The actor Ricky Tomlinson must be nearing, if he hasn’t already achieved, ‘national treasure’ status; the star of Royle Family, Brookside et al has also been engaged in a 47-year fight for justice after being jailed in relation to his role as a trade union activist during the 1972 builders strike. The miscarriage of justice watchdog finally referred his conviction back to the Court of Appeal (as reported on the Justice Gap), along with six other members of a group of construction workers otherwise known as the Shrewsbury 24.
They had been picketing sites in Shrewsbury and had been charged under arcane legislation, the Conspiracy Act 1875, for offences relating to intimidation and damage during the first nationwide industrial action by the building trade. It was a fraught time of growing trade union militancy and the government was increasingly panicky when Ricky Tomlinson took part in the first ever national building workers’ strike to secure better wages and safety regimes.
‘People don’t realise now but building sites at that time were the killing fields,’ Tomlinson told the Justice Gap. ‘Someone died every working day.’ He recalls that the death rate in the industry was the equal to that of the mining and farming industries taken together. ‘But it wasn’t just people dying,’ he says. ‘They were being injured in their tens of thousands and the injuries were so bad.’
Ricky Tomlinson recalls the picket that led to his imprisonment. ‘There were 80 police officers on the day,’ he says. ‘No one was arrested and no one was cautioned. No one was even asked for their name and address.’ He recalls talking to the chief inspector in charge of policing the action with his colleague Des (Dezzie) Warren. ‘Myself and Dezzie were thanked for the way things were conducted. There were six coachloads of pickets and if they’d wanted to cause mayhem, they could have.’ Five months after the end of the strike, 24 of the pickets were arrested and charged with over 242 offences between them.
A political trial
Tomlinson and Des Warren received two and three years respectively. He spent 16 months in prison and his friend served two years and eight months. The actor blames his friend’s early death in 2004 from Parkinson’s Disease on the cocktail of tranquillisers administered to prisoners at the time. The men always insisted that they were framed by the Heath government to send out a message of zero tolerance to other union activists who might be planning to bring the country to a grinding halt.
‘It was a political trial from the start to finish,’ Tomlinson recalls. In a previous interview, he has damned the judge with a word redolent of his Jim Royle character ‘a gobshite’. He delivered an incendiary speech from the dock. ‘I have heard the judge say that this was not a political trial, just an ordinary criminal case,’ Tomlinson said, before being taken down. ‘I refute that with every fibre of my being. How can anyone say this was just an ordinary trial when 1,000 police were on duty outside this very building because building workers were due to appear before the court?’
According to Ricky Tomlinson, acting was never his career choice however he was forced into it because he was a victim of ‘blacklisting’. He could not find a job in construction. The lives of many of his activist friends and their families were blighted after being identified by troublemakers. The construction industry denied the existence of blacklists until 2009 when the offices of The Consulting Association were raided and a database of thousands of workers was found. Tomlinson reckons he was on a vetting list held by an organisation called the Economic League which was closed down in the 1990s. At the end of the last year the Undercover Policing inquiry heard evidence about the impact of blacklisting as a result of the activities of both shadowy organisations. Ricky Tomlinson has been refused core participant status in the inquiry.
‘I was lucky to get into a different profession and make it decent living for myself and make a few quid,’ he says. ‘For some of them, the experience broke their families, broke marriages up and some lived in poverty because they couldn’t get work because they were on the blacklist.’ In 2016 Ricky Tomlinson brandished a copy of the Economic League‘s North West blacklist on Channel 4 News.
Reds under the beds
The Shrewsbury 24’s fight for justice has had a convoluted history. They had applied to the Criminal Cases Review Commission back in 2012 on the basis of recently discovered evidence that original witness statements had been destroyed and that this fact had not been disclosed to the defence counsel. They also argued that an ITV documentary (The red under the bed) about the supposed communist infiltration of the trade union movement broadcast on the day that the jury went out had a prejudicial impact on deliberations. It was made with the help of a covert propaganda unit cased in the Foreign Office called the Information Research Department.
The CCRC rejected the case in 2017 after a five-year wait. However the watchdog was forced to revisit its decision after the Administrative Court took a very different view to the prospects of the Shrewsbury 24. ‘Some will think this has not been the Commission’s finest hour,’ reflected Helen Pitcher, CCRC chair. Quite.
The actor is confident justice will finally be done. ‘This miscarriage of justice will get overturned. There is no doubt about that,’ he says. He reckons that the prosecution have now accepted ‘the fact that the police have destroyed all the original statements – and come up with different ones – all signed on the same day.’
‘People are going to get the shock of their lives when this goes to the Court of Appeal. It will be very nice if it’s overturned but it won’t make the slightest bit difference to me and it won’t make it any difference the half a dozen or so lads who have died. If it’s overturned it will not be for the sake of the pickets but for the sake of the government. It is taken 47 fucking years to recognise what they have done. If this had happened in a banana republic there would’ve been an outcry.’
Ricky Tomlinson sees that Shrewsbury 24 trial almost half a century ago as ‘a precursor’ to the miners’ strike. ‘We were given a deterrent sentence,’ he says. ‘They were saying to the miners: “Look what we’re doing to those people, this is what you are in for.”’ The actor always saw himself as a political prisoner and refused to wear his prison uniform like the IRA’s protest blanket. When his case goes to the Court of Appeal, the actor has his wardrobe worked out: ‘a placard with prison number on it and the slogan: “Political prisoner R Tomlinson 57314.”’
Speeches from the dock 20 December 1973
Ricky Tomlinson, before he was sentenced to two years in jail
I have sat here for many weeks and seen my character systematically shredded up. It was said in the last war by Doctor Goebbels that if you repeat a lie often enough it becomes accepted as the truth.
This I have observed in this court and now know it to be true. So much so that the constant use of the words “petrified”, “terrified”, “afraid”, “frightened” and “scared to death” by witness after witness led even myself to think for a moment that I had done the things I had been accused of.
I refute that with every fibre of my being.
How can anyone say this was just an ordinary trial when 1,000 police were on duty outside this very building because building workers were due to appear before the court?
No sentence passed on me by this court, however lenient or however severe, can hurt me more than I have been hurt already.
I have been almost totally unemployed since my arrest and this punishes my wife and two infant sons to a far greater extent than it does me.
During the length and course of this trial my family have been abused by the people whose duty it is to assist them. But that matter is now in the hands of my member of parliament.
In the course of this trial I have discovered many things about the law of the land and the legal system. I express my fear for the working class movement.
The sentence passed on me today by this court will not matter.
My innocence has been proved time and time again by the building workers of Wrexham whom I led, and, indeed, by building workers from all over the land who have sent messages of support to myself, my family and my colleagues.
I look forward to the day when the real culprits, the McAlpines, Wimpeys, Laings and Bovis and all their political puppets, are in the dock facing charges of conspiracy and intimidating workers from doing what is their lawful right—picketing.
It is hoped the trade union movement and the working class of this country will act now to ensure that another charade such as this will never take place again, and the right to picket or strike will be defended even at the cost of great personal hardship or individual freedom.
Des Warren, before he was sentenced to three years in jail
I have spent a week in prison now. The convicts and others in there told me that a speech from the dock would get me double. But I must speak out.
It has been said in this court that this trial has nothing to do with politics. Among the ten million trade unionists in this country I doubt if you would find one who agreed with this statement.
It is a fact of life that due entirely to acts of parliament every strike is now regarded as a political act. It therefore follows that every act taken in furtherance of an industrial dispute also becomes a political act.
There are even those who describe it as a challenge to the law of the land when men decide not to work beyond the agreed number of hours in the working week and ban overtime.
The building employers, by their contempt of the laws governing safety regulations, are guilty of causing the deaths and maimings of workers. Yet they are not dealt with by the court.
The law is quite clearly an instrument of the state to be used in the interests of a tiny minority against a majority. The law is biased. It is class law and nowhere has this been demonstrated more than in the prosecution case at this trial.
Was there a conspiracy? Yes, there was. But not by the pickets. The conspiracy was one between the Home Secretary, the employers and the police.
It was conceived after pressure from Tory MPs, who demanded changes in the picketing laws. There is a very good reason why no police witness said here that he had seen any evidence of conspiracy, unlawful assembly or affray.
The question was hovering over the case from the very first day—why no arrests on 6 September?
That would have led to even more important questions. When was the decision to proceed taken? Where did it come from? What instructions were issued to the police and by whom?
I am innocent of the charges and I will appeal. But there will be a more important appeal to the entire trade union movement.
Nobody here must think they can walk away from this court and forget what has happened here. We are all part of something much bigger than what has taken place here. The trade union and working class movement cannot accept this verdict.
These speeches were printed in Socialist Worker, 5 January 1974