Remembering Orgreave

On this day in 1984, a paramilitary police operation set out to smash the miners – and send a lesson to working-class people across Britain that meaningful strike action would not be tolerated.

Today marks the 36th anniversary of the police riot at the Orgreave coking plant. Of all the examples of violent policing from Scotland to Kent during the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike, the events of June 18th, 1984 were unprecedented, and represented a fundamental turning point in policing, lawful assembly and protest.

The riot happened after the strike had been going strong for three months. The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) had agreed to allow the transport of coke from Orgreave to supply the British Steel works in Scunthorpe. As the weeks wore on, however, the union felt that this agreement was being abused, and it was finally arranged that from mid-May, miners would begin picketing the plant to stop any further coke transportation.

The Tories decided that with this action, the time was right for them to action their long-developed plans of forcefully controlling the strike and crushing the might of the NUM. Policing was massively scaled up and new tactics of riot policing, including with horses and dogs, and June 18th, 1984 was intended as their day of reckoning for the miners.

According to those who wish to ignore the outrages of that day, the calls for a public inquiry into these events is ‘living in the past’. They would prefer us to forget why the Tories decided to use the full weight of the state on this group of workers. The ideological mission of the 1979 Tory government was to bring in a free market capitalist system where the state had no role to play in the economy, and to enforce a mantra that publicly-owned industries and services were fundamentally bad.

The admiration Margaret Thatcher held for her personal friend General Pinochet and his neoliberal model of governance in Chile drove her plans and policies to rid Britain of its nationalised industries and services and hand them over to the free market. It was a plan that Thatcher and her friends knew had a great obstacle in its way – a strong, unionised workforce. While anti-union legislation existed in the seventies, the organised labour movement still packed significant power. The NUM’s strikes and overtime bans in 1972 and 1974 had effectively brought down Ted Heath’s government; the Tories in 1979 knew that they needed to not only curb them, but destroy them.

Following the 1974 election defeat, senior Tories set about planning how to do this. In 1977, Nicholas Ridley and members of the Selsdon Group of free market Conservatives drew up the Ridley Plan, which became the blueprint for their actions in the 1984-85 strike. The plan was explicit in how to crush any trade union action: it included considerations on the locations to attack, the building up of coal stocks to keep power stations going, the potential import of coal and the recruitment of scab lorry drivers to transport it.

Most relevant to the day of reckoning at Orgreave was the training of a new kind of police squad. The new police would be equipped with weapons used to contain riots, would involve long shield containment police, short shield “snatch squads,” as well as a mounted police cavalry and dog handlers. They would also be trained to choose geographic areas where a form of crowd containment that can now be described as “kettling” could be used – not “kettling” as a supposed form of crowd control that the police chose to justify as a tactic these days, but to ensure that once the order to attack was given, large groups of striking miners would have nowhere to escape to.

The geographic nature of the cornfield next to Orgreave coking plant was the perfect enclosure in which to deploy this tactic, and June 18th was the beautiful summer day that was chosen. Thousands of miners from across the country made their way to Orgreave without the usual hassle of police roadblocks – in fact, the police were helping to direct them where to park and where to go. However, the miners soon realised they had been led into a trap, and what was a jovial atmosphere soon changed.

The sheer scale of the police numbers was incredible. The special Police Support Units, which were drawn up from each of the 43 police forces of England and Wales, were in fact a standing army in waiting. Alongside dog-handlers, 42 mounted officers were also mobilised. 

The true extent of this paramilitary policing would be exposed at a subsequent court trial, when the existence of a new Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) Manual came to light. It was said that Orgreave was to be the first test of this manual, which was apparently prepared after a presentation to ACPO by the Royal Hong Kong Police Force – who, at that time, were well versed in suppression tactics. The extensive and recorded planning must have been the most detailed Police Operational Plan ever written, but the plan has never been located. Despite intense efforts by the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign – and repeated requests of the then Independent Police Complaint Commission – it still remains “missing”.

The effects were devastating. After the usual ritual pushes by the miners against the local shield riot police, an order was given and these officers parted. Miners were horrified to be facing a charge at speed of the mounted police. Many tried to flee where they could, given the containment of the field. Many were trapped and fell victim to the brutal short shield squads of police, many without any identification numbers, rained down vicious truncheon blows to striking miners and their supporters.

The excessive violence resulted in many serious injuries. Broken arms, broken heads and fractured skulls. The police charges continued pursuing miners running for their lives up into the village. Kevin Horne, one of the 95 miners arrested that day for unlawful assembly recalled: “Many of us tried to run away, while others tried desperately to defend themselves from being attacked. It was terrifying. Anyone who says they weren’t frightened was lying.”

Mass arrests followed, but not for the more serious offences of riot and unlawful assembly that would later be laid before the court, largely for minor public order offences and obstruction. It was a year of anguish for those 95 arrested miners, their families and communities as they waited for their cases to go to trial. Every night on the news, they would see Tory politicians like Leon Brittan demanding that the full weight of the law came down on ‘these violent thugs’ who had attacked innocent police, as the broadcast and print media pushed out the same narrative against innocent working people.

However, the prosecution did not even finish their case before they realised that the evidence given in court by various police officers was so unreliable the case could not proceed. The prosecution offered no evidence and all miners were acquitted after 48 days. 

The fact that the brutality of Orgreave ended in ‘no convictions’ was one of the reasons that the Tory Home Secretary Amber Rudd offered in October 2016 when she announced there would be no Orgreave inquiry. That there were no convictions following that police operation, which included a years’ preparation for a criminal trial during which innocent people were subject to onerous bail conditions, and for a trial which subsequently collapsed due to the prosecution’s lack of a case, was of no concern to her or her successors Sajid Javid and Priti Patel.

The police violence did not end in June 1984. It persisted throughout the year, turning into the violent and oppressive occupation of mining villages and towns, all as part of the government’s plan to kill the spirit of the strike and break the will of the miners. Sadly, the NUM was left isolated, by a weak TUC and a cowardly Labour leadership. Many Labour Party activists and trade unionists throughout Britain were devoted to supporting the strike but despite their strenuous efforts, and those of left-wing Labour MPs, the top of the movement ultimately let the miners down. While the miners returned to work with their banners held high in March 1985, they knew things would not be the same again.

In July 1984, Arthur Scargill said that “if the miners lose, you will all suffer.” And his prediction has been proven right time and time again – not least by the release of cabinet papers from 1984 that reveal the true intention of the Thatcher government to sell off the National Coal Board – along with public utilities like British Gas, British Telecom, and privatising electricity, water and the railways. We live with the excesses and dysfunctions that privatisation has brought to these industries today.

In ex-coalfield areas, the sons, daughters and grandchildren of ex-mining families are now working in the largely non-unionised distribution and call centres that took the place of the mines. Theirs is the world of precarious low paid work and zero-hour contracts. Our public services have been broken up and sold off, under invested in and are unequipped to protect the most vulnerable. All of this has been highlighted by the current pandemic.

If anyone tells you that calling for an inquiry into Orgreave is backward looking, and won’t achieve anything, we must remember that there has never been any accountability for what happened there. There are papers relating to Orgreave and the strike that are embargoed until 2066, when most people involved in the strike will have died. The state interference and response to the strike was politically driven and the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign will continue to fight to lift the lid on the actions of that Tory government 36 years ago so that we can challenge any such action in the future.

Since the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign was started in 2012, we have grown in support across the country. While we will desperately miss seeing in person the hundreds of people who gather every year for our annual rally, we ask you to join us for our virtual rally this Saturday 20th June which will be live streamed on our Facebook Page starting at 1pm.

We all know that unity is strength, and the theme of this year’s rally is ‘United and Strong.’ We will be joined by speakers representing the Hillsborough Justice Campaign, Justice4Grenfell, Shrewsbury 24, Joint Enterprise: Not Guilty by Association and the Blacklisting Support Group, all working class injustices in their own right. 

We also show solidarity with the NHS, with Sarah Young, an NHS worker and union branch secretary as well as with Janet Alder, sister of Christopher Alder who was unlawfully killed in police custody in April 1988. NUM General Secretary Chris Kitchen and representatives from the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign complete the line up along with music from the Unite Brass Band. 

For many of you who have not been able to attend a rally in person, this year we hope you take advantage of the online platform and bring your support and solidarity.