When Norman Strike was a coal miner, his surname was apposite. In 1983, at the age of 32, Strike stood for election as a union official at his mine, Westoe colliery in South Tyneside. He lost by seven votes: “I said it was because nobody wanted to vote for a Strike.”
A year later, on June 18 1984 — 32 years ago this weekend — Strike reached the top of a hill above the Orgreave coking works near Rotherham in South Yorkshire. It was just after 8am on a hot, sunny day and he was in a group of miners who had come by coach from Westoe to picket. The National Union of Mineworkers, led by its controversial president Arthur Scargill, had called a national strike three months before to resist a programme of pit closures backed by Margaret Thatcher’s government.
From his vantage point, Strike gazed down on a scene of battle. He heard a loud roar as hundreds of miners ran up a field towards him, chased by mounted police. Beyond them, he saw lines of police in riot gear, and behind them the plant itself, a sprawling, smoking complex at which fuel was refined from coal. Strike had been reading Germinal, Emile Zola’s novel about a miners’ strike in 19th-century France, as part of an Open University course, and he remembers that a passage from it came vividly to mind: “This pit, piled up in the bottom of a hollow with its squat brick buildings, raising its chimney like a threatening horn, seemed to him to have the evil air of a gluttonous beast, crouching there to devour the earth.”
The day culminated in a pitched fight in the village of Orgreave, with a car set on fire, miners throwing bricks and stones, and mounted police cantering along a village street beating miners and others with batons. There were more than 120 official casualties, including broken bones, cuts from bricks and truncheon blows. Ninety-three miners were arrested and 55 were later charged with riot, then a common law offence for which the maximum sentence was life imprisonment.
Orgreave was a pivotal moment in the strike, which lasted until March 1985 before being called off as many miners crossed picket lines to return to work. By the end of June 18 1984, it was clear picketing would not halt coke production at Orgreave and thus close the steelworks at Scunthorpe that relied on it. Scargill was injured and taken to hospital, with one of his key aims defeated. “Until then, I was optimistic that we could win but the writing was on the wall after that,” says Strike. “We were outnumbered, out-armed and outdone.”
The winners were the National Coal Board and Thatcher, who wanted to impose the government’s will over nationalised industries, and stop unions blocking closures or shrinkage. With the defeat of the NUM, and later of the print workers in the 1986 Wapping dispute, the government had the upper hand. Thatcher’s ability to reform the economy and unleash the rationalisation of lossmaking industries — and deregulation of the City of London in 1986 — was ensured at Orgreave.
History is written by the victors, and the narrative of Orgreave is that the police had to battle to contain violent picketing. But after 32 years, the losers may be about to rewrite it. Pressure on home secretary Theresa May to set up an inquiry increased when an inquest jury found in April that South Yorkshire police, the force in charge at Orgreave, contributed to the deaths of 96 Liverpool football fans at Hillsborough in 1989. Officers then tried to hide their blunders by blaming fans.
Barbara Jackson, a former NCB employee who took part in the strike, leads the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign, a pressure group of former miners and allies formed four years ago. “Thatcher won industrially but she did not win culturally or emotionally,” she says. “It has not made people love what happened. For a lot of them, it was a shock to see a government could treat its own people like that.”
It is another sunny day as I ascend to the spot where Strike stood in 1984. The landscape is hugely changed. The coking plant was demolished after its closure in 1990 and the field is steadily being covered. “Welcome to Renaissance,” reads one sign advertising “a fantastic range of three and four bedroom houses”, selling for up to £320,000. An industrial park sits nearby, with a manufacturing research centre run by Sheffield University, two wind turbines and a new Rolls-Royce engine blade plant. The past is buried and the new town on the site of the battle has been christened “Waverley”.
Kevin Horne, a former miner arrested that day and charged with unlawful assembly, although the charge was later dropped, walks beside me. Horne is part of the Orgreave campaign and argues that South Yorkshire police could gain as much from an inquiry as ex-miners and their relatives. He says it may provide a sense of closure since police are still distrusted in former mining villages although most are too young to have been there. “I was upset at the time and even if I see it on television now, I get upset,” Horne says. He coughs slightly as he climbs the hill. “My wife cries, even my granddaughter cries. She’s 18. They’re the people I would like to start respecting the police again, because we can’t go on forever. They’re all we’ve got, no matter how good or bad they are. We’ve got to give them a chance to make a fresh start.”
I was at Orgreave on May 29 1984, another day of trouble three weeks earlier. It featured mounted police charges, stone throwing, pickets shoving police lines, and 80 arrests. Scargill was arrested for obstruction the next morning as he stopped on that hill and the Yorkshire Post’s headline read, “The Battle of Orgreave”. It turned out to be a prelude to the bloodier, decisive battle to come.
As a 25-year-old news reporter for the northern edition of the Daily Mail, I spent weeks that year reporting on the strike, arriving in pit villages before dawn to see whether any miners would cross picket lines. After that, I might walk to the makeshift canteens set up by the Women Against Pit Closures group and have a cup of tea. The Mail’s sympathies were heavily with the government and working miners, but I usually got a polite welcome.
On May 29, I drove to Orgreave and walked down the hill to a pen behind the police lines where the media were corralled. The Mail had sent more senior reporters and my presence was superfluous, so I decided to climb up and stand among pickets who were gathering to try to block lorries of coking coal from leaving the plant. It was 7am and, with the midsummer solstice near, the sun was already high.
For a while, the few hundred miners milled around and chatted in front of a line of police, or sat on the stubble in the mown field and enjoyed the sun. Scargill arrived, in a trucker’s cap with the logo of a supportive US union, and stood 50m to my right. At 8am, as 35 lorries laden with coke emerged, the miners chanted, “Here we go, here we go,” and trotted forward to push en masse at the police lines. As they did, a few men threw missiles — stones and half-bricks — from the back.
Scargill emerged from the crowd to remonstrate through a loudhailer. “We are not going to do anything by throwing things except hit our own lads,” I noted him saying at the time. “If there had been no missiles, we would down be at the gates by now.” But as frustration grew, so did disorder and police reaction, with mounted police riding out to break up the crowd. By the end of the day, 24 police had been treated for injuries, along with 19 pickets.
The battles of Orgreave might not have occurred at all. Some officials in the NUM’s Yorkshire area, which had 250,000 working members at the time, thought focusing on Orgreave was a waste of energy because the police were so well organised. They favoured sending more pickets to Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, where many miners were still working.
“Flying pickets” — striking miners who went to other regions to enforce the strike — found their task hard, though. Pressed by the government to block mass picketing, the police turned cars full of miners away from motorway exits near pits. But they did not cordon off Orgreave. “The police told us where to go. They couldn’t have been more helpful unless they’d put on valet parking,” says Chris Kitchen, then a 17-year-old striker and now the NUM general secretary. “With hindsight, that was probably a good reason to say, ‘Hang on, we’ll go somewhere else.’”
Scargill chose Orgreave in an effort to repeat his victory at the Saltley Gate coke works in Birmingham in 1972, shut by a mass picket of the NUM and other unions in protest at the pay restraint policy of Edward Heath’s government. Thatcher was determined not to be caught in the same way, and South Yorkshire police were extremely well prepared. On June 18, they assembled a force of 4,200 from 10 counties, including 50 mounted police, 58 police dogs and several riot units.
That June morning, as Norman Strike ran down the hill to join other pickets, he was joining the second phase of battle. The first, before 8am, involved a build-up similar to May 29, with miners milling around in front of the police lines and probably (although some dispute it) sporadic stone throwing. The second started at 8am, after an initial shove against police lines as the lorries entered the plant to load up. The lines parted and mounted police cantered through, sending miners running.
As Strike arrived, the police line had reformed. “Scargill was at the front and I was right beside him. I remember him saying, ‘Come on lads, I’ve seen bigger horses at Scarborough racecourse.’” The miners pushed forward at the line again, with more missiles being thrown from the back. “There was a core of dedicated pickets and others who went along for the ride and would throw stones,” Strike says. “Often they’d hit us. I assume they were miners but I called them bloody idiots.”
A line of police in riot helmets, holding long shields, now stood at the front. A second mounted advance had no greater effect in calming the crowd — the reverse, in fact — and finally, at 8.30am, a historic event occurred. The line again parted and horses cantered forward, this time followed by riot police running out with round shields and truncheons raised. It was one of the first times that riot tactics drawn from policing in Hong Kong and former British colonies had been used on the mainland. “You know what you are doing. No heads, bodies only,” one officer was recorded calling on police video.
In the melee of police and miners fighting as the riot snatch squad tried to pull particular people out of the crowd, an ITV camera crew filmed one officer with a raised truncheon striking the head and shoulders of a miner who was falling to the ground. It had a shock effect when broadcast on national news that evening, along with other scenes of running battles and violence. The Telegraph reported the following day that the Queen had expressed concern at the televised spectacle.
After the third cavalry charge, calm returned and some miners drifted off to buy drinks on what was by then a hot, thirsty day. (“Miners work in that temperature all the time, so we know about keeping hydrated,” Kitchen jokes.) The police, many helmeted and in heavy uniform, had less opportunity for refreshment, which may have made them touchier. As tensions mounted again, Anthony Clement, the assistant chief constable in charge of operations, fatefully ordered the clearance of the field.
Three decades later, it is not clear why he did, rather than ordering the police to hold the line and soak up the pressure. Strike thinks the move was provoked by a group nearby setting fire to a riot shield they had captured. “I was talking to a journalist from Socialist Worker and he said, ‘Norman, your trousers are on fire.’ The stubble was very dry and flames had spread. As I bent down to put them out, the line parted again. I can still see the horses trotting out and breaking into a gallop.”
The police chased hundreds of miners up the field towards a railway embankment and bridge leading into the village. “A horse was coming after me, and I heard the swish of a truncheon,” Strike recalls. “I leapt over a wall at the top and rolled down the embankment.” Ken Capstick, who later became the Yorkshire NUM’s vice-president, ran across the bridge with his son and into a supermarket. “God knows what the shoppers thought when the miners invaded for shelter,” he says.
Events were now spiralling out of control. The police were far from the coking plant, facing hundreds of frightened, angry miners. Scargill was injured and taken to hospital, claiming to have been struck on the head by a riot shield (police said he had fallen over). Some strikers built barricades, and a car was dragged across the road by the bridge and set on fire. The stone and brick throwing intensified. Finally, Clement ordered a charge of mounted police into Orgreave village itself.
An iconic photograph of Orgreave was taken there: Lesley Boulton, from the Sheffield Women Against Pit Closures group, raising her arm as a mounted officer leans out to strike her with a long baton. “I remember seeing one man run up a fire escape at the side of the supermarket, and a police horse trying to chase him up it,” says Strike. “There might have been some stones thrown, but come on. [The police] were armed from head to toe, and it was our lads who got their heads beaten.”
Mike McColgan, legal adviser to the Orgreave campaign, was then a trainee solicitor in Sheffield and knew Gareth Peirce, a human rights lawyer who had represented striking miners. “Gareth phoned and said, ‘Oh, Mike, I wonder if you could come over to Rotherham? We’ve got 71 clients in custody.’ There were six to eight to a cell and it was boiling hot.”
Horne, who had been arrested in a picket near the coking plant gates, remembers being taken to a courtyard at a Sheffield police station, and finding a group of injured miners. “They were in a very bad way, bleeding from their heads and some with broken legs. Most injuries were on the backs of their heads, as if they had been running away. The best we could do was bandage them with T-shirts.”
The 1985 riot trial ended with the prosecution withdrawing its case after Clement faced tough cross-examination on his version of events, and police statements about individual arrests were found to have many similar phrases. Charges against other miners were dropped and South Yorkshire police paid £525,000 compensation and legal costs in a settlement. “Batons were used without compunction on that day and caused inordinate injuries,” says Michael Mansfield, a defence barrister at that trial. “Yet not a single police officer has been disciplined or prosecuted.”
South Yorkshire Police has declared itself open to an Orgreave inquiry. Dave Jones, appointed interim chief constable after the Hillsborough inquest, says he would “welcome an appropriate independent assessment”. Until now, the nearest to an inquiry was a “scoping exercise” last year by the Independent Police Complaints Commission, which decided not to conduct a full investigation, partly because of “the passage of time” making it impossible to pursue allegations of assault.
The police conduct is not the only source of resentment; there was also the conduct of the media, especially the BBC. Although Fleet Street newspapers such as the Mail tended to take the government’s side, public service broadcasters were supposed to be balanced. The BBC’s 5.40pm news bulletin on the day did not have the same footage as ITV of police hitting miners and Alan Protheroe, the BBC’s assistant director-general, told an internal meeting later in the week that he thought it “might not have been wholly impartial”.
Another accusation — first noted in the same meeting — has steadily escalated over the years: that the BBC “reversed the footage” deliberately or accidentally to give the impression that police had attacked miners before the latter responded with stone-throwing. The late Tony Benn, MP for the mining constituency of Chesterfield, told parliament near the end of the strike that, “I know from BBC editors who took part in that bulletin that there were three cavalry charges before a single stone was thrown.”
This version of history is clearly untrue — no one I talked to who was there on June 18 argues that. Some, including Kitchen, make a lesser claim: that miners threw stones only after the first mounted advance. Even this appears quite unlikely. Howard Giles, a historical re-enactment specialist who in 2001 worked with the artist Jeremy Deller on his reconstruction of the battle of Orgreave in 2001 (an event involving 800 miners, police and volunteers) believes it is inaccurate.
“The miners were standing around, it was quite good-natured and there was a bit of football and banter between lines. Then the stones started hitting, the police brought in long shields, and it started to turn nasty,” says Giles, who interviewed many participants on both sides. “Whoever threw those stones set off a battle that the vast majority of the police and miners did not want.”
In 1991 the NUM’s The Miner newspaper reported one BBC manager admitting in a letter that “an editor inadvertently reversed” one sequence, but the correspondence has since been lost. “I am not sure that I have ever got to the bottom of that,” says Tony Harcup, a senior lecturer in journalism at Sheffield University who investigated the affair. The BBC has never officially conceded it and there were so many advances and counter-attacks that it is not even clear what the missing letter meant.
There is a danger of replacing one myth — that the battle of Orgreave was entirely the striking miners’ fault — with the equal and opposite myth that they were victims of wholly unprovoked aggression. A more plausible history is that occasional stone throwing in the early stages, such as I witnessed on May 29, triggered a police response that passed through choreographed stages of escalation to violent, chaotic loss of control.
Clifford Stott, a professor of social psychology at Keele University, has studied other examples of public demonstrations that turned violent. “There is often a tendency to focus on who started it, but it is really in the interaction of both sides,” he says. “Often, it’s the outcome of what is essentially police ineptitude. Senior commanders attempt to disperse the crowd but they are not really in control. Units start to act independently as they get embedded in hostile conflicts of their own creation.”
For the Orgreave campaigners, ineptitude is an insufficient explanation. They point to how police guided miners there while turning them away from other sites. “If the police and the government didn’t want June 18 to happen, all they had to do was put road blocks in place,” says Barbara Jackson. “It was a set-up and a showdown. This is unfinished business because it is so close to us. The miners are convinced that there is one rule of law for them and another for other people. “
The psychological impact of the strike has lingered longer than most physical injuries. Many miners felt betrayed not just by police actions but how the story was told. Nick Jones, industrial correspondent for BBC radio at the time, partly agrees. “There was no doubt the strike was seen as a threat to democracy, and I think I ended up becoming a sort of cheerleader for the return to work. I reported on a narrative that suited the establishment.”
In one respect, Jones thinks Orgreave would be impossible today. “At Orgreave as with other confrontations, the media tended to be behind police lines or at the edge of the action. There are very few press pictures [in the middle], which is why the image of Lesley Boulton is so memorable. Today, everyone has a camera in his or her phone. There would be so much material that it would be impossible for the police to get away with what they did.”
The Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre by the Orgreave site is an encouraging example of what was often promised to regenerate industrial areas but too rarely delivered. It is run by Sheffield University in partnership with aerospace and high technology manufacturers including Boeing, Airbus and Rolls-Royce. It researches techniques such as how to make an aero engine’s titanium shell with less waste. From six employees in 2012, the centre has grown to 530 and expects to double that.
Three years ago, it opened a training centre at which 350 apprentices are being taught to work in such companies. They join at 16 and study for four years, during which they are paid between £7,000 and £12,000 a year. “With the history of this area, a number of them are earning the only income in their families,” says Colin Sirett, chief executive of the AMRC. “It is very humbling to hear the challenges they’ve faced.”
The last miners’ jobs vanished from Yorkshire last December when the Kellingley deep mine closed with the loss of 450 jobs. The NUM, once one of the UK’s largest and strongest unions has been reduced to a curiosity — it has only 300 paying members. Kitchen works at the union’s head office in Barnsley, where banners from all the old mines line its grand assembly hall. What was once an embodiment of a living industry is largely a museum.
The union provides advice to retired miners on health conditions, often lung diseases such as pneumoconiosis, bronchitis and emphysema. Kitchen estimates that 60 per cent of former miners have health issues. “With the benefit of hindsight, it was always going to be an uphill struggle,” he says of the strike. “It was never going to be won with the Tories in power because they were pursuing a plan to privatise the assets. Not because I’m a miner, purely as a UK citizen, I think that’s damaged everyone.”
I met Margaret Thatcher only once, two years after Orgreave, when I had left the Daily Mail for the Daily Telegraph (a year later, I would join the FT as a labour correspondent). The strike was beaten and she was nearing the peak of her powers as the economy expanded and unemployment fell. The biggest criticism she faced was that the north was being left behind as the south boomed — then called the “north-south divide”.
Thatcher was touring Manchester and came one evening to visit the Telegraph’s new print plant. I was among a group of employees to whom she was introduced and she chatted to us for two minutes. The next day I covered her visit to a hospital, outside which a noisy crowd of protesters had gathered. “What about the north-south divide, Mrs Thatcher?” a journalist asked amid the din, as she stood with her back to me.
“There is no such thing,” she declared. “There are examples of enterprise around the country . . . ” As she spoke, she turned and, incredibly, recognised me. “ . . . such as the Telegraph plant in Trafford Park,” she finished triumphantly to my face. It is how I remember the prime minister who defeated the miners — defying shouts of protest and, in an instant, seizing the narrative.
John Gapper is the FT’s chief business commentator
Photographs: David Severn; Martin Shakeshaft; John Harris/Reportdigital.co.uk
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