Ricky Tomlinson - imprisoned building union organiser

Born into a working class family in Liverpool in 1939, Ricky Tomlinson was an active building union member and served time in prison for his part in the 1972 strike.

Submitted by Ed on April 27, 2007

The son of a baker born one month after the start of WW2, life was hard, his family sleeping six people in two rooms.

After ending his four-year membership of the far-right National Front (which he put down to being "politically naive and poorly educated"), Ricky, working as a plasterer at the time, became involved in the 1972 building workers' strike where he was involved in the Wrexham Strike Action Committee, organised flying pickets and refused to testify against his fellow strikers in court.

This resulted in him earning a two-year prison sentence for intimidation and affray. Talking about the sentencing in 2002, he states the political nature of the trial: "We were on trial because we'd actually taken the bosses on. It was a political trial and we were the scapegoats". He served time in 14 different prisons in total, most of the time in solitary confinement due to his refusal to wear prison uniforms on the grounds of it branding him a criminal. It was while he was in prison that he became a socialist after being given a copy of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist by one of the prison guards, an ex-bricklayer.

After leaving prison in 1975, he had to leave the building trade after, like many other builders at the time, finding himself blacklisted. That year he also attended the TUC national conference and after being refused a platform to speak, he caused chaos by shouting from the wings.

Here is his speech from the dock when he was sentenced:

I have for ten or eleven weeks listened to this, and I hope you will now give me three or four minutes. I would just like to say that I have listened for day after day to 200 witnesses coming to this court and systematically and adamantly swearing to the truth of a particular matter. It was said by Goebbels in the last war that if you repeat a lie often enough it eventually becomes accepted as the truth. This I have observed being put into practice here in this court, and I know it to be true, so much so that there was a constant use of words like ‘petrified’, ‘terrified’, ‘pretty frightened’, ‘scared to death’ from witness after witness that I myself began to doubt whether I had done the things I have been accused of.
I can sympathise with members of the jury because they have been used in this charade in just the same way as myself and my colleagues. We must remember that British justice must not only be done but must be seen to be done. I have heard the judge say that this was not a political trial, and just an ordinary criminal case, and I refute that with every fibre of my being. How can anyone say that this was just an ordinary trial when a thousand policemen were on duty outside this very building because ordinary building workers were due to appear before the committal court.
One could say this was an isolated incident, but take the night we were arrested in February. The security used on that occasion was comparable to that used on the Kray brothers, or the Great Train Robbers: locked in a police van with police vehicles in front, and police cars behind, a police motorcycle escort and police with Alsatian dogs; waiting photographers, plain clothes detectives and ordered to be fingerprinted like a common criminal. Are these methods used for ordinary criminal cases? I think not.
No sentence passed on me by this court, however lenient or however severe, can hurt me more that I have already been hurt. I have been almost continuously unemployed since my arrest and, of course, this punishes my wife and two infant sons to a far greater extent that it does me. During the length and course of this trial my family have been abused by the very people whose duty it is to assist them, but that matter is now in the hands of my Member of Parliament.
I have been apart from my family, apart from the first week of this trial, seeing them only at weekends and odd occasions. I have spent several days and nights in jail, treated exactly like a seasoned convict although we have been told we are innocent until proved guilty. But the one day I was allowed home because of illness of one of the jurors, I was put under virtual house arrest. There was a police car stationed outside my front gate, and round-the clock surveillance was kept on myself and my wife. Even members of my wife’s family were stopped and questioned and refused admittance to our home without any explanation being given, or without myself or my wife told of their visit.
Once again, I can only assume that this is normal procedure in any normal criminal case. Over the past month I have discovered many things about myself, and about the laws of this land, which 1 have been led to believe had the finest legal system in the world. Now I can only fear for the working people of this country, as a mighty trade union is fined a vast amount of money, and then building workers are arrested, tried and sentenced for picketing. Will the day come when it will be a crime in itself to be a member of a trade union? I don’t know.
The sentence passed on me by this court will not matter. My innocence has been proved time and again by the building workers of Wrexham whom I represent, and also by the building workers from all over the land who have sent particular messages of support to myself and my family and my colleagues. Messages in fact have come, not only from building workers who assisted me in the dispute, but from many of the ‘Lumpers’ whom I picketed during the national stoppage, and I thank them one and all for their moral support.
I know my children when they are old enough, will understand that the struggle we took part in was for their benefit and for the benefit and interest of building workers and their families. One of the major complaints is the use in this trial of identification by photograph, and I just want to point to the photographs of men with beards and say to my knowledge alone beards were worn by at least half a dozen chaps. Statements have been thrust upon witnesses, minutes before they entered court to give evidence, whether they wanted them or not. That again I assume is normal procedure in every criminal case. Again I think not. Police officers prompting and priming a witness with what to say before entering court. Again, I ask, is this normal procedure? Again, I repeat, I think not.
I find this trial, this whole case, is only the first of many such cases that will be coming before the courts in the years to come. I would like to ask if the fantastic police inquiries and mammoth statements taken, coupled with the tens of thousands of pounds spent on this spectacular, are the usual diligent efforts used in just ordinary criminal inquiries and trial, and I look forward to the day when the real culprits of these crimes, the McAlpines, the Wimpey’s, the Laings and the Bovis’s, and all their political bodies, are in the dock facing charges of conspiracy to intimidate workers from doing what is their lawful right, picketing.
I have always in the past considered myself to be a patriot and to love my country with a deep passion, and though my politics may differ from that of some of my colleagues in the dock, I wouldn’t for one minute agree that any single one of them acted irresponsibly on the 6 September. What has gone between us has been with a single common factor and desire to help our fellow beings, and though our approach may be different, our ultimate aim is the same. And so at the end I would say, gentlemen, that the trial is political, and at all times has been political. But it seems to have been handled in a most biased fashion towards myself and Des Warren and distorted and exaggerated in the extreme.
It is to be hoped that the trade union movement and the working class of this country will act to ensure together that the charade such as this trial has been will never take place again. and the right to picket or strike will be defended, even at the case of my personal hardship and individual freedom.

The campaign to pardon Tomlinson and the other 23 convicted workers continues. This is their website.
Sources: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4