Jeremy Corbyn wasted the first of his six questions at Mrs May’s first Prime Minister’s Questions. This was a genuine waste, different from the ones where he just channels emails from supporters because he cannot actually hold his opponent to account over government policy.
Corbyn asked about the setting up of an inquiry into the conduct of the police at the Orgreave Coking Plant on Waterloo Day in 1984 during the miners’ strike. However, this was also the subject of an urgent question by Corbyn’s own Shadow Home Secretary, Andy Burnham. So Mrs May just asked Corbyn to sit and wait for a few minutes. Clearly Corbyn and Burnham do not talk any more. Burnham, the most unfailingly loyal of all party loyalists, is one of the handful of Ed Miliband’s shadow cabinet who stayed on after Corbyn was elected leader, although if he is elected as Mayor of Manchester, he will be able to join the exodus of talent in a more dignified fashion than the desperate scramble away from the front-bench that took place after the EU referendum.
There is a campaign for an inquiry into the conduct of the police at the coking plant. It is supported by a group called the ‘Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign’. They state that they are “determined to get justice for miners who were victims of police lies and cover ups at Orgreave in June 1984”.
Their problem is that they are economical with the truth and their quest for ‘justice’ is highly limited.
The background to their campaign is easily described. During the miners’ strike, there took place what was described by the soon-to-be-defunct National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) as a ‘mass picket’ by thousands of strikers of a coking plant at Orgreave. The picket failed due to similarly large numbers of police being present. In dispersing the pickets, it is claimed that there was excessive use of violence by the police. A number of pickets were arrested and charged with riot and other offences. The court cases collapsed a year later after the questionable quality of police evidence was exposed. But then, the British government has always been shy of jailing people whose conduct is informed by politics lest they become beautified by their act of directed martyrdom.
The area this all took place in was South Yorkshire. South Yorkshire police also came in for severe criticism over its crowd control failure at a football match where ninety-six supporters were ruled to have been unlawfully killed. This failure, some five years in the future to the events at Orgreave is seen as related, as if Orgreave led to Hillsborough somehow. And is thus deserving of the same treatment. This is what is meant by ‘equality’, apparently. Because the same constabulary was involved. And presumably because dealing with a mass picket is the same as managing a crowd of football supporters. But on to technical matters.
Coke is a distilled coal, with impurities removed. The output of the Orgreave plant was used as a source of quality carbon for local British Steel blast furnaces. Iron plus carbon equals steel. Furnaces have to be kept at high temperatures lest the cooling causes the hot components to contract and rip the assembly apart in the process. During the strike, Orgreave had a special dispensation from the NUM to keep working to avoid this. British Steel had been shedding jobs for years to return to profitability. Had the furnaces closed, the NUM would have been directly responsible for the unemployment of their ‘fraternal’ trade unionists. To the unions, jobs are assets held in trust by their current holder.
The ‘mass picket’ was designed to close the Orgreave plant after a breakdown in communications between the steel and coal unions following the catastrophic failure of a furnace that was attributed to the NUM’s dispensations being insufficient for normal steel-making operations. Orgreave would be producing more coke for this. The NUM decided to close Orgreave.
Closing a coking plant was also a symbolic act for the NUM in disputes with Conservative governments. A previous closure of a coking plant had exposed the stark truth that by the 1970s the country was ungovernable without the consent of the unions. In 1972 there had been a mass picket of two thousand miners outside the Saltley Gate Coke Works which was barely contained by the police. The picket was reinforced by members of other trade unions whose place of work was different and swelled to over ten thousand. The police and the government had to concede defeat.
One of the first acts of Mrs Thatcher’s government was to restrict sympathy action of this kind. If there had been a repeat, the union or individuals involved would have been successfully sued. The NUM was on its own. The police also received new training and equipment to allow them to manage violent disorder.
Keeping Orgreave open thus became a symbolic act for the Conservatives, which explains why the ‘ex-miners, trades unionists, activists and others’ of the Truth and Justice campaign want to rewrite history. Revisionism over the Thatcher years is a major activity for the Left in the UK. They cannot travel back in time to change events, but they can rewrite the history books.
The Truth and Justice campaign deliberately ignores the truth of the miners’ strike and the injustices meted out by the strikers. It was violent from the off. And the violence was not directed against the police or the Conservative government. Instead it was directed against ordinary members of the public. Arthur Scargill did not actually call a national strike because he did not call a national ballot of members. On that basis, members refused to walk out. The will of the NUM leadership was instead enforced with violence and intimidation.
The trigger for strike action was the announcement of pit closures on 6th March 1984. One week later three hundred flying pickets from Yorkshire forced the closure of a Nottinghamshire pit after fights and scuffles with miners who wanted to continue working. At Bilston Glen many miners who arrived intending to work were intimidated into a hasty about-turn by the prospect of running a gauntlet of about three hundred strikers. Two days after this, the sole working Yorkshire miner conceded defeat after three days’ defiance of the pickets. Mr. Robert Copping, 51, went to work at Houghton Main Colliery near Barnsley. Later he found his car over-turned. Its windscreen had been smashed with a lump of concrete. On March 24th at Hem Heath working miners found their car windscreens smashed, tyres ripped and concrete and metal objects strewn in the roads. Pickets had urinated into plastic bags and thrown them at men going into work.
In April, violence flared at Silverdale Colliery, Newcastle-under-Lyme, where pickets smashed windows of cars transporting miners to pits. A miner from Grimethorpe Colliery, near Barnsley, who volunteered to work unpaid so that pensioners would receive their coal supplies, found cardboard stuffed in a fuel tank holding 45 gallons of diesel. It had just caught fire. A miner was punched when he lowered his car window to talk to pickets at Hem Heath Colliery in North Staffordshire. At the same colliery, a working miner’s car window was smashed by a brick.
In May, at Cotgrave Colliery, eighteen pickets were arrested for throwing stones at working miners. Police began watch on the house of a Warwickshire miner who received an anonymous note threatening to damage the kidney dialysis machine which kept his son alive. Chunks of metal sawn from steel rods were catapulted at working miners at Rufford Colliery in Nottinghamshire.
In June, the same month as the Orgreave disturbances, the windows of two buses and a car were broken following an ambush by pickets as miners at Shirebrook drove into work. Seven arrests were made and two police officers were hurt. Working miner, James Clay, committed suicide after his twelve-year-old daughter was threatened with violence by pickets.
In July, at Bilston Glen, fifty-two arrests were made after a three hundred strong picket failed to prevent twenty-two men from going to work. Some of the strikers tore down fencing and started a bonfire but the most serious incident involved the arrest of forty pickets who surrounded the nearby home of a working miner, Mr Philip Inverarity. Fred Cantrell, who lived at Thurcroft, Near Rotherham, South Yorkshire and worked at Bevercotes Colliery, Nottinghamshire had a brick hurled through his window. The perpetrators were convicted and fined.
In August 1984, at Birch Coppice Colliery in Warwickshire, stones were thrown at working miners coaches as they approached the pithead. Two arrests were made. The brake pipes of a car belonging to a working miner from Hucknall Colliery, Nottinghamshire were severed. There were violent scenes at Harworth Colliery when about one thousand demonstrators gathered at noon and attacked working miners who were arriving for the afternoon shift. A group of twenty striking miners attacked a shopkeeper standing outside a wine bar in Rugeley, Staffordshire. They then entered and beat up a young working miner inside. Monty Morgan, 54, went to work at Garw Colliery, South Wales. He was pelted with eggs, bricks and bottles by over three hundred strikers, their wives and children. Seven arrests were made and police were only able to escort him home three hours after the end of his shift.
A £3,000 sports car owned by a working miner was destroyed in an arson attack outside the man’s home in Laneham, near Retford, Nottinghamshire. Police examined the vehicle and found a candle stuck to a piece of petrol soaked sacking near the foot pedals. The pregnant wife of a Staffordshire working miner collapsed with shock after a piece of concrete was thrown through a window at their home and landed in a cot. Mrs Christine Winiams, 23, of Lanclor Crescent, Rugeley, was expecting twins the following month. She and her husband, Michael found the concrete in a nursery that they had prepared. There were five instances of windows being broken at the homes of working miners in North Derbyshire.
A miner at Eckington had all four tyres on his car slashed and another miner on his way to Shirebrook Colliery had his car damaged by a picket wielding an iron bar. A Polish-born miner who has been off work for twelve months discovered his house daubed with swastikas and graffiti. A cable was strung at neck height across a public road. A working miner hit the cable and was catapulted off his motorcycle as he returned home from Renishaw Park Colliery. Eighty seven strikers were arrested in Scotland when pickets congregated around the home of a working miner.
All this information comes from a dossier made at the time by the National Working Miners Committee.
This is in just the first six months of the dispute. And this is not an exhaustive account of the outrages. But this will never feature in the ‘truth’ behind the grievances of the Orgreave campaigners.
But who was on the side of the brave working miners? Not the NUM, of course. Nor indeed the TUC. Or the Labour Party. The so-called ‘party of the working man’ had nothing much to say about the working men running the gauntlet of abuse and violence twice a day. Certainly The Guardian has nothing whatsoever to say on the subject. While it regularly provides space for striking miners from a dispute that ended over thirty years ago, there is nothing for those that exercised their lawful right of free movement to go to work. Not even the National Council for Civil Liberties were on the side of the working miner. The leftists that have always run this organisation took exception to part of a report on the civil liberties implications of the strike that read:
“We accept that freedom not to take part in a strike is as much a fundamental right as the right to strike. Going to work during a strike is in any case a lawful activity, and like any other lawful activity ought not to be impeded by violence, threats or physical obstruction. We have identified the freedom to travel unhindered for any lawful purpose as a fundamental liberty; this is equally so whether the purpose is peaceful picketing, taking part in a demonstration, or simply going to work.”
By a series of votes, the NCCL, now called Liberty, resolved that the report’s authors had:
‘exceeded its terms of reference in commenting on the conduct of striking and working miners and setting out civil liberties principles which did not directly relate to the role of the police’, and that the The Police, Public Order, and Civil Liberties presentation of the report was ‘unnecessarily damaging to the miners’ cause’.
Surely violence by pickets is related to ‘public order’. Not according to the NCCL. They defended the freedom of violent pickets to travel up and down the country. But not the working miners. The pickets were meant to be beyond criticism. Remember what a striking miner said when he was threatening children:
“We can do anything we like and get away with it”
The attitude of Liberty is easy to explain. They are not actually interested in the rights of individuals. Indeed when I asked them if they were going to intervene in the campaign of abuse and intimidation of individual Labour Party members as a civil liberties issue concerning freedom of political expression, their man in the press office, ‘David’ he said his name was to me, promised an answer. I am still waiting, David.
Liberty are actually just interested in collective rights, like those of the unions. Individuals, like working miners, are on their own as far as Liberty is concerned. But then this is the organisation that gave us Shami Chakrabarti and Harriet Harman.
The Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher was on the side of the law-abiding citizen. So were the police. People who wanted to work would be allowed to do so and protected from harm. The rule of law would prevail in the face of mob-based anarchy.
The NUM did not provide strike pay, instead expecting the taxpayer to subsidise the income of the strikers through welfare payments. The Conservatives were meant to pay for their own demise. The government refused to do this. The NUM wouldn’t. The NUM only paid its pickets. Striking miners, not working due to a strike that had been called unlawfully, not wanting to join the mob and get paid to do so, not daring to go back and face the violence of their colleagues, resorted to begging for charity. The British people, to their credit, opened their wallets and purses to these innocent victims. All because of Scargill’s ambitions to overthrow a lawfully-elected government he did not like. Rather than feed his members on strike, Scargill raised a private army to try to close Orgreave.
This country has no room for private armies that challenge the rule of law. Some five thousand of Scargill’s footsoldiers assembled at Orgreave to use their numbers to force the plant to close. They failed. The police dispersed this private army and broke the power of the NUM forever. If the police behaved unlawfully, then they should be accountable. However, no-one today is speaking up for the victims of the NUM: the ordinary working men, their wives, their children, who had to endure a months-long campaign of unlawful violence or do without because the NUM started a strike it could not actually afford.
If ‘Truth and Justice’ is meant to be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, the Orgreave campaigners should face the facts about the violence during the strike caused by ‘ex-miners, trades unionists, activists and others’. They should have the honesty to admit that picketing was violent, using numbers to intimidate those that defied Scargill’s unlawful orders. They should accept that it was the pickets’ past behaviour that informed the police’s actions on Waterloo Day, 1984. That day, the miners were not going to be allowed to win.
The campaigners are trying to hold the police and thus the government to account. It is time someone held the Orgreave pickets to account as well.
(Image: Chris Page)