We were convicted after a political trial – it was a nonsense

In December 1973 I stood in the dock with my friend and comrade Des Warren. We awaited sentence after being found guilty of conspiracy to intimidate, unlawful assembly and affray – it was of course a nonsense. Dessie knew it, I knew it and I think the judge bloody knew it as well.

But what were we really guilty of? In 1972 we took part in the first and only national builders strike. We were campaigning for better wages, for the end of “the lump” – where builders were given a lump sum for work that they had to pay tax out of – and for health and safety to be taken seriously by the building industry bosses. In the 1970s, every day at least one person was killed or seriously injured on the sites – they were not called the “killing fields” for nothing. We won that industrial dispute and the bosses wanted revenge.

I heard the judge say it wasn’t a political trial, that it was just an ordinary criminal trial – that too was absolute rubbish. Of course it was a political trial. Every day hundreds of police officers stood outside the court. The Conservative government wanted this trial, wanted the convictions, and wanted to put not just me and Dessie on trial but the whole trade union movement. We were used and punished as a warning – they were telling the working class: “Don’t step out of line!”

As I said at the time, when I stood in the dock awaiting sentence: “I would say this trial is political, and at all times has been political. It has been handled in a most biased fashion against myself and Des Warren, and distorted and exaggerated in the extreme.” Those words seem more true today than ever before.

What has become clear when appealing against these convictions is two things. Firstly, we now know that the police destroyed evidence and the people who knew this were all silent about it. Secondly, the secret state and the government helped in producing the Anglia TV programme The Red Under the Bed – a distorted account of the builders dispute. It was broadcast at the most damaging time for us – in the middle of the trial.

Even when our sentences were complete, me, Des Warren, Arthur Murray and all the Shrewsbury pickets faced blacklisting. We could not get work. We now know that blacklisting went on. No doubt it still goes on. This issue needs to be investigated further and there has to be an independent public inquiry not just into how the secret state had a hand in our convictions, but how blacklisting has blighted not just the construction industry but no doubt other areas too. It is a massive attack on our right to work and our human rights.

Des Warren had this to say as he faced sentence. In addressing the court he spoke defiantly about the charge of conspiracy levelled against us. “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.”

He was right then and even more so now.

I think of Des Warren every single day. He was a principled socialist and trade unionist, but above all he was my friend. Like me he was victimised, but then punished further while in prison. I wish he was here with me to celebrate.

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