Des Warren (left) and Ricky Tomlinson (centre) were fitted up

After 47 years

The convictions of the Shrewsbury 24 have at last been quashed. There was a conspiracy - between the employers, the police and the Tory government. Bernard Mattson reports

A webinar was held on Wednesday March 31 hosted by the Public Interest Law Centre (PILC), entitled ‘Shrewsbury pickets, political policing and the state’.

This, of course, concerned the 24 Shrewsbury building workers falsely convicted in 1973-74 following their strike and militant picket. Six of the accused were actually jailed, including Ricky Tomlinson, who today is an acclaimed actor, and Des Warren (now deceased), who recalled his appalling treatment in his 1982 book The key to my cell. They were let down by their own union, the TUC and the Labour Party leadership, though there was plenty of support for them in the working class as a whole. But their convictions were finally quashed by the court of appeal on March 23 after a mere 47 years!

The speakers were Annabel Timan and Piers Marquis, the lawyers involved in the appeal, Dave Smith from the Blacklist Support Group, Labour’s John McDonnell and Ricky Tomlinson himself. There were over 330 people attending the webinar, plus a large number following on other channels.

As the PILC preview said,

On Tuesday March 23 2021 the court of appeal made the following judgement in the case of our clients, Ricky Tomlinson, Arthur Murray and the ‘Shrewsbury 24’: “It follows that under Ground 1 the convictions of all the appellants are unsafe. Their appeals are allowed and all the verdicts in relation to them are quashed.”

Annabel Timan gave a pretty full report on the section of the appeal based on witness statements that the police had destroyed - it turned out that the defence had not been informed of their existence, let alone their destruction. The police had taken statements from about 700 people, but at a later date re-interviewed them, producing press photographs of pickets with some heads circled for easy identification, in order to help the witnesses come up with the ‘right’ story. It has been claimed that the police only came back to those witnesses for their final statements, once they were sure they could do that.

Piers Marquis gave the report on the section of the appeal that failed, but which will be pursued further. As the barristers’ report says,

Prejudice: on November 13 1973, Granada Television broadcast a documentary (produced also in conjunction with Anglia Television and Yorkshire Television) produced by the journalist and former Labour MP, Woodrow Wyatt. The broadcast took place in the course of the first trial of the Shrewsbury pickets. The programme was broadcast directly before the defendants were due to give evidence.

The documentary featured footage of our client, Ricky Tomlinson, and also Des Warren in its opening minutes. The programme’s narrative concretely, but wrongly, linked our clients with disruption and violence.

As I say, that part of the appeal failed, but, as Piers pointed out, they have not finished with it yet. There is a report on the background and evidence in this part of the appeal,1 along with the players and their backgrounds, making it pretty clear that what Des Warren said from the dock at his trial was true.

Comrade Warren stated:

Was there a conspiracy? Ten members of the jury have said there was. There was a conspiracy, but not by the pickets. The conspiracy began with the miners giving the government a good hiding last year. It developed when the government was forced to perform legal gymnastics in getting five dockers out of jail after they had only just been put there. The conspiracy was between the home secretary, the employers and the police. It was not done with a nod and a wink. It was conceived after pressure from Tory members of parliament who demanded changes in the picketing laws.2

Parts of this speech were highlighted by panellists in the webinar and, of course, it was quite true. The government was out for blood following the victory of the National Union of Mineworkers in February 1972. The miners’ militant mass picket at Saltley coke depot earlier that month played a highly significant part in that victory. The ‘Pentonville 5’ dockers, as they were called, were arrested on July 21 1972 and released a few days later. The Shrewsbury picket took place on September 6 1972.

Next up was Dave Smith, secretary of the Blacklist Support Group, which organises in support of militant construction workers who were subsequently denied work, thanks to the employers’ blacklists. Dave gave an impassioned contribution in support of the Shrewsbury pickets, especially Ricky Tomlinson, and spoke of the long struggle of themselves and of other blacklisted trade unionists, who have had, and continue to have, a tremendous struggle just to work, get a roof over their heads and food on the table.

Then it was the turn of John McDonnell, who spoke of the dangerous turns in the law currently being proposed by the Tory government, including the right of undercover cops to break the law and of the police to decide who can or cannot protest, and when and where they can do it. True enough, and it is something to be fought by the working class, but possibly the most used word at the event as a whole was ‘solidarity’. This came from both speakers and audience members in the chat column, but I could not help wondering where McDonnell’s ‘solidarity’ was in the case of, for instance, all those leftwing members of the Labour Party expelled or currently suspended in the ‘anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ witch-hunt launched by the party bureaucracy under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn (predictably, he too eventually fell victim).

Other words used included ‘love’ and ‘keep fighting’ and these, along with ‘solidarity’, were perhaps employed most of all by the last speaker, Ricky Tomlinson himself. He gave an informative and very moving speech, going over the picketing, the trials and the imprisonment - the latter especially of himself and Des Warren. They refused to follow orders and went on hunger strike, and for much of the time were treated abominably.

During the trial there had been a report in The Sunday People saying that Des Warren had a Jaguar car in his drive and owned a holiday home. Ricky pointed out that the Jaguar was an old, broken-down model with no engine, which was used by his cat, looking after its kittens on the back seat! The ‘holiday home’ was a small, old caravan with no wheels! But all this was about par for the course for the mainstream media (no change there then).

He and others spoke of the long fight for at least a little justice and, not surprisingly, of the sadness that Des and others had not lived to see the outcome of last week’s appeal.

After the panel had made their speeches there were some questions put to them, selected by the chair from the chat. For example, what to do next? Once again the more impassioned responses from the panel included the words, ‘solidarity’, ‘love’, ‘keep fighting’ and ‘no divisiveness’ (that last comment referred to future actions). Another question asked about the role which the Labour leadership might play in this. For some reason the panellists seemed a little reluctant to address that part of the question.

However, the whole occasion was interesting and emotional. There are clearly a lot of people who want to keep fighting, though they are not at all clear as to how. There is no reason not to continue using the courts to appeal against injustice, but in this case it took 47 years before a clear injustice was partially righted. Yet there are far more such injustices out there regarding jobs, homes, health …

We need a well organised working class not only to rectify such abominations, but to impose a new, democratic, alternative order. But what form that should take and how it could be obtained was, of course, not a subject for discussion at this event.

  1. pilc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/PILC_Court_Rep_v2_ONLINE1.pdf.↩︎

  2. Quote taken from The key to my cell by Des Warren (Living History Library, 2007).↩︎