The Miners’ Strike: Voices from the Blue Line

Monday 18 June 1984, the Battle of Orgreave. Over 6,000 police officers faced 10,000 pickets attempting to block deliveries destined for steelworks from Orgreave coking plant (near Rotherham, Yorkshire). Using what some officers described as “paramilitary” tactics based on colonial practices from Northern Ireland and Hong Kong, the police deployed armoured riot teams, baton charges, horses and dogs against a battery of bricks, bottles, paving stones and petrol bombs.

Over 100 people were injured, with 95 arrested by snatch squads for riot and disorder. All those prosecuted in the operation led by the South Yorkshire constabulary – “whose culture of malpractice with impunity” was demonstrated at Hillsborough five years later – had charges against them thrown out of court. South Yorkshire police paid out £425,000 in compensation without admitting liability.

Following a BBC documentary in 2012 concerning officer collusion in the writing of statements, South Yorkshire police referred itself to the Independent Police Complaints Commission. The IPCC declined to act.

On 31 October 2016 Amber Rudd, Home Secretary, ruled out a public inquiry into the Battle of Orgreave. Rudd resisted pressure to investigate as “ultimately there were no deaths or wrongful convictions” and that”very few lessons for the policing system today [are] to be learned from any review of the events and practices of three decades ago”.

Norman Tebbit, a Thatcherite toady, praised the government for “a sensible decision which underlines that the police behaved properly at Orgreave.” Writing for the Spectator Charles Moore, former Daily Telegraph editor and official biographer of Margaret Thatcher, similarly lauded the miners’ defeat as victory for rule of law and castigated advocates of an inquiry for their “world according to Ken Loach” who wished “to turn history into a trial”.

Commenting from the opposite end of the political spectrum, Jeremy Corbyn is “appalled”, Dr Alan Billings, South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner, is “shocked and dismayed”, while Barbara Jackson, secretary of the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign, called the government’s decision “a complete shock and a great disappointment.” Michael Mansfield QC may seek a judicial review.

Memories of Orgreave are talismanic, totemic. Historian Dominic Sambrook acknowledges the evocative power of this infamous battle:

That night, millions of people watched the televised pictures with horrified disbelief. Ever since, Orgreave has become a kind of shorthand for the ideological confrontation of the Eighties, which saw Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government locked in battle with Arthur Scargill’s National Union of Mineworkers … Nobody doubts that there were excesses on both sides that day, or that the police behaved with reckless abandon. But we have known that for years. 

Other measured voices may be heard above the divisive din. In response to Labour MP Andy Burnham’s accusations of an “establishment stitch-up”, Simon Jenkins writes for the Guardian that:

some suffered through being bailed is sadly true of thousands of innocent citizens each year. Why does Burnham suddenly want an inquiry into Orgreave? Back in 2005 he was a junior minister at the very Home Office he now wants to put on trial. There was no inquiry then. Could it be that Burnham was part of Tony Blair’s new labour establishment, eager to forget the taint of Scargillism, whereas he now wants to be mayor of Manchester?

Jenkins continues to comment on point of public inquiries:

Public inquiries have assumed from parliament the job of debating public policy. As such they upstage both the House of Commons and the investigative functions of select committee. They anaesthetise controversy, lancing some political boil by removing it from the theatre of parliament. But they have come to seem more like kangaroo courts, with the voices of victims loudest, and little attempt to balance blame. Chilcot lost credibility by being absurdly indulgent of Downing Street officials. Leveson sought to chain the press, yet let the police and BBC off the hook.

While a cross-party group of MPs are touting a parliamentary select committee inquiry as a cost-effective and efficient means of exploring Orgreave, The Times’s David Aaronovitch suggests it may be “better to throw open the archives and the files and leave it to the historians.” Given the glacial process with which official documents are released and the likelihood of files being “lost”, I’m not too optimistic. Yet the historians may have a hand to play. Back in the late 1980s Roger Graef – Visiting Professor at the Mannheim Centre for Criminology (London School of Economics), member of the Metropolitan Police advisory group on race and a multi-Bafta winning documentary maker – interviewed 500 police officers from 12 different forces.

Graef’s research cautions against any simplistic construction of a police mindset, revealing the boredom, the fear, pent-up aggression, and disgust. All fuelled by long shifts and alcohol after hours. The lack of radio communication, decision making on  the spot. Here are the voices of police officers serving at the front line.

Police violence at Orgreave was supported by most officers interviewed. According to one constable from a northern force:

It was late in the afternoon the horses went through. And when they came back, we all applauded. I’ve never been in a situation like it. It was great to see them smashing into all them bastards who’d been giving us grief all day. A lot of bobbies were injured. It was though as somebody thought, “Right. We’re not standing for this crap anymore. We’ll sort it out.” And that’s what they did. It was the greatest thing I ever saw.

The Miners’ Strike 1984-85 resulted in 1,392 officers injured – 10 per cent requiring hospital treatment – the cost of the police operation to the public purse being £200,000,000. Perhaps a degree of battle-hardening was fostered, as one superintendent from a home counties force recalled:

One time a group of over 3000 pickets had stoned and driven off a team of Yorkshire policemen and smashed two dog vans. It was essential that my officers moved the pickets back. There was a railway bridge which you could defend. Once they got past that, you’d had it. As we moved our first unit down, we were stoned. So we baton-charged them and moved the crowd back. Then we were stoned from the railway bridge above, so we moved two units up there and took it. We held that for an hour, but at a cost – we had thirty-seven men injured out of eighty.

The sheer weight of numbers meant trouble often escalated. Another home counties constable noted:

Some bugger at the back of the crowd starts to push and the poor sods at the front meet Mister Wood. They try to escape backwards and it creates panic. It’s usually a great barney where we get stuck in.

A Met Chief Inspector continued:

Now, if both sides are being pushed from the back, the tonnage in pressure on the front line is incredible. And eventually there’s trouble – the majority of the miners were ordinary people, but one or two were very evil men. You’d get people holding darts through their fingers. They were normally in the second row of miners – all of a sudden through the line comes pff! and hits one of my officers in the face. Immediately he goes down, and that starts an eruption because his mates straight away go for that miner.

Another Met PC went on to say:

It was terrifying. You feared for your safety – for your life! Then all the brave people at the back of the crowd started picking up rocks, flints and large stones from the field and started throwing them. So the stuff started coming over and there were police officers dropping all round and pickets as well because they were hitting their own people. In that situation what do you do? A senior officer from the Greater Manchester Police told us to draw out truncheons and we did. Then you hit the first thing in front of you. But the person in front of you wasn’t doing anything. They haven’t thumped you. They were getting hit by the stones as well.

That some officers deliberately fomented trouble was duly noted. One Deputy Chief Constable from a mining area commented:

We had off-duty police officers, partially dressed in uniform, getting drunk and then being abusive to ordinary people – like anybody who’s away from home and living in semi-military conditions. It’s not too easy to take for the people who happen to live there and see their husbands, sons or fathers out of work. People refuse to serve them, they were an army of occupation. And a lot of places were out of bounds to them. Policemen rolled money down to the pickets, shouting “You’re hard up!” Others flashed ten pound notes from the windows of police vans. These miners are proud men, defending what they see as being their right to keep their pit. These outsiders com in – men who were much younger than them – and do these things that were pretty indefensible. It was bound to lead to violence.

Allegations went beyond aggression. A Met sergeant recollected a most malign incident:

I knew from the officers involved about a rape by two Met PCs that was covered up during the miners’ strike. It was up at Nottingham. We were on duty for eighteen days straight so we all ended up on the piss down the Palais in Notts. They picked up this girl, took her back to her flat. One went upstairs where she performed, while the other waited downstairs pissed out of his brains. Finally he decided he’d have a go too and went upstairs and raped her. Then they caught a cab back to the pit, and the girl complained. Suddenly they were taken off the picket line by two plain-clothes DCs from the local force and thrown in the cell. … The blokes just put up their hands up and asked if there was anything the Notts lads could do to help them. And there was. It was talked about at high management levels – don’t know how high, but pretty high up. In the end the girl agreed that “if he’d asked nicely she might have let him”, so it wasn’t what I’d call a serious rape. She wasn’t hurt or anything. So she withdrew the complaint.

For officers hailing from mining communities, loyalties were tested:

I come from Derbyshire originally and I was going back to be billeted within fifteen miles of my parents’ house! The miners then had a march and went up to London, to Downing Street. The police cordon went along the front of Downing Street. I was there. It was a very dumb job. That day the march didn’t do anything particularly bad but for some reason a police charge was ordered. I never saw what did it and to this day I don’t know why it happened. It was really horrible, I felt sick watching it. Then all the women walked past spat at me and said in Derbyshire accents, just like all my friends at home would say “and you’re going to go home to your wives and children” – that kind of abuse. That was the most upset I ever was in the police.

With an eye to future police-public relations, scarred by the urban riots of 1981, an officer lamented:

There were a lot of incidents of violence, but it was on both sides. There’s no doubt about that. Every time it happened it got nastier and nastier. Now you’ve got 120,000 anti-police people, just on the mining side. We’ve got enough enemies out there now – political enemies, coloureds, youngsters. We don’t need the working man as well.

Sources

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2 Responses to The Miners’ Strike: Voices from the Blue Line

  1. onblackwell says:

    Hi – have been enjoying the posts (liked the ‘divisive din’ expression) – have you thought about packaging them up as a book or e-book one day?

    Hope all’s well. I’m currently unemployed and trying to find work, but when things have stabilised I’ll / we’ll pop up to say hello. Might be a while but hopefully not too long.

    Cheers, Oli ________________________________

    Like

    • Hi Ili, forgive the gap in my reply. Glad you are enjoying the blog. I think there may be some mileage on a book on Met police corruption in the post-WW2 period. Provisional title: A Firm in A Firm – all from my Life on Mars series.
      What kind of work are you looking to do? Cheers, Stef

      Like

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