Previously unseen footage in a Channel 4 documentary about the Battle of Orgreave was confirmation, if any were needed, that heavy-handed policing of a mass picket outside the Orgreave coke works in June 1984 descended into unprecedented brutality.
Battered and bloodied pickets were captured on camera by two officials from the National Union of Mineworkers, who carried on filming amid the mayhem. The footage was left for years locked in a cupboard and was broadcast for the first time.
Hanging loose among scenes of blood and gore were unanswered questions: why did Monday 18 June 1984 become the ‘bloodiest day’ of the 1984–85 miners’ strike? Why was it the pivotal event in the ‘largest police operation in British history’?
Survivors of a confrontation that was akin to a medieval battle retold their story in Channel 4’s The Miners’ Strike 1984: The Battle of Britain and expressed their relief of when a 48-day trial collapsed and 95 pickets were acquitted of charges of riot and violent disorder.
Fabricated statements and police aggression
Two of the men’s lawyers, Gareth Pierce and Michael Mansfield, described their disbelief at the mass fabrication of police statements and a catalogue of errors and stupidity, which had left the chief prosecutor with no option but to capitulate.
Given the overwhelming evidence that it was the police who were the aggressors and not the pickets, the raw testimony of men who were there that day, and who went through the trial, will not only stand the test of time but will also continue to raise nagging questions as to why Orgreave became such an infamous flashpoint.
The police reaction
Early in the documentary, there were one or two clues regarding why a force of 3,000 officers had been assembled from across the country to confront 6,000 pickets at Orgreave.
From the start of the strike, the NUM President, Arthur Scargill, had wanted to force the closure of the coke works, but initially he was overruled by the union’s executive. Finally, the word went out to local union offices, miners’ clubs, and soup kitchens: the mass picket at Orgreave 18 June was a priority.
The two NUM officials who had been issued with video cameras described what they saw that day and posed questions that were not answered: Why were the police there in such strength? Who alerted the television crews?
Revealing the reasons for the strength of the police reaction
When the National Coal Board and the government were first alerted that Orgreave might become a target, the alarm bells had rung. There was no way that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was going to allow Scargill to repeat his 1972 victory, when a mass picket closed the Saltley coke works at Birmingham and forced her predecessor, Ted Heath, to concede a 27% pay rise to the NUM.
Winning ‘The Battle of Saltley Gate’ was – as Scargill has frequently said – the proudest moment of his life, but was acknowledged within the government as a disaster when it came to policing industrial unrest; furthermore, it was a retreat that was seared into the political memory of the Conservative Party.
How Scargill ‘won’ Saltley Gate
Although at the time he was a lowly organiser and activist in the mighty Yorkshire NUM, Scargill had seized the initiative and mobilised pickets from local pits to head south for Birmingham and, together with other trade unionists from neighbouring car factories and engineering works, amassed a force of 30,000 protestors, that vastly outnumbered the 800 officers sent to police the event.
Sir Derrick Capper, head of the Birmingham force, ordered the coking plant to close its gates ‘in the interests of public safety’ and Scargill was handed a loud hailer to ask everyone to disperse.
Tactics learned on both sides
Flying pickets, as they came to be known, were soon a formidable presence at many of the bitter industrial disputes of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Such was the consternation after the humiliating events at Saltley that the Association of Chief Police Officers established the national reporting centre with the authority to deploy officers from police forces across the country in the face of exceptional threats to public order.
Within the first week of the 1984 strike Mrs Thatcher issued an edict to chief constables to ‘stiffen their resolve’ because she was deeply disturbed by the speed with which Scargill had resorted to unlawful mass picketing and she feared the NUM leader was about to repeat his 1972 victory in Birmingham.
The build-up to Orgreave
Days after Thatcher’s intervention, the police began turning back flying pickets from Yorkshire who were heading south on motorways towards the Nottinghamshire and Midlands coalfields as well as those from Kent heading north through the Dartford tunnel. This was the first, highly visible, sign of the vast co-ordinated response that would result in 18 police forces sending officers to Orgreave.
When her cabinet papers were released in 2014 under the 30-year rule, Mrs Thatcher’s micro-management of the dispute was revealed: the South Yorkshire force was given secret authorisation to go on incurring the additional cost of bringing in police reinforcements to Orgreave. She told the Home Office to give the South Yorkshire force ‘every support’. In the corner of one document was her hand-written note asking: “Can we provide the funds direct?”
Headed for conflict
A document from the Department of Energy, dated 5 June 1984, notified the Chief Constable of South Yorkshire that British Steel wanted to clear the remaining 8,000 tons of coke from Orgreave to Scunthorpe by road in the week commencing Monday 18 June – the very day that Scargill had chosen for the mass picket. The police action needed to be “part of a carefully conceived and well-executed operation” … “to minimise any opportunity for the NUM to claim a victory”.
The timing of this government intervention helped to explain why so many police reinforcements were present on 18 June. Convoys of lorries started taking coke from Orgreave to the Scunthorpe steelworks on 25 May and, as the picketing intensified, police used riot gear and mounted police for the first time on 29 May. This was a dress rehearsal for the main event: South Yorkshire police said 41 officers were injured, 28 pickets hurt and 82 arrested. The following day Scargill was arrested for obstruction.
Neither side could afford to lose
Sophisticated police surveillance during the strike – including the extensive use of phone tapping – would undoubtedly have picked up news of the NUM’s plan to make Orgreave the focus for picketing on 18 June.
The two NUM officials explained why Scargill had wanted to picket Orgreave from day one. His theory was that if the NUM could stop coke being moved to Scunthorpe, it would close the steel works, halt production at other plants and force negotiations that would “resolve the dispute”.
Scargill had made no secret of his intentions when calling for support: “I am asking my members to picket Orgreave in massive numbers to show we are not going to allow them to smash the miners’ strike.”
While tv news bulletins concentrated on the violent scenes that unfolded – and especially the charges by mounted police and officers with riot shields and batons drawn – the front pages of the next day’s newspapers were filled with photographs of a bruised and battered Scargill being led away by police, the story being he had fallen over and hit his head on a railway sleeper. He spent the night in hospital.
A week later, I asked Scargill what happened. He said the police had changed their story three times as to why he had fallen over. As to the conduct of the mass picket, he said he had been in charge at Orgreave throughout the day, maintaining contact with the lead pickets by walkie-talkie radio.
In later years, when reflecting on the strike, Scargill did not hide his disappointment at his failure to repeat his success at Saltley. He had wanted the mass picketing to resume at Orgreave the next day, believing the police would not have been able to call in so many reinforcements. Instead, strike organisers in Yorkshire overruled him and recalled their pickets to the Nottinghamshire coalfield to keep up the pressure on working miners to join the strike.
Such was Scargill’s belief in the invincibility of the brute force of mass picketing, he was convinced that it would have been possible to “finish it off” at Saltley, if only they had returned next day. To my surprise, he told me he thought Mrs Thatcher would have played it just the same as he had if she had been the leader of the NUM. He was convinced she would have realised the political significance of a defeat at Orgreave that matched the Conservatives’ humiliation at Saltley.
The immediate consequences of Orgreave
Orgreave was a turning point: the police had gained the upper hand and from then on, the police operation was one of containment. On the strikers’ side, surprise tactics, the mass movement of flying pickets and sheer strength of numbers had failed to deliver the knockout blow that Scargill believed was possible.
The shock troops of the British trade union movement would not give in. Picketing continued throughout the summer and on into autumn and winter, but support for the strike ebbed away as the return to work gathered pace, allowing Mrs Thatcher to declare victory early in 1985, when she claimed that half the men were back at their pits.
The longer-term legacy
Events at Orgreave remain a stain on British policing. Repeated demands by the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign for a public inquiry have been refused. In 2016, the then Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, said there would be no statutory inquiry or independent review, and, according to the most recent statement from the Home Office, that remains the position.
Campaigners hope that this position might change if events and publicity during the coming year of the 40th anniversary of the strike. With more documentaries and debates to come, the hope is that this will generate an upsurge in public interest and a repeat of the demands for action that have followed in the wake of the ITV drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office.