A Very British Conspiracy

The Shrewsbury 24 and the Campaign for Justice

By Eileen Turnbull
Book Review Details
Author: Eileen Turnbull
Publisher: Verso Books
Edition: 2022
Page Details
Section: Book Reviews =>
Subjects: Modern History (Post World War II), Workers Organisations & Strikes
Posted: Modified:

This is an account of the case of the Shrewsbury 24, one of the longest, if not the longest, campaign to overturn injustice in this country.

The Shrewsbury 24 were building workers convicted of various charges arising from picketing during the 1972 national building workers’ strike. The book takes us back to a very different time when there were 12 million members of trade unions in the country and a wave of strikes which led to the defeat of the Conservative Government by the National Union of Mineworkers in 1974.

Eileen Turnbull begins her account by setting the political scene in the early 1970s, when the ruling class feared for the future, and some of us around at the time actually thought we would see socialism in our lifetime. She then describes the national building workers’ strike of 1972.
This was the first national strike in an industry where there was a fatal accident almost every day. Pay and working conditions were abysmal, maintained by the employers’ use of ‘lump’ labour, an early example of the gig economy. During a dispute trade union organisation and
solidarity were difficult to achieve on building sites. Therefore, the strikers’ main weapon was the flying picket, which brought out on strike the men (and it was all men) working at sites with weak or no union representation. Eileen emphasises the crucial role that the organising by rank and file activists and shop stewards played in overcoming the timidity of trade union officials. The building workers won, not all their demands but a significant victory.

The next part of the book describes the employers’ quest for revenge. Their weapon was the Conservative Government and the full force of the British State. Both the large building companies and the Government were badly frightened by the effectiveness of picketing and
believed they might be losing control. In order to smash picketing and terrorise the trade union movement, they were determined to find victims onto whom they could throw the full force of the legal system. The victims they chose were building workers in North Wales, an area with only one largish town (Wrexham), where they thought union organisation would be weak.

Eileen explains in detail the conspiracy between the State, the employers, the police, and the judiciary to frame 24 building workers who became infamous as the ‘Shrewsbury 24’. The trial is described in jaw-dropping detail; jaw-dropping because on almost every page you think ‘how the hell did they get away with that?’ They got away with it because they planned their revenge in great detail and used intimidation to prevent a fair trial.

The result of the trial was the conviction of almost all the defendants, and the blatant misuse of the law on conspiracy to imprison three: Des Warren, Ricky Tomlinson and John McKinsie Jones.

The final part of the book deals with the 15-year long campaign to achieve justice for the Shrewsbury 24, which eventually achieved success in 2021 with the overturning of the convictions by the Court of Appeal.

The book is about something which happened 50 years ago in another, unrecognisable era. So why read it?

Firstly, because of the author. Eileen Turnbull is not a dry academic. She was the researcher for the campaign who found the evidence and prepared the Court of Appeal case which ultimately ended in victory. She spent years trawling through mountains of paperwork, interviewing dozens of people, lobbying trade union leaders and politicians, briefing lawyers and raising the money to pay for it all. In spite of numerous setbacks, she never gave up. She worked with a small campaign committee and, more than anyone, she knows what she is writing about.

Secondly, there is the style of the book. It is a highly readable account, often seeming to be the script for a Sunday evening TV conspiracy-theory thriller, but it isn’t. Everything in it happened and the book is the product of meticulous research.

The third reason is what the book reveals about the law: how it can be bent by power and the way the judicial system works. It is a must-read textbook for any student of law and any campaigner who wants to take on the system.

Most important of all is what the book reveals about the British State. When push comes to shove, it will always back the employers against workers in a struggle, using all the power at its command. That this happens with a Conservative Government is not surprising but,
distressingly, it often happens with Labour Party collaboration (although, as Eileen points out, many principled Labour MPs were very important to the campaign). The employers will lobby the government; the government will make sure the judicial system is rigged and the media will lie to create ‘reds under the bed’ hysteria. Against them, too often, has been weak trade union officials too keen on getting a quick deal, rather than fighting to win. What the book does show is the importance of rank and file workplace organisation and of ordinary workers thrust into leadership.

The Shrewsbury 24 Campaign had to fight tooth and nail over many years to get the evidence it needed to swim through the treacle of the appeal process. As the acknowledgements in the book show, they did it with the support of a large part of the modern labour movement.
Does the book answer the question of the relevance of a 50-year-old case of injustice? Yes, it does. Trade unionism and the willingness to fight for a just reward and decent living standards are on the rise again. We have not seen such militancy since the 1980s. This time we must
learn the lessons highlighted in the book on how to organise a victorious strike and what our rulers will do to stop us. This time round we must not let them get away with it.

Order A Very British Conspiracy – The Shrewsbury 24 and the Campaign for Justice by Eileen Turnbull from Verso Books, £16.99 with 40% off if bought online.

Nigel Varley

Houses of parliament with storm clouds

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