by Chris Kane
Two hundred people, overwhelmingly workers, packed out the London Welsh Centre in a rally demanding justice for the Shrewsbury Pickets, the six building workers jailed by the state in 1972. Ricky Tomlinson, the well known actor, got two years and Des Warren three years. They were the victims of a conspiracy by the Tory government, construction companies and security services. The show trial was then the longest case in British legal history.
The speakers on Monday evening were Ricky Tomlinson, an activist in the national building workers’ strike of 1972, Terry Renshaw of UCATT – another activist who only narrowly escaped prison due to a error by the Police – and former leader of the NUM Arthur Scargill.
Terry Renshaw, recalling how the state used the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act 1875, called for a unified campaign to achieve justice, and for a full public inquiry to exonerate the pickets.
Ricky Tomlinson gave an impassioned account of the building workers’ struggle of 1972. He explained how they organised a fragmented industry for what was the first and last national building workers’ strike in history. Tomlinson criticised some of the tactics in the strike and argued that his belief was that a strike involved “one out – all out until we win!” Something our own movement could do with dose of today. His politics had been on the extreme right at the time and the experience of the struggle had changed his beliefs: in particular he recalled his comradeship with fellow prisoner – the communist Des Warren. Tomlinson was overcome as he outlined in detail the inhuman treatment to which he and the late Des Warren were subjected to in prison.
From day one Tomlinson and Des Warren resisted by engaging in dirty protests and hunger strikes. The ill treatment to which they were subjected was branded by Tomlinson as nothing less than the “murder” of Des Warren”, who later died in 2004 from the ill health caused by his imprisonment.
Tomlinson pointed out that all this could have been avoided – “The Union got cold feet, we were abandoned”.
Disgracefully, the only Union officials at the trial were subpoenaed. Tomlinson recalled being cold shouldered by the TUC when he was released from prison. Their defence campaign, he pointed out, had received support overwhelmingly from rank and file trade unionists.
The manner in which it could have been avoided was reiterated by Arthur Scargill who reminded the rally that a national strike wave had brought the release of the Pentonville Five imprisoned under the same Tory Industrial Relations Act.
The campaign is pointing towards a lobby of Parliament in March to secure a full pardon for the Shrewsbury Pickets. A useful step would be to have an EDM put forward at least by the Labour Representation Committee MPs to give the lobby a focus: the International Communists will be arguing for this in the LRC. This campaign should be a top priority for the labour movement. These class war prisoners have waited long enough for the justice they deserve.