No Orgreave, no Hillsborough disaster. That was the message of a groundbreaking BBC programme last month—and it was absolutely right.
Orgreave, just outside Sheffield, was a small plant making coke to fuel the giant steel works at Scunthorpe.
In June 1984 it saw one of the bloodiest industrial confrontations in Britain’s history. What became known as the Battle of Orgreave took place three months into the year-long Miners’ Strike.
Police attacked striking miners who were trying to shut down the plant. They deployed military-style tactics learnt from the suppression of revolts in Britain’s colonies, in Northern Ireland and in inner city Britain in the early 1980s.
Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher made plain that any amount of police brutality, any amount of lies, would not just be tolerated. It would be encouraged.
The police knew they could act with impunity. Their contempt for working class people grew as Thatcher encouraged them to act as a private army for her and the bosses she represented.
That contempt led directly to the events at Hillsborough in 1989, where 96 Liverpool football fans died as a result of South Yorkshire police’s actions. That sense of impunity led the police to think they could orchestrate a cover up and get away with it.
The battle for Orgreave was not simply about stopping the supply of coke. For the miners it was a chance to go on the offensive, to hit steel production and through that manufacturing output. For the government Orgreave was an attempt to prove that industrial resistance was futile.
The miners had spent the first three months of their dispute trying to persuade a minority who didn’t want to strike to join the fight for jobs.
By the end of May, however, 168,000 miners were on strike and 30,000 were going to work. Now rank and file activists wanted to hit economic targets and provide a focus around which other trade unionists could mobilise in support.
Steel was the weak link in the government’s armour. Arthur Scargill, president of the National Union of Mineworkers, urged the leaders of the Yorkshire, Scots and Welsh NUM regions to focus on hitting steel.
Tragically they snubbed Scargill’s demands or organised half-hearted mobilisations. Nevertheless, from the end of May until mid-June miners and police were involved in increasingly violent confrontations at Orgreave.
The miners’ leaders never called mass pickets at Orgreave for more than two consecutive days. This made it impossible to bring local engineering and steel workers into action in their support, as mass pickets in the 1972 miners’ strike had.
Instead, the miners were alone—and police violence escalated. Mounted police wielded long riot sticks for the first time since anti-Nazi demonstrator Kevin Gately was killed in a mounted police charge in London in 1974.
The last great battle at Orgreave took place on 18 June 1984. Some 5,000 pickets in T-shirts and trainers were confronted by a similar number of police with riot shields, backed up by dogs and horses.
What followed was a cynical, premeditated attempt to physically break the most active pickets. It was followed up by a systematic attempt to intimidate strikers by charging those arrested with riot—with the prospect of life in prison.
Police claimed they were responding to a hail of missiles. But the hail of missiles was in response to police attacks. The BBC edited its reports to support the police version of events. Years later an executive admitted the coverage was misleading, but said it was just a mistake.
Yet the coverage, like the police operation, was not a mistake. One picket summed up the police tactics on the day: “They were out to maim, not to arrest,” he said.
Another picket recalled, “There weren’t many arrests [at Orgreave]. People got arrested when they went to hospital.
“One lad was surrounded by horses and beaten to the ground. I tried to talk him into going to hospital. But when we got there we were told not to go in—they were arresting injured miners.”
Miners had faced unprecedented violence and their union leader, Arthur Scargill, was hospitalised. But instead of touring Sheffield demanding solidarity strikes from steel workers and engineers, regional leaders of the NUM called off the pickets.
The government knew it had won a significant round in the fight and was out for more blood. It urged South Yorkshire Police to bring riot charges against the 90 miners who were arrested on the day.
As Thatcher tasted the prospect of total victory, the Tories broke off negotiations with the union. The Economist magazine noted, “The government wants to be seen to have broken the legendary power of the miners.”
A few weeks after the Battle of Orgreave, Thatcher called miners the “enemy within”. It was an open declaration of class war.
“We had to fight an enemy without in the Falklands,” she said. “We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is more dangerous to fight and more dangerous to liberty.”
After the speech the government, the police, the National Coal Board and the media ratcheted up the pressure on the miners and their families.
Thousands of miners were arrested and hundreds were jailed. Many more were released on bail conditions that stopped them from being active in the strike.
Benefit rules were applied ever more stringently. Even miners and their supporters collecting in the streets suffered police harassment.
A series of punitive raids on pit villages occurred, designed to intimidate some of the most pro-strike areas in Britain. Those who, even after Orgreave, thought pickets’ stories of police brutality were far fetched had their illusions shattered.
But far from intimidating people in mining areas, the police action reinforced their anger and determination to fight.
Some miners’ leaders argued that Orgreave showed mass pickets could never succeed. But as Arthur Scargill put it, “Some people say that the problem was a failure of mass picketing, but I say that it was a failure to mass picket.”
The strike lasted another nine months after Orgreave. Support groups sprang up across Britain. The industrial action miners needed to win could have been delivered—if other union leaders had delivered solidarity and opened up a second front against Thatcher.
The strike ended in March 1985, but the Tory bloodlust was not sated. South Yorkshire Police, urged on by the government, pressed ahead with riot charges in two showpiece trials.
The coaching of police, collusion on witness statements and fabrication of evidence that emerged after Hillsborough was all there at the riot trials.
Defence lawyers tore the police evidence to shreds. As lie upon lie was exposed, the jury began to treat police witnesses and prosecution barristers with open derision until eventually the cases were abandoned.
Peter Wright, the South Yorkshire chief constable during the miners’ strike and the riot trials, was never held to account. Instead he went on to lead the force responsible for the Hillsborough disaster and its cover up.
‘A chance to make big business squeal’
Ian Mitchell (right) was a striking miner at Silverwood colliery in Rotherham.
“I remember the first day coal was moved to Orgreave,” he told Socialist Worker.
“Arguments raged at our strike centre about mounting a picket. We knew that if we stopped Orgreave turning coal into coke we would hit steel production.
“That would then choke large customers in the car industry, engineering and construction. We had an opportunity to make big business squeal and force Thatcher into a U-turn.
“Twelve years earlier the NUM, with the aid of thousands of other trade unionists, had shut down Saltley coke depot in Birmingham. That inflicted a bitter defeat on the then Tory government. Orgreave was our Saltley.
“We turned up to the strike centre fully expecting to be sent there. Instead our instructions were to carry on picketing Nottinghamshire.
“Some of us ignored this and tried to go to Orgreave, and the arguments with the officials became bitter. Our treasurer told us no one would get petrol money. A minority of us went anyway.
“We created havoc that morning in Orgreave and had some success in stopping scab lorries. We wanted to continue but our officials were a block.
“A couple of us launched a petition calling on the NUM to organise mass pickets. Hundreds signed it. This led to a larger pickets but it still wasn’t big enough to shut the plant.
“Finally, in June, the NUM mobilised nationally. This was the day police set out to systematically brutalise us.”