By Tom Coburg. Originally published in The Canary, 30 May 2020
On hearing the name Ricky Tomlinson, many people will think of Brookside or the Royle Family or the Ken Loach films Raining Stones and Riff Raff. Before that Tomlinson was a plasterer, and in 1972 he joined a national building workers’ strike. Tomlinson was subsequently charged with various offences he was alleged to have committed when picketing. He was convicted and sentenced to two years imprisonment. That conviction will now be re-examined by the Court of Appeal, following revelations that crucial evidence was destroyed.
It’s also claimed that a TV documentary, which was arguably prejudiced against the strikers and broadcast during trial proceedings, was personally approved by prime minister Edward Heath. The Canary has obtained copies of – previously – secret memos that back that claim and also show how a secretive government-funded propaganda unit played a pivotal role in the making of the documentary.
The Criminal Case Review Commission (CCRC) has ruled in May 2020 that the Court of Appeal should re-examine the criminal convictions imposed on several of the striking workers, including Tomlinson, who took part in the picket. That decision by the CCRC was based on new evidence that indicated crucial statements had been destroyed, and of the “way in which the airing of the documentary was handled by the trial judge”.
In addition, the Guardian reported that:
|Documents discovered in the national archives have shown that a covert Whitehall unit had a “discreet but considerable hand” in the programme by supplying its makers with a large dossier about allegedly leftwing trade unionists.|
As the Guardian has revealed:
|The documents, discovered over years spent in public archives by Eileen Turnbull, the [Shrewsbury 24] campaign’s researcher, reveal that Robert Carr, the home secretary in Edward Heath’s Conservative government, took a personal interest in the prosecution of the men.|
It also reported that the “new unit operating in the Foreign Office” was:
|at the same time gathering evidence on allegedly subversive communist involvement in the trade unions, which it then passed to a television documentary, Red Under the Bed, which aired twice at crucial points during the trial.|
Indeed, memos prove how the IRD was directly involved in Red Under The Bed (RUTB) and that Heath gave his approval to the documentary.
One memo, dated 21 November 1973, and headed “RED UNDER THE BED”, is from an IRD official. It refers to a broadcast of the documentary on 13 November and boasts how the IRD had a “discreet but considerable hand in this programme”. Also, it states it [IRD] had been in “close touch” with Woodrow Wyatt in the making of the documentary. The memo also adds how the IRD consulted with the Department of Employment and the Security Service (MI5) to provide a “dossier”, including a paper on “Violent Picketing”, to Wyatt. It further acknowledges the help of the Industrial Research and Information Service, a “semi-clandestine anti-communist trade-union”. The memo is annotated with “Well done. A good effort by IRD”.
The documentary, which included footage of the Shrewsbury defendants, was broadcast by ITV on 13 November 1973 as “the prosecution closed its case, then repeated in December when the judge, Chetwynd-Talbot, was summing up”.
In March 2017, journalist Paul Lashmar referred to a Private Eye article that claimed the IRD also funded the documentary. He described Wyatt as:
|a key external link for IRD and the agencies what we call an agent of influence. He, like a number of establishment figures, was a director of news agencies in an international network of MI6/IRD covert operations.|
|Wyatt was part of a MacCarthyite anti communist cabal who would have seen any vigorous trade union activity as the work of Stalin’s fellow travellers rather than what was mostly the case the grievances of men working in a badly paid and highly dangerous industry.|
Another secret memo, dated 17 January 1974, referred to the November 1973 memo and included a handwritten note by the prime minister’s principal private secretary Robert Armstrong to the PM. The annotated reply says “We want as much as possible of this”:
Days later a third memo, written by Armstrong to Sir John Hunt, explains how Heath “has seen the transcript of Woodrow Wyatt’s television programme” and how “he has commented that we want as much as possible of this sort of thing”.
A fourth memo, from Hunt to Armstrong and dated 25 January 1974, about the documentary, again confirms that “A good deal of discreet help was given to Mr. Wyatt in preparing this programme”.
|Hunt also confirms that the new IRD unit is now up and running, and includes the first issue of “Subversive Influence in Industry, a digest compiled from published sources“, dated 1-19 January 1974.
Additionally the file includes the full transcript of Red under the Bed.
In 2015, police minister Mike Penning refused – after a review – to disclose further files on the Shrewsbury24: “the Cabinet Office stands by their decision, and the government stands by their decision, not to release those documents on the grounds of national security”.
According to a 1967 report by the FCO, the IRD was originally set up in 1948 to oppose communism and:
|was ostensibly an information department of the Foreign Office; it was the source of unclassified material reaching several thousand recipients throughout the world who for the most part did not know that IRD was the originating department of the Foreign Office; and it was a department serving as a nucleus of a political warfare executive if it were ever thought necessary to re-create such a body. All distribution lists were kept strictly secret and, except fortuitously and in the case of very close and trusted contacts, recipients of the department’s material did not know who else was receiving it.|
During that period, the IRD produced fake news mainly directed at the USSR, but also at left groups in the UK.
A grave injustice
In 2015, the Guardian reported that in “a note of a conference with Maurice Drake QC, the lead prosecution barrister, apparently made by a police officer”, certain handwritten statements had been destroyed. Lawyer Rhona Friedman said the note:
|has the potential to be the most shocking and revelatory document detailing possible prosecutorial abuse of process that I have seen… It suggests that the police may have gathered evidence in this case to fit a predetermined narrative and destroyed evidence which didn’t fit.|
In contrast, the Shrewsbury 24 campaign reported how the picketing had merited no intervention by the police:
|None of the pickets were cautioned or arrested during the whole of the day. As far as the pickets were concerned it was just a normal day’s picketing. The unions did not receive any complaints from the police about the conduct of the pickets. The police did not complain to the union representatives about the conduct of any of the pickets. There is photographic evidence showing that the police were present throughout the day.|
Altogether, there were three trials of the pickets: 3 October 1973, 15 January 1974, and 26 February 1974. Several legal irregularities were noted by the defence. Des Warren, one of the 24 convicted, gave a powerful speech in court (and perhaps for that, he was given the longest jail sentence – three years). He argued how there had been a conspiracy to prosecute by forces of the state, but that:
|It is yet one more step along the road to fascism, and I would remind you that the greatest heroes in Nazi Germany were those who challenged the law, when it was used as a political weapon by a fanatical gang for a minority of greedy, evil men.|
But it didn’t end there. After serving their prison terms, a number of the Shrewsbury 24 were unable to find work, presumably blacklisted. Indeed, it is estimated that over several decades 40,000 workers were blacklisted by around 700 companies that subscribed to the Economic League (EL).
Here is an abridged version of Tomlinson’s own EL entry (giving Tomlinson’s real name – Eric Tomlinson – and his date of birth):
In October 2016, Tomlinson spoke at a conference on undercover policing and described how he was asked by “two detectives” to give evidence against his fellow workers but refused. He also added that during the trial, the court was surrounded by police and the proceedings lasted 55 days. And he described how hundreds of statements were obtained by the police for the prosecution case, but that many were subsequently destroyed and replaced by ‘stronger’ ones. After the verdicts were announced, Tomlinson found out that the jury was privately told that if they found the defendants guilty they would simply get a fine, to be paid by the union.
It’s patently clear that Tomlinson and the other Shrewsbury pickets were falsely convicted in trials that saw intervention from a government-funded propaganda agency. Additionally, the controversial documentary which aired at a crucial moment in trial proceedings had the approval of prime minister Edward Heath.
Justice for the Shrewsbury pickets is long overdue. Not only should their convictions be quashed, but compensation paid to those of the pickets still alive and to the families of the deceased. After all, the pickets were merely campaigning, as was their right, for better working conditions.
Courtesy to The Canary and Tom Coburg for allowing us to republish this article.
Note: the author of this article played a part in the closure of the 70-year-old Economic League.
- Shrewsbury 24 Campaign
- The complete Red under the Bed file has been released in 2013, and is filed under the Prime Ministers archive as PREM 15/2012 at the National Archive.
- Wilson government used secret unit to smear union leaders. Secret Information Research Department targeted Hugh Scanlon and Jack Jones, newly released papers reveal, Ian Cobain, The Guardian , 24 Jul 2018.
- Burnham backs call to publish all Shrewsbury 24 papers. Shadow home secretary says Labour could oppose new spying powers unless government releases documents about 1970s ‘show trial’ of union activists, David Conn and Frances Perraudin, The Guardian, 9 Dec 2015.
- Revealed: Ted Heath behind TV documentary used to sway jury in trial of Shrewsbury trade unionists. Unseen papers show cabinet members promoted a documentary aimed at influencing trial of the ‘Shrewsbury 24’ building workers, Daniel Boffey, The Guardian, 5 Dec 2015.
- How the UK secretly funded a Middle East news agency, Martin Rosenbaum, BBC, 13 January 2020