Web Only / Features » December 25, 2012
The Death Blow for British Coal
New revelations have surfaced about police brutality in Thatcher’s 1984 battle with miners.
“People who had strong [anti-miner] views during the strike, now maybe figure, ‘We were taken in—maybe it was wrong what happened.’”
Among British ex-miners, the infamous June 18, 1984 battle between striking coal miners and police at the Orgreave coking plant in South Yorkshire, is still bitterly invoked as a symbol of then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s campaign against union miners, whom she famously called “the enemy within.” The yearlong strike ultimately marked the beginning of the decline of Britain’s nationalized coal industry, and the economic and social deterioration of coalfield communities.
Almost three decades later, a BBC documentary has directed new attention to the 1984 “battle of Orgreave” and to police behavior throughout the strike. Released in October, the documentary presents new evidence indicating that the South Yorkshire police conspired to crush the strike through fabricated arrest reports and systematic brutality.
In response, at the behest of the South Yorkshire police department itself, the U.K. Independent Police Complaints Commission launched an investigation in November into possible police “assault, perjury, perverting the course of justice and misconduct” during the battle, as the UK Guardian described it. (In December, the Guardian ran a special report on police brutality and false arrests throughout the conflict.)
Miners and their supporters say the investigation has no credibility, since the IPCC is a government arm closely connected with the police department. But they are seizing the moment to demand an independent national investigation. The campaign is bolstered by an inquiry that recently determined there was South Yorkshire police misconduct and cover-ups in the infamous 1989 Hillsborough disaster, in which 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death at a soccer game.
“Once you burst this balloon, the idea that police would never fabricate evidence, it makes it easier” for people to believe police misconduct in other situations, says Granville Williams, a Yorkshire journalist and member of the Orgreave Truth and Justice Committee. Launched about a month ago, the committee hopes to get the 100,000 signatures necessary to force the national government to consider launching an official independent inquiry. “People who had strong [anti-miner] views during the strike, now maybe figure, ‘We were taken in—maybe it was wrong what happened,’ ” Williams tells me.
Blaming the victims
The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) is also calling for the government to erase the criminal records of about 7,000 miners and others arrested during the strike, noting that many were pressured to accept charges of public order offenses to avoid going to jail.
“In the vast majority of cases, the charges were based on fabricated evidence,” Williams says. “It was a strategy—if you got a conviction on a miner, you could put an order on them not to go to the pickets. Then miners would be victimized again when they couldn’t get jobs after the strike [because of the convictions].”
During the Orgreave confrontation, police were filmed brutally beating miners and supporters with truncheons, charging them with horses, and kicking and punching those who lay bleeding on the ground. Such images were released at the time, but information revealed publicly for the first time in the BBC documentary puts the violence in a new context, backing what miners have long been saying: that the bulk of the blame llies with the police. During the strike, 95 miners were arrested on charges of rioting that can carry a life sentence. A year later they were all acquitted, and the South Yorkshire police eventually paid out nearly a half million pounds to people who had been beaten and prosecuted. The government had long maintained that unruly and violent miners provoked the confrontation.
Now the Independent Police Complaints Commission is investigating whether the police may have actually planned the violence and strategized to lay a trap for miners. The BBC documentary and other recent reports revealed that some police officials planned ahead of time to arrest miners at Orgreave and charge them with rioting, and they coordinated writing nearly identical arrest reports to facilitate the charges. About 5,000 officers from around the country were shipped to South Yorkshire in advance of the showdown. Police did not turn away miners and supporters on their way to the picket line, as was standard practice, but instead allowed about 10,000 picketers to congregate before, witnesses say, provoking the confrontation.
David Douglass, who worked for three decades as a unionized miner and has written several books about the strike, feels sure the police behavior at Orgreave was part of a coordinated national strategy by Thatcher to destroy the miners union and attack organized labor in general. His autobiography, Ghost Dancers, details the battle at Orgreave and other key moments in the strike.
“What she intended to do was break the NUM [National Union of Mineworkers],” he tells me. “The powers that be decided the final solution to the power of the miners and the labor movement was the destruction of the coal industry itself.”
A symbolic battle
Whether to picket the Orgreave plant—which converted coal into the dense, hot-burning coke needed to fuel steel mills—was the subject of dissension within the union. Orgreave was the primary supplier of coke to the nearby city of Sheffield, the heart of the nation's steel industry. It was impossible to maintain a heavy picket presence at all coal operations, so union leaders were constantly deciding which mines to picket in force. In an interview published on the website Artangel, Douglass described the strike as a “cat and mouse game” with police, who were never sure where the picketers would show up and in what numbers.
However, NUM was infuriated to discover that the British Steel company was running much more coal from Orgreave to Sheffield than agreed. The union hatched a strategy to make Orgreave into a symbolic battleground where steelworkers from the region could converge with union members and leftists from around the country for a large-scale picket.
In the Artangel interview, Douglass explained, “Orgreave would help determine which way the strike was going to go. That’s why the battle became so bitter: We were fighting for more than just that field and more than just those few lorries. It was an attempt to create a catalyst, and it was necessary to try and prick the consciousness of the British working classes.”
While the police investigation is focused on Orgreave, some miners and supporters are calling for a wider national inquiry into police behavior throughout the yearlong strike, including other bloody clashes and mass arrests.
One of those battles happened at Maltby in South Yorkshire on Sept. 23, 1984.
Ian Wright was 31 years old at the time and living in London. He was visiting his friend miner George Bell, chairman of the Shireoaks branch of the National Union of Mineworkers. The union put out a call for solidarity at the Maltby mine to stop subcontractors from going in to do maintenance. Wright was not a miner, but he was schooled in labor history and identified with the miners’ struggle. He and Bell drove through the night to South Yorkshire and arrived at the picket line around 4 a.m., exhausted and disoriented. When I visited Britain to report on the history and future of coal and coal field communities in September, Wright reminisced:
There were rows and rows of police, but we didn’t feel any real threat. It was just hanging around, some kids throwing things at police. Then the police came around the back and everyone ran. At first I just stood there. They were saying you (profanity), really nasty swearing, and they kicked me unconscious.
When Wright came to, he saw union first aid providers trying to help him, but “then they were attacked by the police too,” he says. Newspaper photos showed him lying on the ground, his face bathed in blood and his mouth gaping in pain. A doctor later noted that he needed 7-10 stitches for a scalp laceration and had an intensely swollen hand.
Wright ended up in the hospital, along with local Parliament member Kevin Barron, who had a badly injured arm. He remembered seeing a “guy with his teeth kicked out.”
“Police came in with dogs and arrested everyone who was injured,” Wright recalls. “The doctors and nurses were trying to get people out the back of the hospital.” When Bell tried to drive him to the doctor the next day, they encountered police roadblocks everywhere, including one where they were ousted from their van and Wright’s friend was threatened.
Wright filed a complaint over his treatment and eventually, in 1991, he was awarded 5,000 pounds.
He showed me the actual complaint he had filed: “I felt the blood on my head and face and thought I was dying,” the statement says. “There was no attempt by the pickets to break through the police lines. … A group of police ran out of the woods shouting obscenities … they had raised truncheons and full riot equipment. I tried to run but one policeman hit me hard on the head with a truncheon. I collapsed to the ground.”
Wright isn’t impressed by the police investigation of Orgreave. “I have no faith in the IPCC, which is the police investigating itself and has a history of cover-ups,” he told me. “In a just world those police who committed acts of violence, perjury, assault and perverted the course of justice, and those in authority over them, should be criminally prosecuted.”
He also thinks the media should also be held accountable, for what many describe as biased reporting during the strike. Wright remembers that BBC reports the morning after he was attacked at Maltby described injuries to picketers, but afternoon reports said that no strikers had been injured, only police. (Williams’ book, Shafted: The Media, The Miners Strike and the Aftermath, analyzes media coverage of the strike, showing that footage of the Orgreave battle was manipulated to make it appear miners had provoked conflict with the police, rather than the other way around. Wright told me that BBC coverage, including this segment, similarly misrepresented events at Maltby.)
“The sad thing is that we could have won if media like the Guardian and the BBC, who are speaking out now, stood up against the establishment and reported the facts at the time,” Wright said.
The end of coal
In the years following the strike, almost all of Britain’s coal mines were closed and the remaining ones privatized, as the country shifted to imported natural gas and coal for its energy needs. Extracting coal from the country’s deep seams was more expensive than mining vast shallow open pits in developing countries such as Colombia, particularly given laxer labor and environmental regulations. However, the union and many independent analysts have long alleged that Britain ultimately paid more for its new-found heavy reliance on natural gas than it would have had it continued to support a nationalized coal industry.
With so many coal mines and processing facilities closed, the once-powerful National Union of Mineworkers became a shadow of its former self, in a blow to the entire U.K. labor movement.
Today an untrained eye would see very little evidence of mining in South Yorkshire‘s smooth grassy expanses; warehouses, strip malls and landfills have replaced the coking plants and other structures that once sat atop the underground shafts.
Locals lament that aside from the warehouse and some call center complexes—which offer largely non-union, low-paid jobs—few other employment opportunities exist. For young people, especially, that has meant leaving the area or languishing without work.
“Kids in this community had something before; now they have nothing,” said Douglass. “They seem to have lost more than we did—but for them it’s an abstract loss because coal pits closed before they were born.”
Ian Clayton is a long-time West Yorkshire resident, a writer and musician who teaches adult education including creative writing classes for warehouse workers. Clayton is from a family of miners, though his grandfather had no illusions about the hard and dangerous nature of the job and ordered Clayton not to follow in his footsteps. Though he didn’t mine himself, he is passionate about history, “emotional geography” and exploring and understanding the deep roots in South Yorkshire, which are inextricably linked with the mines.
During my September visit, he described how when the mining industry and union were strong, everyone knew each other and looked out for each other, and it was understood that, “You don’t cross picket lines, you stick with your comrades, you defend your neighborhood.”
After the strike, many locals say, that social cohesion deteriorated and “a lot of blokes’ families just fell apart,” as Clayton describes it. Men succumbed to depression, alcoholism and the physical ailments caused by coal mining, including black lung disease.
Clayton views the miners’ strike as “a big Medieval Shakespearian war, where there’s always a catharsis at the end.”
There has not been a catharsis yet in South Yorkshire, but Williams said former miners and other community members hope the revived public attention to the events of 28 years ago will be a start: “It’s been quite inspiring to get involved in the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign and to meet miners who feel that after all this time they can suddenly get up and say we’re going to fight for this, we want justice.”
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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.