Britain’s last deep coal pit – Kellingley in North Yorkshire – closed 11 months ago, and our great mining industry is now almost consigned to the history books. I say almost, because there’s still one unfinished chapter: Orgreave.
This huge cluster of smoking chimneys and coke ovens stood beside the main route into Sheffield from the M1 and had just one function: to bake coal at high temperatures and prepare it for the four big blast furnaces at British Steel’s Scunthorpe works.
In March 1984, the National Union of Mineworkers called an all-out strike to fight a programme of pit closures. The most militant of the 142,000 participants were in Yorkshire, power base of their union’s president Arthur Scargill, so you can imagine how provocative the sight of Orgreave’s constantly smoking chimneys was after three months on strike.
Scargill saw it as potentially the decisive battleground, because during another strike more than a decade earlier he had made his name by leading 15,000 pickets at Saltley Gate, a fuel storage depot in Birmingham, and closing it down. The then Conservative prime minister, Edward Heath, quickly caved in to the mineworkers’ demands.
Now Orgreave also seemed there for the taking, and a miners’ victory assured. But there was an immense flaw in that thinking, and it’s the reason we still talk about Orgreave more than 30 years later. Simply put, the Conservatives had learned the lesson of Heath’s humiliation and put an extraordinary amount of police into Orgreave, with the result that the miners were given quite literally a bloody nose. If Saltley Gate had been Scargill’s Agincourt, then Orgreave was to be his Waterloo.
The reason for evoking famous battles is that the enduring image of Orgreave is of policemen on horseback storming the miners’ picket lines. As a Sunday Times journalist I reported from Orgreave and remember how the police were provoked into action. An object would go flying over the heads of pickets towards the police and eyes would strain to see if it was a rock, a brick, lump of wood, tin can or bottle containing some kind of liquid. I wasn’t there for the final battle but it appears this is what led to the cavalry of 42 mounted police being sent to break up the pickets.
I don’t think anyone disputes the actions by both sides were shocking. Some of the miners engaged in levels of violence and intimidation which shamed their proud industry, although I believe there might have been provocateurs goading them on. The police reaction was correspondingly over the top. In fact, the reason anyone’s still talking about it is that the police charged 95 pickets with offences like riot and unlawful assembly but all the trials collapsed. Despite over £500,000 being paid out in compensation by South Yorkshire Police no officer was ever disciplined.
The home secretary, Amber Rudd, has balked at holding the long-demanded statutory inquiry into what is still an open sore in Yorkshire. I’m sure the next Labour government will hold one, even if the only witnesses are in care homes. And it should happen. It will shine an uncomfortable light on Scargill’s conduct of the strike, for sure, but it should also answer questions about how the Thatcher government used the police to effectively smash Britain’s trade unions.
Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him on Twitter @Ratcliffe