Statement to members from the Political Bureau
[Internal circular, June 22 1944]
The trial is over. Comrades Roy Tearse and Heaton Lee are in prison serving sentences of 12 months and Comrade Jock Haston is serving a 6 months sentence. Comrade Ann Keen was sentenced to 13 days which meant her immediate release.
The sentences are generally regarded in labour circles as monstrous in the light of the evidence brought forward.
As is known, the charges against the four were of “incitement” and “conspiracy” and acting “in furtherance of” an illegal strike. The fact that they were found not guilty on the conspiracy and incitement charges is a victory for us, particularly in the light of the vicious press campaign directly or indirectly accusing the comrades of instigating and inciting the Tyne apprentices’ and other strikes. It completely vindicates our declarations that we do not incite or conspire to bring workers out on strike, as the capitalist press and Labour, and Stalinist leaders were charging, but that the workers come out on strike only when they have a genuine and legitimate grievance. This was brought out beyond doubt in the course of the proceedings when one apprentice after another stated that they were bitterly hostile to the Bevin Ballot Scheme and would have come out on strike if they had never met any of the accused.
All the comrades conducted themselves in the court in a manner worthy of our tradition. Each took every opportunity afforded him or her to present our political ideas and in a commendable way. Their behaviour in the witness box impressed all alike – the prosecution, the judge, the apprentices and visitors in the gallery. There were a number of apprentices watching the proceedings and after the four comrades had given their evidence, they were literally flushed with enthusiasm. Those who were previously hostile became friendly.
It was no doubt, obvious from the press reports, that the King’s Counsel – Curtis Bennett – was not cooperating with the four comrades. Not only did he fail to assist them in drawing out their political position, which was of vital importance in this trial since it was clearly a political trial – but he failed to cooperate in bringing out their legal defence to the best advantage. It can be said that he did not put forward the legal arguments as well as our own comrades could have done themselves. It was considered at one stage in the course of the trial whether it would be advisable to dismiss Curtis Bennett and conduct the trial ourselves. However, there were many issues involved – the effects on the Defence Committee, the fact that the solicitors felt themselves obliged to walk out with counsel under these circumstances, the inexperience of our own comrades in court procedure and finally the importance of taking the question to the court of appeals and if necessary to the House of Lords for the trade union movement. All these things weighed against so drastic a decision – a decision which would have caused a sensation throughout the country.
In any future trials the comrades will have to seriously consider the conduct of their own case. In such an event it will be necessary to make a study of the legal procedure by the comrades on trial if we are not able to obtain a lawyer with our own political views or sympathetic towards them. Insofar as our policy was brought out it was in reply to the questions of the prosecution and not at all as a result of the questions of our own counsel. Naturally, as soon as the comrades’ answers had the effect of making a good impression on the jury, which they undoubtedly did, the prosecution closed down.
They were not permitted to make a statement before sentences were passed, as this privilege is not accorded in cases of “misdemeanour” as it is in cases of a “felony.”
The verdict was considered by all who attended the court as surprising, in view of the bitter attack by the judge in his summing up speech which lasted nearly three hours. Although he pleaded that the jury should not be influenced by the political issues involved, he cunningly introduced such issues as the war precisely in order to prejudice them. He put a better case for the prosecution than did the prosecution itself, without analysing at all the evidence on behalf of the defence. Yet in spite of this the jury threw out the charges of incitement and conspiracy.
The charges on which they have been convicted are of “furthering a strike” declared illegal under the Trade Disputes Act, and aiding and abetting Davy. Although it has been ruled in a previous case in the House of Lords that a strike can only be furthered during the course of the strike and not before it, this ruling was completely ignored and it was upon evidence prior to the commencement of the strike [that] they were found guilty. It is this legal point on which the appeal is to be made. This decision sets a precedent of vital consequence to the trade union movement. For in future, any worker who does any act which can be construed by the capitalist court to “further” a strike before the strike takes place is open to conviction, and such construction can be placed on practically any act. This could be seen in the case of comrade Haston, for there was not a shred of evidence that he aided or furthered the strike before or during the strike. The only evidence against him was of organisational directive in the formation of the Tyne Apprentices’ Guild and of political directive in the issuance of propaganda leaflets calling for nationalisation of the mines as the only solution to the coal crisis which were issued before the strike was declared and in no way referred to strike action.
The establishment in the Court of Criminal Appeal of the definition of “furtherance” as meaning before or during a strike, or both, is a very important question for the trade union and labour movement. Although this will cost an extra £1,000, it is an issue which must be fought out, if necessary to the House of Lords. In this it is necessary to redouble our efforts in raising the money through the organisations of the working class. It is necessary to bring the matter before every trade union branch and political meeting throughout the country either by personal contact or through circulars. Every comrade and every local in the party must display an initiative greater than heretofore, for this is an opportunity rarely presented on so clear cut a class issue. The demand for the release of the comrades must constitute the focal point of our campaign.
As the members know, the three comrades now incarcerated are all leading members of our party and each in his own way plays a vital part in the functioning and building of the party. It is true to say that in the present conditions it is impossible to replace these comrades in their particular sphere of work. In imprisoning these three comrades the party has undoubtedly been struck a severe blow by the capitalist class. Their absence can only be compensated by more determined and persistent efforts on the part of all members, especially the leading members.
We take this occasion to appeal to all comrades in the party to aid in accelerating the process of solidifying the members into one, united, homogeneous party. Our party must be built and can only be built on the solidarity, cooperation and loyalty of all members, regardless of any differences in tactics and policy. Solidarity with the comrades who are imprisoned can best be shown by intensifying the work of building the party. When they return from their enforced isolation, we are confident that they will come back to find the party more united, stronger and with more influence among the workers than when they went away. That is the answer of our party to the attacks of the ruling class: a fighting, united and integrated party carrying on the struggle for the overthrow of capitalism and for the victory of the Fourth International.
In conclusion, we reproduce here the message sent by the three from their cells immediately following the sentence:
“We have been convicted and imprisoned because of our advocacy of the programme of the Fourth International. The trial has demonstrated clearly that evidence or no evidence, the capitalist class will condemn revolutionaries to persecution.
“We affirm that such persecution and imprisonment will not shake our faith in the correctness of our programme. On the contrary this trial has strengthened our conviction that the policy of the Fourth International offers the only road for the emancipation of the working class.
“At this critical juncture in the history of our party in Britain, the main task of our comrades is to close the ranks, to knit the party together and to march forward united, in that spirit of comradeship and with that singleness of purpose which alone can gain us the leadership of the British working class.
“The watchword of the members of the party must be: Unify the ranks! Build the party! For the victory of the Fourth International!”
 Facing shortage of skilled miners (after many of the workers in the mines had been conscripted into the armed forces) the national government introduced through Labour minister Ernest Bevin (not to be confused with Aneurin Bevan, the left-wing Labour MP) a hugely unpopular scheme under which around 50,000 young men were conscripted to work down the mines by the arbitrary expedient of pulling their National Service registration numbers out of a ballot. These men, known as the “Bevin Boys”, were not trained for the conditions to be faced in the mines and were not given the status of being part of the armed forces. Bevin Boys included many apprentices who, losing the continuity of their apprenticeship, thereby lost the chance to pursue a skilled trade.