The Miners' Strike of 1984-5 was a confrontation that changed Britain. The dispute lasted for almost a full year, but the events around the Orgreave coke plant on the strike's hundredth day effectively presaged its outcome. Much else was decided at Orgreave too, because two heavyweights from opposite ends of the political spectrum, Arthur Scargill and Margaret Thatcher, had each put their public reputation on the line. The supporters of the first were defending livelihoods and communities, while the followers of the second wanted a national economy free from the yoke of dysfunctional labour relations. Neither of these protagonists had it in their character to accept compromise. Casualties were inevitable.
Arthur Scargill, President of the National Union of Mineworkers, was born in Worsborough, near Barnsley, in 1938. He made his reputation as a pugnacious champion of the miners during an earlier coal strike in 1972, and one of his most significant contributions to that dispute was the orchestration of the picketing of another coke depot, at Saltley Gate in Birmingham. The miners achieved an effective stranglehold on coal and coke shipment to power stations, forcing the imposition of the Three Day Week. So it was that the miners brought down a Conservative government and its leader, Edward Heath.
Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of Britain, had come to power five years before the Miners' Strike. She was already committed to general reform of industrial relations, seeing Trades Union militancy as an arbitrary hindrance to national economic success. An unashamed free-marketeer, Thatcher was moreover philosophically opposed to the state-ownership of industries. The NUM and the National Coal Board between them epitomised the decadence of the nationalised industry model - an intransigent and irresponsible union pitted against ineffectual and unaccountable management. Nor was coal any longer a material of over-riding strategic importance. The whole added up to an untenable burden on the tax-payer.
These two people were alike as well as different. Both were by nature belligerent and unyielding. Both had personalised their political convictions to a level of mission and morality. Both commanded immense loyalty and both claimed an unequivocal mandate. Each one hated the other with a passion. It was going to be quite a fight.
Background to the Strike
After Margaret Thatcher won the general election of 1979, it was soon clear that the first Conservative Premier since Heath was not about to repeat the mistakes of her predecessor. During the Iron Lady's first term of office, three conspicuous events and a great deal of less visible planning prepared the ground for the eventual confrontation.
The first key event was a strike in another nationalised industry. British Steel shed about a third of its capacity and half of its workforce in less than four years, between 1979 and 1982. The steel strike occupied the first four months of 1980, demanding a cessation of closures and a 20% pay increase. The relative ease with which it was put down signalled that the Trades Union Congress as a collective would not lightly support an embattled sector. The police refined their methods against flying pickets. The strike failed utterly, and the closures were accelerated under a new British Steel chairman, Ian McGregor, who thereby marked himself as a candidate for a similar role in future.
Then came a phoney war in the coal industry itself. In the autumn of 1981, the government announced a modest number of pit closures, and were confronted by a spontaneous national walk-out. Thatcher backed down immediately, and the closure orders were rescinded. Over the next two years, however, some isolated single-pit closures took place, and the NUM executive failed each time to win ballot support for a strike. The rank and file membership, and key junior management groups such as the pit deputies, did not perceive sufficient threat to merit national industrial action.
The third event was the one that gave Margaret Thatcher her constituency. In April 1982, Argentina invaded the Falklands Islands, an action which must have been founded on an assumption that Britain would not risk a military response. As it turned out, the British public rediscovered its barely-sublimated appetite for war, and Thatcher was able to enter a general election campaign as an avenging champion. She was pitted against Labour's Michael Foot, and an emasculated brand of pacifism that only enhanced her image. The Iron Lady was returned for a second term with a 100-seat majority and an electorate positively expecting her to carry the fight.
As Thatcher's political standing rose, Arthur Scargill's public persona was heading in the opposite direction. Instead of seeking the sympathy of the entire country, he instinctively adopted an 'us and them' categorisation of working classes and others. Within his own natural community, he had done little to rebut accusations of desertion from the steelworkers, and he was increasingly seen by the TUC as a loose cannon. For the recently-routed Labour Party, he was now a downright liability. In spite of all this, Scargill still believed in the collective political strength of the miners with a certainty that bordered on arrogance, and a passion that bordered on aggression. In those traits, perhaps, lay the seeds of his defeat. Arrogance is an allowable defect among capitalists, but in a socialist it smacks of the corrupting influence of power. The aggression was even more misplaced. It allowed Margaret Thatcher to claim innocence and to adopt the moral high-ground.
Behind the scenes, too, massive reserves of coal were being built up at power stations. A road-freight infrastructure based on non-union truck-fleets was appearing, with large industrial concerns given fiscal encouragement to develop and sustain it. In March 1983, McGregor was appointed Chairman of the NCB, and planning for a wholesale downsizing of the British coal industry began.
The Strike before Orgreave
The first wave of the strike was called in Yorkshire on 5 March, 1984, in response to an announcement of the planned closure of Cortonwood Colliery near Barnsley. Scargill sought wider support, claiming that the NCB intended to shed seventy thousand jobs. On 6 March, the coal board countered, declaring the actual figure in their plans to be twenty thousand, and that Cortonwood would be the first of twenty projected closures. The alacrity of this statement demonstrates McGregor's confidence in the management's preparations : a national strike was inevitable given the extent of the necessary cuts, and so there was no point in delaying the confrontation.
Until Thatcher came to power, a strike called with the authority of a recognised Trades Union was implicitly legal, and there were no laws to restrict the practice of secondary picketing. By the time of the strike, an individual picketing any establishment other than their place of employment was subject to arrest, and the calling of a strike without first undertaking and winning a secret ballot was against the law. On a split vote, the NUM executive rejected a ballot, ostensibly to show defiance of the Tories' anti-Trades Union legislation, but surely also because the level of dissent would have been significant. Many miners knew the writing was on the wall. Much as they deplored the government's intentions, they also feared that a coal industry on its present scale was economically untenable. Under the circumstances, to go quietly with a redundancy pay-off must have been tempting, particularly when set against the privations of a protracted dispute.
A further attempt to debate a ballot was beaten off by Scargill late in April, but the refusal to take this course had a crucial consequence. It cost the NUM the unequivocal support of the officials union, NACODS. Without its deputies, safety considerations meant that no pit would be allowed to operate, but the continued supervision of these men meant that strike-breaking remained an effective possibility. When significant numbers of Nottinghamshire miners chose to work on, the strikers countered with intimidation, further eroding public sympathy. Then, as the weeks went on, the deep irony of the miners' position became apparent. Anything less than a total strike would fail, because the industry could shed a high proportion of its capacity without hurting its customers. This ludicrous economic position was a direct consequence of years of tenacity on the part of the miners themselves.
By 1984, Orgreave had become an urban village, engulfed by the eastern extremities of Sheffield and four miles south of the municipality of Rotherham, of which it formed a part. A colliery-shaft was first sunk there in the 1820s, and in 1919 the pit and its neighbour at Treeton were acquired by the United Steel Company, who built a coke-making plant to supply their blast-furnaces. At the time of the strike, with South Yorkshire's ironworks long since replaced by arc furnaces for melting scrap, the Orgreave Coke Plant was serving a remote main customer. The coke made there was shipped 35 miles to the east, to British Steel's Scunthorpe Works.
There were precursor stand-offs at Orgreave before the big one. During May, Arthur Scargill succeeded in getting himself arrested at one of these, but the lorries continued to roll out of the plant. At the other end of the A18, the steelmen showed no inclination to blockade them. Depleted from nineteen thousand to barely a third of that number, and with no dependence on mining in their own communities, many at Scunthorpe resented the Pickets. Steel was then beginning to recover from its own 'decimation', as Scargill liked to call it. The last thing that the remaining steelworkers wanted was their hard-won job security jeopardised by militant outsiders. It was becoming ever more apparent that the NUM had cultivated too many enemies.
Police intelligence was extremely effective throughout the strike, and it's now accepted that informers were at work. Power-station stocks were holding up, and their periodic replenishment was being achieved with demoralising audacity. The union decided to repeat the tactics of Saltley Gate, and close a major source of coke. The contingent of flying pickets was enormous, at some six thousand, but the police knew it in advance and matched the turnout. In the early morning of Monday 18 June, at this incongruous village south of Rotherham, determined men just kept pouring in.
Early on a lovely midsummer morning, with the sun climbing into a near-cloudless sky, Highfield Lane milled with men. Most of the vehicles that brought the miners there were unmarked, and none of them stayed a minute longer than necessary. The pickets at Orgreave were an illicit army, kitted out in jeans and T-shirts. That army was thousands strong, reflecting what would be a make or break day for the miners.
Away down the slope, their opposition was arriving too. The police came in sleeker coaches, and their progression was more orderly, but the men who alighted were just as determined to be anonymous. They brought van-loads of shields and body-armour as well as horse-boxes, and it was soon clear that there would also be thousands in these lines. Any forlorn expectation on the miners' part that they would prevail by numbers was soon dispelled. At Orgreave, the success or failure of the strike hung in the balance. More than that, a nation’s future politics was destined to take shape.
The first arrivals were fairly friendly in their mood, with dry banter between pickets and police, and some of the pickets playing football. At that early stage, the police on the scene were all local men, and none of them were wearing riot gear. Even so, the growing weight of numbers had its bearing on the atmosphere. By 7 am, some of the shouting was becoming distinctly aggressive, and the two sides were soon assessing and adjusting their positions.
There was nothing coincidental about the location of the lines. Many on both sides were already veterans of these confrontations, and the arriving pickets had expected the usual road-blocks and diversions. Instead, this would be the day that the police tactics changed. There were no restrictions on the approach roads at all, and bemused pickets found their vehicles escorted towards the plant. The growing crowd was then shepherded into a field on the 'topside' of the site.
By around 8 am, battle lines had been drawn. The police line faced up the slope. Away to the left and the right there were loose lines of dog handlers and mounted officers, and straight in front was the melee of pickets. Half a mile to the miners' rear, the field fell away down a steep embankment, where the railway from Worksop ran through. Although the miners occupied the higher ground, they were effectively surrounded. The pickets could be effectively repelled if they attempted to march on the plant gate. If they chose to try something rougher than a march, then this field was the perfect place for the police to reply in kind. Minute by minute, the sun rose higher, and the temperature steadily climbed.
The police commander at Orgreave was Assistant Chief Constable Anthony Clement. Ordinarily, an operation as crucial as this would have been overseen by the Chief Constable of South Yorkshire, but the incumbent of that office, Peter Wright, was absent and destined to retire shortly afterwards. Before Orgreave, the personal equipment used by the police in the face of riot included a six-foot clear plastic shield. The Met Shield, as it was known, was very clearly a defensive implement, trading full body protection for the decreased mobility of the bearer. Following first-term experience of civil unrest in a number of English cities, however, the Home Office was ready to introduce more proactive methods to quell picket-line violence. Clement was thus given permission to deploy a type of cordon hitherto only used in Ulster: officers wearing crash helmets and carrying short shields would be allowed to operate as 'snatch squads', specifically to detain, disable or disperse targeted protagonists.
There was no clear-cut instruction to use these squads against the Orgreave pickets. It would be left to Clement's judgement on the day. The authorities knew that such a tactic would blur the boundary between defensive and offensive action on the part of the police, and so might yet prove too robust for public opinion.
The first convoy of trucks pulled into the plant at 8 o'clock, and their arrival caused an immediate escalation. A Police Constable named Akers was hit in the face by a brick, and became the first hospitalised casualty of the battle. The pickets surged at the long-shield line, but it held firm. The squeeze lasted for around a minute, as contemporary video footage demonstrates.
In order to regain the ground lost, ACC Clement ordered a group of mounted police forward. The miners retreated, apparently in some panic, as the horses moved through the line. This first advance was orderly, and no batons were used, but a hail of stones now began from the pickets at the back of the field. A second advance soon followed, but the stoning continued. Clement took up a loudhailer and demanded that the pickets should move back a hundred yards. As he did so, short-shield squads were moving into position behind the main police line. A few moments later, a third mounted advance began, with the short shield squads now in support. Policing in Britain was about to change forever.
Three units, and about sixty policemen in total, followed the mounted contingent forward. The first arrests took place, as well as some truncheon-beatings, but the police were under clear instruction not to strike at miners’ heads, and the rule was respected at this time. Nonetheless, the demonstration was by now sliding towards a pitched battle, and the first laden trucks were about to emerge from the plant.
The drivers from CLS Haulage started their engines at 9.25 am. They swung out into Highfield Lane amid a hail of missiles, turning north towards the motorway and away from the chaotic press in the Topside field. Some drivers turned up their radios to drown out the clamour and the baying. Several wore sunglasses and balaclavas, partly to avoid recognition, but also to protect their face should their windshields be put through. The air was thick with dust. As soon as the haulage company had renegotiated their British Steel contract under the strike terms, protective grilles were fitted across the cab-fronts. All the drivers were glad of those now, as the steel mesh rang under the impact of bricks and stones.
The police line held firm during this first foray, and the miners were repelled before they could reach the plant perimeter or obstruct the trucks directly. Horses and short shield units pushed the pickets back, but by now there were faces streaming with blood on both sides. The day had just begun, but the tension and the stand-off were too precarious to continue like this. Clement recognised that he faced a major problem, because every convoy’s exit would lead to a repetition of this confrontation. Even though the amount of coke actually moved out of the plant on the day would be relatively small and the act of moving it was mainly symbolic, a postponement of the convoys on safety grounds was not a satisfactory option either. That course would hand the miners victory.
This was the moment that Arthur Scargill chose to walk along the police line, berating them for their behaviour. His attempt to bolster miners' morale drew no response from Clement's men. The press were ready to record a repetition of his arrest, but the police had learned some guile since the last time. Scargill eventually strode back to the pickets' side, cutting a slightly ridiculous figure, and disappeared into the throng. He would not be so conspicuous again that day, though he would later claim to have been pushed down a bank and injured.
With the trucks gone, an uneasy stand-off resumed. The next coke run was at least an hour away, and the Asda supermarket half a mile to the South provided a convenient source of refreshment for the miners on a sweltering day. The relative mobility of the pickets became an effective way to taunt the police, whose lines were still full of men wearing hot and sticky uniforms. The miners in the field were by now no more than a third of the police numbers, because most of their colleagues had moved off into the village. Many of the remaining pickets were making a provocative show of drink-cans, while others lounged on the grass, but no longer were stones being thrown.
Clement seized on this lull as the ideal time to consolidate the police position, and to force the pickets out of range of the plant gates. The police advance caught the pickets off guard, and their hurried retreat choked the railway bridge on Highfield Lane, the only proper escape route. Hundreds of miners scrambled down the embankment and across the railway line as the police pursued them. With the numbers involved, and the high density of bodies, it was fortunate that no train was due. The missiles were quickly flying once more.
It was at the railway bridge that the first real examples of police indiscipline occurred. The narrowing of the road made the new front-line barricade a concentrated target for the missile-throwers. There were undoubtedly police casualties, and the provocation must have been severe, but the point remains that order broke down in elements of the force that was there to uphold it. There is no denying the account of what followed, because there were numerous camera lenses deployed among the side now retreating into the village, and key events are a matter of judicial record. One of the most notorious incidents befell a young Miner called David Bell, who took refuge beside an electricity sub-station close to the bridge. In full view of the cameras, he was set upon by five policemen. Bell sustained a broken leg, and was forced to hop back to the police line, where he was arrested.
The Battle of Orgreave might have ended just beyond the railway bridge on Highfield Lane, because the pickets were now half a mile away from the gates of the coke works, but the miners were in no mood to give up. A scrap yard beyond the bridge provided a new source of extremely dangerous projectiles. A car was wheeled out into the middle of the road and set alight. ACC Clement now found that his advance had compounded his problems rather than solved them. If he withdrew out of range, then increasingly-violent pickets would follow and once again approach the plant. If he ordered further charges to disperse the combatants, he would be carrying the battle into a residential area and could well face difficulties in restraining his men. After a couple of limited forays that failed to perturb the scrap-throwers, Clement elected to order a general advance. The final and nastiest phase of the confrontation then began.
The mounted police charge over the crossroads was intended to take out targeted missile-throwers. In the event, the miners scattered, and horsemen proceeded to chase down individuals on foot with the short-shield squads following up. Relatively few fleeing pickets were actually caught, but many of those who were were subjected to rough treatment, and some were severely beaten. Several such beatings took place in full view of members of the public, notably and notoriously in the Asda car park. Another incident added to the catalogue of unwelcome film footage, when an unresisting miner was pinned to a car bonnet by an assailant who later turned out to be a police Inspector.
The most famous photograph came from the last of the clashes, just before Clement finally called his men back to the cordon-line. Mounted police pursued a stone-thrower right into Rotherham Lane. Until that moment, this extremity of the village had seemed like safe territory. It was here that a lady called Lesley Boulton was tending to an injured Miner who was lying on the pavement. For no explicable reason, the policeman on the horse swung his baton at her as he charged past. The contact was slight, but a photographer caught the action at the height of the backswing, and the definitive image of the violence at Orgreave was captured.
By the middle of the afternoon, the last of the trucks were gone. There was no longer any reason to picket, and the police pulled back to the bridge. Some last few hot-heads attempted to fashion petrol bombs, after discovering a diesel pump in the scrap yard. The devices wouldn’t burn properly, of course, but the intent was enough to further discredit the miners in some of the following day's papers. A vicious contrivance was made out of scrap, with ugly spikes presumably intended to impale horses. It was left in the road, but it was only the most vindictive of the protesters who were fighting any more. The final irony of the Battle of Orgreave was that these most deserving targets of the snatch-squads were completely ignored as they attempted their pathetic and twisted reprisals. Everywhere else by now, those who were fit to do so were melting away.
The Strike after Orgreave
As summer gave way to autumn, the position of the striking miners began to worsen. Some were demoralised by the events of the day, and by other days like it. It wasn't so much the police behaviour as the public vilification that shocked the strikers. To this day, many ex-miners wonder in dismay at a population largely unsympathetic to the plight of whole communities deprived of their wherewithal.
The other factor, of course, was the financial hardship. Families once fed by the country's best-paid labour force were now relying on food parcels and on soup kitchens. In September, the NCB offered settlement terms including minor concessions in the pace of the closure program. The NUM rejected them, but by now a significant drift back to work was apparent. The picketing became still more confrontational, and the vicious circle ground on. Then the strike suffered a fatality, when a block of concrete was hurled through the windscreen of a taxi carrying a working miner to a South Wales pit, killing the driver. The Press howled its contempt and hands were wrung at Westminster. The chances of preserving a way of life were subsiding into oblivion.
An unhappy Christmas was the last straw for many, and the numbers returning to work began to mount. By now, there were those among the union's leadership who acknowledged that the game was up. The strike would have to be called off, because otherwise it would soon collapse altogether. An NUM conference was convened, though Scargill tried hard to resist it. On 3 March, 1985, almost exactly a year after the strike had begun, union delegates voted 98 to 91 to bring the dispute to an end.
Most pitmen went back to work on the anniversary, marching in with their bands and banners in a last show of defiance. There was pride, all right, in the resilience and spirit they had shown, and they were entitled to remind a nation of the nobility of their cause, but this was no victory for the miners. Thatcher had taken on the most powerful and militant union in the land, and she had beaten them. Most of the country, moreover, rejoiced that she had beaten them. The closure program would continue apace, and the industry, as well as many of the communities it provided for, was doomed.
One of the most bizarre twists of the Orgreave tale was a re-enactment of the Battle in 2001. It was staged and filmed by a grouping comprising EventPlan, Artangel Media and Channel 4, and the resultant footage was made into a conceptual artwork by Jeremy Deller, a subsequent winner of the Turner Prize.
The 'Comic Strip Presents' comedians also famously parodied the events of the Miners' Strike. That piece for Channel 4 was based on the incongruity of an American TV-style dramatisation, and its writers probably didn't intend humour at the expense of injured communities. Nonetheless, the broadcast still brought complaints of insensitivity from viewers in mining areas.
There was an ice-cream van in the midst of it all. Many people remember it, and the photographic record authenticates their story. It said 'Rock on Tommy' across the front, and it continued to sell ices all day from its pitch close to the crossroads, at least until it was completely surrounded by the advancing police. For something like an hour prior to that, as the action swept along the Lane towards it, this ridiculous vehicle had stoically held its position in the middle of a pitched battle. There were certainly no children in the vicinity by then, and the pickets surely had neither the time nor the disposable income to buy too many ice-creams. Maybe the police were even stingier, because their arrival coincided with the driver's seriously overdue decision to move off. Given the weather and the crowds, though, he quite probably made more money on the day than usual, and he certainly had a story to tell afterwards.
The police did themselves few favours at Orgreave in the way that the journalists were treated. Some pressmen were threatened, and at least one was man-handled. A lot of film and video was confiscated, but by no means all of it. When pickets were subsequently brought to trial, the judiciary was severely critical of the editing of both press and police footage, and for the resulting misrepresentation of the sequence of events.
Senior police officers were also criticised by judges for contradictions in their testimony. None of the 93 arrests at Orgreave led to a conviction. The majority of the prosecutions that were instigated were dropped when the public relations began to go awry. Few of the miners arrested for lesser offences were ever advised that they would not be charged. A number of miners attempted to bring brutality charges against the police, but none of these actions came to anything either.
The official casualty count was 72 policemen given hospital treatment and 51 pickets recorded as injured. The last total was surely far lower than the real figure, because medical treatment for a picket was an effective guarantee of arrest. Over the next couple of days, there were a lot of visitors to Sheffield and Rotherham casualty departments claiming to have suffered implausible domestic accidents. One man turned out to have a fractured skull. After an initial statement that he had tripped over his dog, it transpired that the patient had been on the picket-line at Orgreave.
It was largely a matter of luck that there were no fatalities, but the Battle of Orgreave still claimed many victims in the longer term. These certainly include the pit communities of Britain. The clash also marked a precipitous decline in the influence of the national trades union movement. Some contend that the electability of the Conservative Party was seriously eroded that day, and others observe that the incident caused a loss of public trust and respect for the police. Most significantly, perhaps, Orgreave polarised the people of the nation. Sharp divisions in perception and values do not serve democracies well. Such rifts take generations to heal.
The sorry half-mile where it all happened looks very different today. The junction of Retford Road and Rotherham Road, where the last truncheon-blows were meted out, is little changed, but Asda has moved away up to the other end of Handsworth Hill, and the railway bridge has been replaced with a new one. Highfield Lane ends abruptly at a roundabout, more or less where the morning's stand-off took place. The coking plant itself has long gone. First it was swallowed up in the early 1990s by great opencast workings. Today those have gone too, with the former site of the plant landscaped and the Topside field encroached upon by a high-tech manufacturing park.
The Miners' Strike stands as one of the direst PR calamities in recent history. Beyond the working-class communities of the coalfield regions, sympathy was ultimately minimal. Scargill and the NUM proved all to easy to demonise. There was, moreover, a real economic problem to be solved, and the coal industry epitomised it. Thatcher had a mandate and the electorate had spoken. The miners defied both, and in that respect they got their just deserts.
To open your mind to the plight of the miners in 1984, therefore, you have to put yourself in their shoes. You have to sense the despair of communities robbed of their livelihoods, and to imagine the bleakening prospects of your own children. Why, then, do so few of the people of Britain take this view of events? The most common reaction, indeed, seems to be to characterise all of the protagonists at Orgreave as pariahs, miners and police, Scargill and Thatcher alike. Perhaps a guilty conscience is playing a part when we wash our hands of it all like this.
Nobody in modern Britain can truly distance themselves from the Battle of Orgreave, however. Its gravest legacy is social divisiveness that still persists. Orgreave marks a nation’s closest flirtation with civil war in living memory, and that alone may be sufficient reason for all of its citizens to accept and learn from their collective responsibility.