You may not know the name Des Warren, but his trial and imprisonment in the early 1970s arguably left the way clear for Margaret Thatcher’s attacks on trade unions and the working class. His autobiography should therefore be near the top of the reading list for anyone who wants to understand that time.
Warren was arrested alongside twenty-three other building workers, whose ‘flying picket‘ had been trying to persuade Shrewsbury builders to join a nationwide strike. Ted Heath‘s Conservative government was on the back foot at the time, following action by mine workers in particular, and business leaders were fearful of militancy spreading across all industries.
Though Warren was eventually imprisoned for ‘conspiracy to intimidate’, his book describes in great detail ‘the real conspiracy’ to put him behind bars, which would serve as a deterrent to other workers hoping to improve their conditions. The author was clear that he didn’t take his sentence personally, because ‘The Tory Government wasn’t interested in me or my 23 co-victims. They were attacking the trade union movement’. However, he also insisted that he was abandoned by union leaders, who in practice only led ‘the front of the queue when honours are dished out.’
The chapters that describe Warren’s prison life are fascinating in of themselves, painting a vivid picture of the power struggles and hierarchies that exist inside. Because he regarded himself as a ‘political prisoner’, Warren frequently caused trouble for the ‘screws’, and always stood up for his fellow inmates when they were being particularly victimised. When he told a prison doctor about some sleeping problems, he was prescribed a chemical cocktail known as the ‘liquid cosh’, which severely curtailed his resistance, and caused the Parkinson’s disease which would kill him three decades later.
Not surprisingly, The Key To My Cell is full of anger. But Warren’s book is in many ways a gift to the generations of activists who would come after him, because there’s also sharp analysis of the forces at work in the case. It’s also very readable, despite the dozens of organisations and their initials which accompany trade union and party politics.
The campaign to get justice for the Shrewsbury Pickets was relaunched in August last year, and has the passionate support of Ricky Tomlinson, who stood trial alongside Des Warren and wrote a forward for this book. Building workers still face disgusting pay and conditions, but they’re by no means alone in that. The story of Des Warren has lessons for anyone struggling against the rich and powerful.
This book can be ordered from News From Nowhere, Liverpool’s radical & community bookshop.