A Tory government which launched a head-on confrontation with trade unions in the early 1970s conspired with police and MI5 to help jail six striking building workers who picketed sites in Shrewsbury in 1972.
Those jailed – a total of 24 were prosecuted – included then plasterer Ricky Tomlinson – now much better known as an actor – who was jailed for 16 months.
Tomlinson told the Mirror newspaper he feared he would be ‘dead and buried’ before the truth emerged. He has always declared his innocence.
He told the Mirror, “They have got to quash these convictions and they have got to admit it was politically-motivated from the start.
“My kids and my grandkids still get the finger pointed at them. It’s wrong. I will be dead and buried by the time these papers come out.”
It is a mark of how murky the story is that the Tories have sealed the files until 2021 on grounds of national security. That on its own is a clear signal that police Special Branch and MI5 played a key role in a straightforward industrial dispute and the criminal prosecutions which followed.
Andy Burnham, Labour’s shadow home secretary has called for release of the sealed files and a ‘come clean’ approach to build trust as the government seeks to extend much greater surveillance powers to the security services. He has warned that Labour may not co-operate with such moves unless the sealed files are opened.
Len McCluskey, Unite general secretary, has backed the call. He said, “It is time for this ‘establishment’ cover-up to be exposed with the release of all the government documents relating to this disgraceful miscarriage of justice.
“The workers have been protesting their innocence and seeking justice ever since.
“Many, including Unite, believe that the trial was politically motivated, evidence deliberately withheld and charges falsified in what was a gross travesty against peaceful protesting working people.
“These beliefs are reinforced by the refusal of government to release all government papers, documentation and evidence relating to the arrest and prosecution of the pickets, citing the spurious catch-all of ‘national security’.
“The government must demonstrate that the security services have changed, if it wants to gain the trust of parliament and the public for its new surveillance legislation. The release of the papers relating to the Shrewsbury 24 would be a significant step in that journey.”
The jailing, now 43 years ago, of six of the Shrewsbury 24 has been described by Labour as a “political motivated show-trial”. All were jailed under Victorian conspiracy laws.
Ted Heath’s Tory government ripped into unions during its four-year term of office. Five dockers – the Pentonville five – were jailed under industrial relations laws but later released after the TUC threatened a general strike.
Just how dirty the Tory war against the unions might be revealed in the sealed files. Andy Burnham has told Parliament there was “high level” political involvement in the decision to prosecute.
This also involved, says Burnham influencing witnesses and the screening of a documentary – Reds under the bed – during the trial itself.
Burnham told a Westminster Hall debate yesterday (December 9), “The government is asking for Labour’s support to give the police and security services more expansive investigatory powers. I have said that I am prepared to consider the case for that.”
But he warned that Labour saw the Shrewsbury 24 as scapegoats in a Tory “propaganda war” against trade unions in which they had used the security services. He likened the case to the cover-up of the Hillsborough disaster.
He told Parliament, “The Shrewsbury 24 were the convenient scapegoats of a government campaign to undermine the unions; the victims of a politically-motivated show trial orchestrated from Downing Street, the Home and Foreign Offices and the security services.
“What possible justification can there be, 43 years on, for information about it to be withheld on national security grounds? The failure to disclose has less to do with national security and much more to do with the potential for political embarrassment.”
A theme of the state-fuelled conspiracy at the time was MI5 paranoia about communist influence in the UK. This reached such ridiculous levels that part of the security services went rogue and investigated one time head of MI5 – Roger Hollis – and Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson as potential Russian spies.
Labour has not categorically stated it will oppose the extension of surveillance powers. But Burnham told Parliament, “If the government wants our support, it needs to do something in return to build trust.
“It should hold up a mirror to the past and be honest about times when powers have been misused. By doing that, we will have honesty and transparency and be able to build in safeguards going forward, learning from this country’s past mistakes.”