Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson in 1975 after Warren’s release from prison.
Drive a short distance from Liverpool along the M62 and you see direction signs to the Hillsborough Inquest, now being held on an industrial estate outside Warrington, a reminder that 25 years of campaigning was needed before the injustice of what happened on 15 April 1989 was recognised and a new inquest opened. Meanwhile, the Independent Police Complaints Commission conducts a separate investigation into whether senior officers perverted the course of justice, and a parallel criminal investigation into police behaviour at Hillsborough continues.
The success of the Hillsborough campaign has led to pressure for a similar investigation into the policing of the miners’ strike in 1984, as frustration grows over the reluctance of the IPCC to launch a full investigation into possible criminal actions by the South Yorkshire Police at Orgreave coking works during the strike. On 18 June 1984, 95 miners were arrested at Orgreave after thousands of police officers – many in riot gear, with others on horseback – brutally assaulted miners participating in a strike aimed at defending jobs and mining communities.
But there’s a third, less-noticed example of an ongoing campaign to rectify a miscarriage of justice and subsequent cover-up during the years of Tory government nearly half a century ago. It’s the case of the Shrewsbury pickets – 24 men who took part in the first-ever national building workers strike in 1972, and it’s now the subject of a brilliant two-hander of a play – United We Stand – that I saw at the Lantern Theatre in Liverpool last week.
United We Stand is a production of the Townsend Theatre Company and was written by Neil Gore. Before the production tours the country during the next two months, the play is having its premiere in Liverpool where the Shrewsbury campaign has gained a lot of attention – not least because Ricky Tomlinson was one of those who served time for the crime of striking for better wages and urging others to do the same by picketing. The idea for a play about the Shrewsbury 24 came when Gore was in Liverpool in 2012 with a production of Robert Tressell’s Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and met Tomlinson.
I hadn’t been to a show at the Lantern Theatre before. A small space in a converted warehouse in the trendy Baltic Quarter, it consists of a room that seats around 80 with a bar at one end and the stage at the other. It reminded me of the tiny places that you encounter as pop-up venues in the Edinburgh Festival. The production itself reminded me of something else – the deeply politicized productions of agitprop theatre companies of the early 1970s such as 7:84 and Red Ladder. Appropriate really, since the play concerns politics and class conflict in that period.
Neil Gore as Ricky Tomlinson and William Fox as Des Warren in ‘United We Stand’
The play is a two-hander in which Neil Gore and William Fox do everything, taking on numerous roles, and performing songs, some written specially for the play by John Kirkpatrick who has been a member of numerous British folk groups such as Steeleye Span, the Albion Band and the Richard Thompson Band. At one point Gore and Fox were singing while shifting props, changing costumes, preparing a video projection, and altering the lighting.
United We Stand tells the story of 24 building workers who were accused of violent picketing and intimidating workers during the industry’s first national all-out strike in 1972. Its aim was to gain better pay and conditions – in particular to end the hated Lump, the practice by which building workers were self-employed and thus not entitled to holiday pay, national insurance or PAYE tax deductions, instead receiving a lump sum, supposed to cover all expenses. In the decade leading up to the strike, the number on the lump had more than doubled to 400,000. The lump led to shoddy work and an increase in fatalities and accidents. Because those on the lump negotiated their own terms of employment, trade union organisation was undermined. Which was exactly the intention of the big construction companies that had come to dominate the industry – McAlpine, Wimpey, and Laing.
In the 1972 strike, flying pickets left the contractors reeling. By the end of the twelve-week dispute the building workers had succeeded in winning the highest ever pay rise in the history of the industry. The Tory government and the large building companies wanted revenge, and five months after the strike ended 24 pickets were arrested and accused of offences, including unlawful assembly, intimidation and affray. None of the pickets had been cautioned or arrested during the strike.
At the first Shrewsbury trial, beginning in October 1973, three of the pickets were found guilty of conspiracy to intimidate, unlawful assembly and affray. They were sent to prison: Des Warren for three years, Ricky Tomlinson for two years and John McKinsie Jones for nine months. It was clear that the case against the workers was political and an abuse of power by the Conservative government of the day that had close links with the owners of the companies that dominated the building industry. Remember the context: that same year the Heath government had been defeated by the miners after a 7-week strike had led to the three-day week and power blackouts. The NUM victory shook the Tory government to the core, and made a powerful impression on a young Margaret Thatcher, Education minister and chief milk-snatcher at the time.
Neil Gore and William Fox in ‘United We Stand’
All of this was despatched in two acts of quick-fire sketches and rousing songs. As writer, Neil Gore managed to convey the causes of the strike and its progress, largely through comedy and song (including ‘Part of the Union’, rescued from its snarky anti-trade union associations). There were instances where things might have been tightened up, with a scene or a song dropped, and in places (as with most agitprop theatre) it was, as the Liverpool Echo remarked ‘rough around the edges’. But there was no doubting the energy and passion of the show and its commitment to bear witness to injustice.
There was a brilliant puppetry presentation of ‘The Big Conspiracy’ that revealed the connections between the leaders of the construction industry and government ministers (see this page for confirmation), and another scene which featured a wonderful impersonation of Hughie Green in an Opportunity Knocks devoted to the McAlpine family, owners of McAlpines, the main contractors on the building site in Shrewsbury which featured prominently in the charges against the pickets. The McAlpines had form:
Robert Alistair McAlpine became the Treasurer of the Conservative Party in 1975. The McAlpine family had great political influence in the North Wales area. The High Sheriff of Denbighshire, which is a large part of the county of Gwynedd, is the senior person responsible for law and order. Up to the 1970’s the past nine High Sheriffs had been members of the McAlpine family. The person appointed High Sheriff in April 1974 was Mr Peter Bell, a director of McAlpine and the son-in-law of the late Sir Alfred McAlpine, who was also Mr Bell’s predecessor as High Sheriff.
The pickets were the ones charged with conspiracy. But the real conspiracy was to be found elsewhere.
The play concluded with scenes from the trial of Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson, including their final speeches from the dock. I was a little disappointed that it ended there and failed to consider the personal impact of the convictions (especially on Des Warren who died in 2004 from Parkinson’s disease, attributed to the long-term effects of the treatment he received during his jail sentence, in particular the ‘liquid cosh’ – a cocktail of tranquillisers he was given for refusing to cooperate with the prison authorities). There was no mention, either, of the ongoing campaign to clear the names of the 24 convicted pickets (though there was an informative display at the rear of the theatre).
Whose Conspiracy? Justice for the Shrewsbury pickets: this 2009 film tells the story of the Shrewsbury Pickets
The Shrewsbury 24 Campaign was established in Liverpool in 2006 after a meeting between several of the convicted pickets and local trade union activists. The campaign demands that the convictions of the 24 men accused of violent picketing and intimidation be overturned. Earlier this year a petition with 100,000 signatures was handed in at 10 Downing Street, calling on the government to release documents on the case. But Chris Grayling, the Justice (sic) Minister has said that they will remain sealed until 2021 on the grounds of national security. Ricky Tomlinson’s view of the matter has been characteristically succinct: ‘National security? My arse.’