The British coal industry was nationalised in 1947 by Clement Attlee's reforming Labour Government. The National Coal Board, established under the Coal Industry Nationalisation Act, assumed control of 1,647 coal mines, 1 million acres of land, 100 000 homes and a myriad transport and infrastructure that had been previously owned by 850 separate companies. The private coal companies were paid a total of 164.6 million pounds. The consolidated industry was thereafter managed on a nationwide scale by the Coal Board, which also controlled mining in Scotland and Wales.
You can read more about the Attlee Government and their programme of reform here;
You can read more about the Attlee Government and their programme of reform here;
Just 173 pits were still operating by 1984, a fraction of the number that had been producing coal during the first half of the century. The coal industry was surviving in its current form through government subsidy and, according to the Thatcher Government, was beset by inefficiencies and loss-making pits that were not only a drain on more modern and profitable operations, but inhibiting the viability of the entire industry. Disputed reports said that the NCB was losing as much as 3 Pounds per ton of coal produced. As a result, British coal was more expensive than the general international rate. The entire industry was crying out for major reform, at least from the Tories' perspective, and now there was a resolute government determined to allow the free market to flourish; to improve productivity and efficiency, and to break the power of the union movement once and for all, along the way. There were obviously going to be major ramifications for communities that relied on the pits for their survival. Union sources suggested that for every 100 mining jobs lost, a further 80 in local communities and related industries would follow as part of the economic knock-on effect.
The Prime Minister said;
“...Of course, we’re always sympathetic about the loss of jobs. But, how are you going to get new jobs in coal? You’re not going to get it, by keeping open pits which put up the price of coal for all that wish to buy it...”
The Tories’ relationship with the National Union of Mineworkers had been turbulent, and a number of Thatcherites held bitter memories of what they considered Edward Heath’s capitulation a decade earlier, leading to the subsequent election losses in 1974. With Margaret Thatcher assuming the role of Opposition Leader the following year, Conservative policy began to take a much harder line. The Ridley Report, commissioned by the Conservative Research Department, and leaked to the Economist magazine in 1978, argued for the break-up of nationalised monopolies which were beset with inefficient practices, 'jobs for the boys', devoid of the usual private sector accountabilities, and essentially being run for the benefit of themselves rather than their customers. Freeing up the economy and fighting inflation would be the new priority, rather than the Post-War Consensus objectives of full employment through government spending and a mixed economy comprising of both state-owned and private enterprise.
Read the Ridley Report, in full, here:
In early March 1984, Coal Board Chairman, Ian MacGregor, announced the closure of 20 unprofitable pits and the resultant loss of around 20 000 jobs. Miners at Cortonwood Colliery, South Yorkshire, stopped work immediately, and within a week, more than half of the nation’s miners were on strike.
The BBC reported:
“...Tens of thousands of Britain's miners have stopped work in what looks like becoming a long battle against job losses. More than half the country's 187,000 mineworkers are now on strike. Miners in Yorkshire and Kent were the first to down tools this morning - by tonight they had been joined by colleagues in Scotland and South Wales...National Union of Mineworkers president Arthur Scargill is calling on members across the country to join the action. He is relying on flying pickets to drum up support…”
With memories of the energy shortages that had led to the three day week under Heath, this time the government was prepared, having stockpiled over 50 000 000 tons of coal between the pits and the power stations. The government also dramatically increased coal imports, as this report in the Financial Times shows;
Matters inevitably escalated and around a month later, on April 9th, the BBC reported on violent clashes between police, working miners and pickets.
“...About 100 pickets have been arrested during violent clashes with police outside two working coal pits in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. The so-called flying pickets - striking miners bused in from other parts of the country - targeted Cresswell colliery in Derbyshire and Babbington in Nottinghamshire. Figures suggest 46 pits are still working out of a total of 176 across the country. Miners are fighting plans to close 20 pits. Police at Cresswell say they were taken by surprise when around 1,000 pickets descended on the colliery…”
During this time allegations began to circulate about the behaviour of the police, including heavy handed tactics, the prevention of buses carrying flying pickets reaching their destinations, covert surveillance of union officials, and the infiltration of plainclothes officers into the picket lines.
“...Six officers and a miner were injured in what a spokesman described as the worst violence we have had in Derbyshire since the strike began...Several cars belonging to working miners had their windows smashed. One miner who apparently defied the pickets and went into work had the windows of his home smashed...Despite the pickets, an estimated 60% of the night shift still turned up for work and the colliery was able to operate...At Babbington colliery, police faced 2,000 pickets and were pelted with stones when they made more than 60 arrests...Seven officers needed treatment for cuts to the head and legs. One officer suffered an eye injury and a union spokesman was also hurt…”
Unsurprisingly the Prime Minister rejected any criticism of police officers, stating:
“...They have to keep the right of miners to go to work open and they have done it marvellously…”
There was sufficient concern during these early stages of the strike for there to be scheduled an emergency debate at the House of Commons. Home Secretary, Leon Brittan, emphasised the importance of the rule of law, but assured the House that any complaints of police misconduct would be investigated, and that there were no impediments in place for the making of complaints against the police.
Mr Brittan said:
“...(The Police) are in no sense above the law and have no wish to be. They are the servants of the law and our principal bastion against those, whoever they may be, who seek by force to impose their will on their fellow citizens…”
There were allegations and counter allegations of violence along predictably partisan lines, concerns raised about the politicisation of the police and questions regarding the power of the Home Secretary over regional constabularies. Terry Patchett, Labour member for Barnsley East, spoke of his own personal experiences, and how the relationship with police had changed markedly under the current Conservative Government, in what amounted to a concise summing up of the current state of affairs;
“... I do not intend my contribution to be an attack on the police, but the Right Honourable Gentleman implied that the police should never be questioned. I find that worrying. I am anxious about the infringement of civil liberties, since they are the cornerstone of any democratic society...I am not sure how unique I am in the House, but I have experienced being on a picket line. Like many miners, I never intended to do anything but peacefully picket. However, I was struck and assaulted by the police on at least one occasion for no reason whatsoever. Let no one try to whitewash the problems.
I am aware of the frustrations felt and the taunts made by both sides. Apparently the public are not aware of taunts by the police during the dispute. In 1972 I was based in Norwich organising over 1,000 pickets in East Anglia. The organisers had daily telephone conversations with senior police officers. We were asked how many pickets were going to each place. That peaceful working relationship lasted throughout the 1972 dispute and it was recognised and honoured. It was successful, and peaceful picketing occurred. The same relationship existed during the 1974 dispute.
Then came the aggressive determination by the Tories to dismantle the trade union movement and destroy its influence. The dispute comes as no surprise to me, because it has been manufactured over many years by the Government through their trade union legislation and picketing laws. The Government are even attacking the recipients of DHSS benefits, knowing that the trade unions cannot afford to pay £15. That is what puts trade unionists' backs up. Many more vindictive actions have taken place, culminating in the closure of Cortonwood colliery which precipitated the dispute. Neither I nor other trade unionists are fooled by what is happening…”
Member for Chesterfield, Tony Benn, attacked the government over what he saw as the criminalisation of picketing:
“...It is no good the Home Secretary shaking his head because he has done his best to confuse people about criminal and civil actions. The intention of Government propaganda throughout this dispute has been to make it appear that those engaged in picketing methods which have been accepted for many years are guilty of a criminal act…”
Mr Benn went on to raise the issue of phone tapping and onerous bail conditions for those pickets who had been arrested. He also described the hardship already facing many mining families, and expanded on the points made by Terry Patchett regarding the payment of DHSS benefits.
“...In addition to the points that I have made, the Government have legislated to deny benefits to those who are on strike. Legislation provides that those who are on strike are deemed to have had £15 a week in strike pay. That is using the law to change the facts. One can say, You cannot have starved to death; you are deemed to have had breakfast this morning. There is hardship now among many miners' families, and, in addition to taking away the right to obtain benefits, the Government have deliberately obstructed the claims.
What we have seen in this dispute is part of a much wider attack upon the freedoms of our people. The Prime Minister deals with those who dissent in a plain way. She will abolish local authorities that disagree with her and ban the trade unions that disagree with her…”
On May 29th, there was the first of two major conflicts between pickets and police at the Orgreave Coke Works. Pickets attempted to stop lorries from servicing the plant and full riot gear was used by police, prompting NUM Leader Arthur Scargill to describe the police tactics thus;
"...We've had riot shields, we've had riot gear, we've had police on horseback charging into our people, we've had people hit with truncheons and people kicked to the ground. The intimidation and the brutality that has been displayed are something reminiscent of a Latin American state..."
The BBC, whose reporting of the strike would later garner controversy over what might now be described as fake news in favour of the police and the government, reported that smoke bombs, bricks, stones and ball bearings were thrown and fences torn down. It was reported that both sides pinned the blame on the other: 81 people were arrested, while 41 police and 28 strikers were injured, and the lorries were allowed through.
The second major confrontation between police and pickets at the Orgreave Coke Works, on June 18th 1984, which then spilled into the streets of the village itself, remains one of the most significant events of the 12 month strike. Campaigns demanding justice for those miners arrested, and in many cases assaulted and injured by police, remain very active, even after well over 3 decades.
The objective of the 5 000 strong picket line blockade, which included flying pickets from around the country, was to prevent lorries from servicing the works. Police had previously applied the questionable tactic of preventing buses with the flying pickets from reaching a number of pithead battlegrounds during the course of the strike, often turning buses around many miles from their destinations. However, on this occasion it appeared that the police were determined to force a confrontation. As a result, pickets were allowed to assemble near the gates to the coking works, and then were marshalled into an adjacent field where the police would attempt to run them off.
For the Channel Four documentary, The Battle For Orgreave, made in 1985, one picket recalled:
“...On 18th of June, the police actually escorted us into Orgreave that day, which was strange because normally they’d stop us at motorways or wherever...We were ushered into this corn field, and that's where they made us stand, facing a thick blue line of police, probably ten deep, with all their big riot shields... And they were there, obviously, to stop us getting down to speak to these lorry drivers at the gates. There were dogs on right, in the wood, they were only there for one reason, so we couldn’t go that way. On left, there were a steep banking and dogs at the bottom of there. Then you’d look behind you, and once again there were horses, probably seven of them, with police on, equipped with riot gear. So you actually felt as if you were penned in. Totally. There was only one way out, and that's up to the top of the village, where there’s a bridge...”
Other pickets suggested that the change in police tactics was in response to picketing at Cresswell, where reasoning and negotiation between the pickets and those attempting to cross the line resulted in the peaceful closure of the pit.
Miner Dave Smith recalled;
“...We successfully picketed Cresswell out. No violence. No threats. Just, lads that were going to work stopped, spoke to us...We put forward our case to them and they accepted it, turned around and went home. Cresswell was successfully closed, by 20 men, no problems at all…”
It was after this, it was generally believed, that the tactics, and the policing attitudes hardened. Roadblocks were initiated, and the police operations became more militarised, and personally antagonistic.
“...Media and police would have people believe that miners were rioting and throwing masses of bricks and lumps of concrete at police. It weren't like that in slightest...I were there, and the only incident to me that occurred, a ritual pushing and shoving..it were push between police and pickets and it happened on every picket line. Only people that rioted that day were police. They went to berserk…
“...When they send horses charging at innocent lads...not even in shirtsleeves, they’ve only got a T shirt on or jeans. They didn't come armed with knives, and spears, and things like that. They’d come purely to put a protest.”
Miners described themselves as fair game, as they were battered by truncheons, threatened and bitten by police dogs or trampled by horses. Unsurprisingly the police side of the story was quite different, as articulated later in rather startling evidence given by Assistant Chief Constable Clements of South Yorkshire Police;
“...It's no exaggeration to say that the sky was black with missiles; bottles, heavy machinery, ball bearings; so I sent the horses in again. They were told to advance at a walk and then a trot. I wouldn't have been worried in the slightest if people had been trampled. I could not be held responsible in miners were silly enough to stay there…”
ACC Clements also said that truncheons and short shields were not generally used against people running away, although this is directly contradicted by eyewitness accounts of countless miners, many of whom were bloodied and bruised, and by police actions caught on video.
In the face of the advancing police, the miners were driven from the field to the village and to the railway cuttings, and a number were forced down a steep embankment to the tracks. Arthur Scargill himself was, as one witness described, flattened by short shield-bearing police officer, however police claimed to be nowhere near the NUM president when he fell over.
Scargill himself said:
“...At that moment, one of these police officers hit me on the back of the head, with short shield, down I went onto the floor. I was covered in dust, I was cut on my arm, I was cut on my leg. A young lad helped me to my feet...he dragged me, half carried me up the bank,...in order to get me out of the battle zone. Ironically Clements, the Assistant Chief Constable, at that point, came over the bridge and concocted this amazing story, which was completely untrue, that I’d slipped down the bank... and hit my head…The only people who hit me on the head were police, in full riot gear, who’d gone absolutely mad…”
The battle spread to the village of Orgreave itself, and people who had not even been at the coke works found themselves caught up in the rampage. Here are some recollections of the lead-up to what would become an iconic moment;
ACC Clements later described the police operation in the village as humane and compassionate. Comments by defence lawyer Gareth Peirce, however, tell a very different story. She arrived at Rotherham Police Station to act on behalf of a number of miners who had been arrested.
“...I went into the cells, and I suppose I still feel sick and horrified at what I saw there. I was frightened because I saw people terribly injured, and I thought two of them in particular, needed urgent medical attention and might not last...There was blood all over the place, there were people with dreadful wounds, on their faces, their legs, their arms and on the back of their heads...So many people and so badly injured that they didn't look like people who had been arrested by the processes of the civilian law...This was like the wounded survivors in wartime. They needed doctors rather than lawyers.
Then we had to go to court in the middle of the night for the first of the bail applications. The whole process was so extraordinary, so out of the ordinary...They were treated like cattle, with contempt, remanded on extraordinary bail conditions with no regard for the evidence. The prosecution was so cavalier they didn't bother to produce evidence at court, didn't even take their papers to court…”
Gareth Peirce also had a few things to say about the legal process that ensued, and the yearlong torment waiting for trials, where the defendants were well aware that a sentence of life imprisonment, for the offence of riot, was a real possibility.
“...It's one thing to physically hurt somebody. That way you terrorise them, but there is a far different process which is the one the defendants saw when they went to court, and that’s the real terror. Of putting somebody on trial in such a way and on such terms that they remain convinced, whatever the strength of their case, whatever the iniquities of the prosecution case, they remain convinced until they’re acquitted that they’re going to go to prison for the rest of their lives, and that was reinforced from the moment they were in court, by the Home Secretary strutting around the country talking about riot carrying life imprisonment…”
Barrister Michael Mansfield later talked of the militarisation and politicisation of the police in the furtherance of the government agenda. He stated that it was no coincidence that the passage of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) went through the parliament during the strike, affording police additional powers of stop and search, arrest, hours of custody and to establish roadblocks, a key factor in the deterrence of flying pickets.
“...What’s happened over the last year has been the use of the courts and the criminal law, for political purposes. Large numbers of miners, 11 000, were arrested last year, mass arrests on a scale never before seen, again for political reasons. The result of those arrests have been political trials. Not in the sense that you might get them in South Africa, not that people have been arrested on a charge of holding a particular belief, or that they belong to a particular subversive organisation, but, for some reason or another, these 11 000 have woken up one morning and supposedly committed criminal offences. There's no way, you may think, that such a law-abiding community wakes up one morning and does that. It has to be that large numbers of police officers, junior and senior, have been prepared to fabricate evidence against this community…”
Following the the confrontations at Orgreave, a total of 95 pickets were charged with riot, and what was supposed to be the first in a series of trials began in May 1985.
In making the Crown case, the prosecutor said;
“...On Monday, the 18th June 1984, the occasion of the greatest violence inflicted by the pickets, these defendants committed the offence of riot. What is a riot? A riot is where three or more people have gathered together and they have in their minds a common purpose which they intend to achieve through force. Behaving in such a way as to terrorise someone of ordinary strength of character. Each of these defendants went to Orgreave that day with that common purpose in mind. They intended to achieve their aims by force, by sheer force of numbers, overwhelming numbers by pushing shoving and kicking. The cordon of police were there to keep the peace...the law of this country allows people to go about their lawful affairs unimpeded. That is our democratic system. If we want to change the law we use parliamentary democracy, we do not use force. ..”
After 48 harrowing days, the trial collapsed, and all 15 miners were acquitted.
The website for the Orgreave Truth and Justice campaign reports;
“...It became clear as the police witnesses trooped in and out of the court that many officers had had large parts of their statements dictated to them, and that many of them had lied in their accounts, claiming to have seen things they could not have seen, or that they had arrested someone they had not. One statement with a signature forged by a police officer simply disappeared from court over lunch-time, never to re-appear...It also emerged in the course of the trial that new and unlawful public order policing tactics set out in a secret police manual had been used for the first time at Orgreave. At times the trial descended into farce, and the Prosecution, cutting its losses, dropped the cases of the remaining 80 miners…”
Although the campaign for justice continues, there has not been any official investigation into the conduct of the police, and no individual officers have been held to account, for what the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign describes as;
“...Assaulting, wrongfully arresting and falsely prosecuting so many miners, nor for lying in evidence. Not a single officer faced disciplinary or criminal proceedings. Five years later, however, and a year after the Hillsborough disaster, South Yorkshire Police agreed to pay a total of nearly £500,000 to 39 of the miners, without admitting that they had done anything wrong...”
Read more here
National Union of Mineworkers
In Part 2, We'll be looking in detail at the personal cost of the strike, and its aftermath; politically and for the miners and their communities.
Miners' Strike Part II
Yvette Vanson's Channel Four documentary, The Battle for Orgreave,
can be viewed in full here. (External channel)
Orgreave Coke Works photo by Chris Allen Link to Source
Arthur Scargill Photo from Tyne and Wear Archives and Museum Link to Source
Tony Benn Photo by Isujosh Link to Source
Underground photo from National Library of Wales Link to Source
Underground photo from National Library of Wales Link to Source
The Battle for Orgreave (Channel Four Documentary 1985)
BBC Radio 4 - Report
BBC Radio 4 - UK Confidential 1984 and 1985
BBC World Service - Witness
Official Website - National Union of Mineworkers
Official Website - Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign
Panorama Special - The Coal War
The Financial Times
The Financial Times
Archived Colliers Weekly
Archived Colliers Weekly
BBC Radio 4 - Desert Island Discs- Arthur Scargill
Post sponsored by the Armstrong and Burton book series.