The dirty tricks of the Shrewsbury trials expose the dark heart of the radical 1970s

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Ricky Tomlinson, pictured with his wife Marlene, is freed from prison in 1975 after being jailed for ‘conspiracy to intimidate’ during the 1972 strike by building workers.
Ricky Tomlinson, pictured with his wife Marlene, is freed from prison in 1975 after being jailed for ‘conspiracy to intimidate’ during the 1972 strike by building workers. Photograph: Brian Bould/Associated Newsp/REX

The revelations that the Heath government in 1974 influenced the content and timing of an anti-union TV documentary, and may have influenced a jury, will not exactly surprise union veterans from that time. The “Shrewsbury trials” became infamous for the use of conspiracy charges against trade union militants.

Des Warren, now deceased, and Ricky Tomlinson – still very much alive as a renowned actor – were jailed for conspiracy to intimidate, unlawful assembly and affray, following altercations at a construction site in Shrewsbury two years before.

Warren was sentenced to three years, Tomlinson two. A total of 24 men were put on trial. As picketing was not illegal, the use of “conspiracy to intimidate” was seen at the time as an attempt to shackle militant, rank and file trade unionism. As conspiracy was an offence under common law, its acknowledged use in British politics had been, for centuries, to suppress rebellions, not ordinary crimes.

Andy Burnham, the shadow home secretary, will this week release documents showing that prime minister Edward Heath’s cabinet, and the security services, influenced an ITV documentary called Red Under the Bed featuring the defendants at the trial, which was broadcast on the day the jury retired to deliver its verdict (the judge dismissed the defence’s argument that the film was in contempt). “We want more of this,” says Heath in a Downing Street note. Further evidence relating to the case remains locked in the National Archives, suppressed on grounds of national security.

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