren, who received the longest jail sentence, was released in August 1976. From 1964, and throughout the strike, imprisonment and until early 1980 he was a member of the Communist Party. He joined the WRP in August 1980 nearly 4 years later – the WRP had printed an earlier statement on the case, and then Des Warren’s book ‘The key to my cell’ in 1982. The first mention of the WRP in Des Warren’s book is after his prison release in 1976, the same time at which the “main campaign”, led by the Communist Party, was being wound down.

So, Des Warren joined the WRP 8 years after the builders’ strike, and 4 years after release from prison. Throughout this time he was a member of the Communist Party. The first thing I suggest is that Gerry Downing reads Des Warren’s book!

I assume the reference to “the main campaign” in support of the charged, and then jailed North Wales pickets, was the North Wales Defence Committee, which was established in late summer 1973. This committee was dominated by the Communist Party, supported by the Building Workers’ Charter (also controlled by the CP) and with the official support of the charged North Wales pickets. Although fund address and contact details remained much the same, it was not the first defence committee to be established, which happened in early 1973.

When the conspiracy charges were brought in early 1973, the main trade union leaderships (UCATT & TGWU) effectively abandoned the threatened pickets – quoting ‘legal advice’ of course. However, rank and file North Wales building workers – many working as contractors at the Shotton steel works – set up the North Wales 24 Defence Committee as their response. This was suggested and assisted by Workers’ Fight, who were working politically around the steel works. Workers’ Fight printed the first bulletins of the NW 24 Defence Committee. Local Communist Party building worker members were involved, but not at this stage Des Warren. Although not working at Shotton himself, he had a lot of credibility among the workers, with his long record of militancy and 29 charges against him for picketing. He was also very factional/sectarian against the “Trots”, reportedly saying to a group of workers at one stage that “The whole of N. Wales was knee deep in Trots”. His target here was Workers’ Fight and marginalizing any influence we had in the Committee and establishing tight Communist Party control. That was achieved in late summer 1973, particularly with the change in the national CP attitude towards the Shrewsbury pickets and the issues involved. Up to that point, and despite the activity (and also anger) of local CP members, the Communist Party nationally – together with the Building Workers Charter – had moved very slowly and cautiously on the issue, concerned first and foremost not to disrupt relations with trade union leaders, and against the need to organize a militant national rank and file response in solidarity with the pickets being victimized.

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