Donald Macintyre's Sketch: Lib Dems' Simon Hughes sees red on his dispatch box debut - under the critical gaze of Ricky Tomlinson

We were plunged into the torrid turmoil of the Heath years

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Indy Politics

It’s not perhaps what newly appointed LibDem Justice minister Simon Hughes would have chosen for his dispatch box debut—defending the  decision not to release government papers from an industrial dispute of over 40 years ago. And doing it under the fiercely attentive eye of Ricky Tomlinson, sitting in the  VIP seats not as the famous actor he became but as the ex-plasterer and union activist jailed after the 1972 building workers' strike.

Suddenly we were plunged into the torrid industrial turmoil of the Heath years, including the strike against the iniquitous lump—the no tax, self-employment cash payment system then favoured by employers  for uninsured work on the country’s notoriously dangerous construction sites where, as Labour backbencher David Anderson put it, “a building worker was dying every day on average”.

 Anderson described in riveting detail how the picketing “Shrewsbury 24” were  arrested –long after the alleged intimidation offences they were charged with-- how three,  including Tomlinson, were imprisoned  on convictions hotly contested to this day, and how secret intelligence papers withheld despite the 30 year disclosure rule could shed further light on  a “special unit ….. set up in Government to undermine legitimate trade union activity………”

 With Old Labour—literally in some cases as well as ideologically-- represented in force, class war echoed as resoundingly in the chamber as if this had all happened yesterday. But  it was largely ignited by veteran Thatcherite Sir Gerald Howarth. He said—accurately—that Labour as well as Tory Lord Chancellors had ruled against disclosure but lurched into a long eulogy of his heroine’s rescue of the nation, as he saw it.from union militancy. Since she took office seven years after the events in question, the immediate relevance was unclear.

 Trying to polish his Liberal credentials in adverse circumstances, Hughes promised a Cabinet Office review next year. But he failed to explain how national security in 2014 would be threatened by publication. Leaving unanswered Labour MP Tom Watson's argument that “the Stasi published their files after the Berlin wall came down in 1989. I think that we can publish ours now.”