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Four decades on, the cover up of the persecution of the Shrewsbury 24 continues

Shrewsbury 24Tomorrow , the House of Commons is to debate a motion on the release of papers relating to the bulding strike of 1972 and the prosecution of the Shrewsbury 24.  Dave Anderson MP, who will lead the debate, explains the background.

Those involved in the Shrewsbury 24 campaign have, for over four decades, tried to get justice for a group of building workers who were disgracefully treated after they took part in picketing during the national building workers strike of 1972. This was a momentous year for successful industrial action with both miners and dockers securing seriously better terms and conditions for themselves. When the building workers secured a 20% pay rise, the employers and the government were seriously rattled and they decided to use the full force of the state to roll back the activities of trade unions and minor political parties.

At the behest of the Building Employers Federation, who had been very critical of the lack of police action during the dispute, the then Home Secretary, Robert Carr, instigated a full blown investigation into the activity of pickets in North Wales some two months after the end of the dispute. The result of the investigation was that separate trials of small groups of pickets took place in the summer and autumn of 1973. This was despite the Home Secretary having been advised by the Attorney General, the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Treasury Counsel not to prosecute as convictions weren’t likely. It was also after the police on the picket lines had decided that nothing untoward had gone on.

At the first set of trials, held in Mold, that contention seemed to be borne out as the maximum sentence was a £50 fine and many pickets walked away scot free. But the state was determined to succeed. To help that process, the rules which allowed defendants to challenge jurors who may be biased against them were removed. Unlike in Mold, lawyers for the pickets in later trials were not allowed to question jurors to see if they had links with the building industry or to see if they were anti-trade union. This change was instigated by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham, without any warning or consultation, thereby cutting across decades of normal practice.

Although the lawyers for the defendants sought to have the trials held in a part of the country, the first trial was laid down for early October 1973 in Shrewsbury. But the deepest concern the defendants shared was their fear that they were being set up, as one of the charges they faced was conspiracy to intimidate. If this could be proved, a lengthy jail sentence could be imposed unlike had been the case in Mold.

So where did this “conspiracy” charge spring from. The prosecution claimed that a picket planning meeting held in a pub in Chester in late August was actually a meeting wherein the pickets deliberately conspired to go into the building sites in Shropshire with intent to intimidate local building workers. There was no evidence to back this up and the pickets contended that the meeting was held to discuss a request for support from colleagues in the area and to work out pick up times etc.

But the state was so keen to pursue this line that they even charged and ultimately jailed one picket for conspiracy who hadn’t even attended the meeting! But locked up he was along with 6 others with sentences ranging from a few months to 3 years. This was meant to send out a clear message to working people that the state could criminalise you just for exercising your legitimate, democratic right to strike and picket.

It was meant to bring the unions to heel but it had the opposite effect. Mass protests , strikes and other forms of industrial action intensified with the Tory government eventually going to the country in 1974 on the case of “Who runs the country?” The defeat of Ted Heath showed that the answer was “certainly not you!”

But the deliberate actions of the establishment during these times, also including  the setting up of a secret unit in government, an inflammatory TV broadcast on the night the prosecution summed up, the clear role of building industry leaders in directing government actions, and concerns about the less than impartial behaviour of the judge in the case. These all point to an establishment bent on sending out a clear warning to those who had the temerity to challenge them.

Most of the above is borne out in papers already released to the National Archives at Kew, but the last Labour government and the present coalition have refused to release all of the papers to the public domain. One has to ask what else is being hidden from view? If the devastating information already there is so concerning the,

David Cameron famously said that transparency is all and that Sunshine is the best disinfectant. Well in response to the debate this week I say to him”Let the sunshine in David“. Open the books and, finally, let’s see the truth and have justice for a group of men whose only crime was to want to work in a secure, stable environment and be properly rewarded for doing so.

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