Today, 23 March 2021 will go down in history as the day when a titanic struggle for justice finally came to an end. On that day the Court of Appeal overturned the convictions of 14 men sentenced for their involvement in picketing during the 1972 national building workers strike. Lawyers for the ‘Shrewsbury 24’ as they were known from the outset had argued the destruction of witness statements made their convictions unsafe. The appeal judge Lord Justice Fulford agreed saying that “what occurred was unfair”. Sadly six of the 14 who brought the action have since died, including Des Warren, who was jailed for three years. Best known of the pickets is the Royle Family TV actor Ricky Tomlinson who was among those convicted and was jailed for two years.
In the 1970s, working conditions on building sites were both unpleasant and dangerous. Basic facilities were lacking. Health and safety measures were conspicuously absent. On average one building worker died every day in the UK because safety equipment was either not provided or its use not properly enforced. Attempts by workers to organise union activities or raise health and safety concerns were frequently met with dismissal. Blacklisting was a common practice. This combustible combination of poor pay and horrendous working conditions led to a national builders’ strike organised by UCATT the construction workers union in June 1972.
Trade unionists travelled to demonstrate from one site to another and in September six coach-loads of strikers demonstrated in Shrewsbury and Telford. On 6 September during the final stages of the dispute, builders from north Wales were asked to go to Shrewsbury to help on the picket line. Police arrested none of the demonstrators that day, quite the opposite in fact. Des Warren wrote in his account of the strike: “Toward the end of the day, Chief Superintendent Meredith shook my hand and congratulated me on the conduct of the meeting we held. He made no complaint about the activities of the pickets.”
Five months later the pickets were charged and subsequently convicted in three court cases held at Shrewsbury Crown Court in late 1973 and early 1974. The Tory government of Edward Heath in cahoots with the main employers’ organisation, the National Federation of Building Trade Employers (NFBTE), had decided that examples had to be made in their attempt to tighten up the law on picketing.
In the run up to the trials I was living in Hackney, east London and we organised a solidarity meeting for the Shrewsbury pickets at Hackney Town Hall. One of the speakers was John Llywarch who lived in North Wales. He had been charged with conspiracy to intimidate; unlawful assembly; affray and intimidation. After the meeting John stayed overnight at my home in E8 when I learnt much more about the dispute.
In the subsequent first batch of trials he was found guilty of unlawful assembly and a received a suspended prison sentence of nine months. I went with hundreds of others on a march and rally in support of the pickets in Shrewsbury where on the day there was a heavy police presence outside the Crown Court.
Since then I have followed the long campaign for justice including the many appeals that were heard over the years, as well supporting the heroic efforts of the Official Shrewsbury 24 Campaign to overturn the miscarriage of justice. For a full account of the campaign see: https://www.shrewsbury24campaign.org.uk/.
This included the application to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) to have these cases referred to the Court of Appeal and for these miscarriages of justice to be overturned which after many years resulted in victory for justice.
Commenting after the verdict of the court of appeal, Ricky Tomlinson said: “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. This was a political trial not just of me, and the Shrewsbury pickets – but was a trial of the trade union movement. My thoughts today are with my friend and comrade Des Warren (pictured). Like me he was victimised by the Court for defending the interests of the working class. I’m just sorry he is not here today so we can celebrate, but I’m sure he’s with us in spirit.’
This is a victory for the trade union movement and our solidarity against a state stich-up which has finally been exposed.
Cartoon: Phil Evans.
Details of the judgement at: https://www.judiciary.uk/judgments/r-v-warren-others-shrewsbury-24/