“I have no particular love for the idealised ‘worker’, but when I see an actual flesh-and-blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask which side I am on.”
George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia
Growing up in the North of England during the 1970s and 80s seemed a fairly normal existence to me. Playing street-football in the evenings, watching T.I.S.W.A.S on Saturday mornings, and getting through the fights and scrapes of school was a pretty standard week. But behind all of that, a shift was spreading through the psyche of Britain. It emanated from Westminster, where the government was force-marching the country on a long journey right-ward. Songs of ‘personal freedom’, ‘personal wealth’, and ‘privatisation’ were perpetually sung by its leaders, and these catchy individualist tunes were beginning to lodge in the minds of much of the nation.
The council estate in Rotherham where I lived from a baby until 15, was populated with straight-laced, working-class people, tasked mainly with the gruelling labour of cutting coal from the earth, forging steel in the furnaces of British Steel and looking after their family the best they could. There was little crime that I can recall, so a police car parked on the street was rare. Yet the vast majority of these families were almost by nature distrustful of the police, referring to them in bad-news tones. We kids copied and did the same. I still do until I check myself. I don’t think this is unusual of working class communities. I think it’s older than the hills.
Today it’s easy to forget that each of the rights we now take for granted, has had to be fought and won, usually by the working classes, through protest and organised confrontation. British history is spilling over with the blood of up-risers, and at such flashpoints, since the mid 1800s at least, it has been the police who stands protector to the ruling classes, and therefore the opposer of any urgent demand for change from the masses.
In 2012, the South Yorkshire police referred itself to the IPCC (Independent Police Complaints Commission – the body served with investigating complaints brought against the police). It did so in light of the investigative work of a local BBC journalist (click here to watch the documentary) and The Guardian. The charges are some of the worst possible for a police force to have levelled at it and include assault, perverting the course of justice and perjury. The criminal evidence unearthed (that the current South Yorkshire police force must feel substantial enough to effectively ‘turn itself in’) dates back over 30 years to the miner’s strike; specifically, one day in that strike.
On the 18th June 1984, a quiet northern village between Rotherham and Sheffield became the backdrop for the outpouring of violence that must, it seems, accompany any political ‘regime change’.
The strike was in its third month, and had started to gain some positive momentum from national and local papers, as well as increasing public support. Even so, a number of men going to the picket that day found it unusual that the police allowed so many miners to gather together without turning any away. The mass picketing at the coking plant had been going on for four weeks, and police had always tried to break up the number of pickets getting to the site by stopping cars, making arrests and even building road-blocks. But on this day, the police even escorted coaches full of miners off the M1, through the shimmering farmland, to the coking plant at Orgreave.
In South Yorkshire, industry and agriculture mingle together at their edges in acres of beautiful wasteland, meadows of wildflowers and stones. This was predominantly the terrain at Orgreave, the land cut across with winding country roads, and the the flow of the River Rother, towards the Don. As the gates opened to allow in the first truck carrying coal, some of the miner’s, as was routine, jeered and pushed at the police line in a halfhearted attempt to break through the police line and get to the truck. But on that hot day, instead of simply pushing the men back to the picket line as before, the police went berserk.
Within the police squads were British Army soldiers dressed in police uniform, minus the officers’ number badge. These soldiers had no policing training. They had no idea how to even make an arrest. As the violence increased, more and more police/army arrived at the site and were immediately sent into the fray.
Wherever the miners ran, police lay in wait for them, usually on horseback, but sometimes with dogs. Men unaware of the police attack and walking back to the picket with cups of tea were suddenly ambushed by police with truncheons. Near the coking plant, a few lines of workers tried to rally, but were swallowed up by riot police and again the swinging truncheons. Throughout the day, the violence escalated, with with the police continuing it barrage of brutality. Some miners threw what looked like stones, which incurred yet more police battery raids.
By the end of it, men of both ‘sides’ needed medical care. Some miners had suffered broken limbs. The police figures had more officers reported hurt than miners. Ninety-five men were arrested that day, all charged with riot.
Why did this happened? Why did a police force, having sworn an oath to uphold human rights and maintain the peace, on that day throw it under the hooves of its police horses and the boots of its riot police? Well, as always, there’s a bigger picture.
In 1977 the UK police force was having serious problems recruiting and maintaining officers. The Labour government had commissioned a review that concluded the force required a 45% pay rise. Labour and the police force had parted ways when the force had been denied a union and the right to strike in 1919, so there wasn’t a great deal of solidarity between them. Instead of implementing the 45% fully, the government decided to phase in an agreed amount, which didn’t really solve their recruitment problem and did nothing for police/labour relations.
But then in 1979, Margaret Thatcher came to power, and one of the first things she did was grant the police the full 45% pay award. Whatever Thatcher was, she was no fool. She knew that in order to change Britain’s direction as much as she intended, she would need the police in her pocket. Five years later, at Orgreave, she got a HUGE return on that investment.
Another thing to know is that in 1972 the miners were involved in another strike, and their success was largely due to a mass picketing campaign at another coking plant – this time at Saltley, near Birmingham. Arthur Scargill, a senior officer of the Yorkshire National Union of Miners at the time, led the rally. It was an amazing union triumph, and perhaps the last great act of workers solidarity in Britain, as thousands of men and women in factories and other workplaces in Birmingham walked out too, most of them joining the other picketing miners at Saltley. Up to 10,000 protestors gathered there by the afternoon. The police could no longer secure the trucks leaving the coking plant and the gates finally shut to the roar of the crowd.
The government was also well aware of the significance of the coking plant, and the union victory it represented, and they were not prepared to see it happen again. The Ridley Report, commissioned by Mrs Thatcher, was an instruction manual on how to break down a strike and dismantle the unity of the working man. A couple of Ridley’s suggestions stand out: “The government should if possible choose the field of battle.”; and “Train and equip a large, mobile squad of police, ready to employ riot tactics in order to uphold the law against violent picketing.”.
It was a revolution-by-proxy, for it paved the way, with the unions castrated, from a shift of a nation of ‘producers’ to ‘consumers’. The full regime change. Uniforms aside, the strike pitted working men against each other. But who could really see that then. It was the short-sharp-shock version of culture change. I hope we all feel it was worth it.
At the time of writing the IPCC has given no new updates on it’s plans to investigate the crimes of 18th June 1984.
Please watch Yvonne Vanson’s brilliant Battle for Orgreave