Miners’ Strike 1984 : The Battle for Britain – The Battle of Orgreave.

6 March 2024 will be the fortieth anniversary of the start of the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike. Channel 4 have launched a series of programmes to commemorate the strike: ‘Miners’ Strike 1984 – The Battle for Britain This review by Gary Ironmonger covers the second part of the three part series.

Gary was a 22-year-old miner at Cortonwood pit in South Yorkshire when the Miners’ Strike began. He was out on strike until the very end. The review of part one can be read here.

The Battle of Orgreave

Part two of the series concentrates on the battle of Orgreave and the trial of miners charged with riot following the events of the day. The battle of Orgreave took place on 18 June 1984 when striking miners fought back after being violently attacked by hundreds of police at picket lines at a British Steel coking plant near Rotherham in South Yorkshire. 

The importance of the events around Orgreave were so significant that it deserves a programme entirely devoted to this element of the strike. The fact that the Orgreave truth and justice campaign is still fighting to get an enquiry into the events around Orgreave and successive governments have refused to do this, is a reflection of how important the state believes it is to continue to cover up the role of the police in events. We should also reflect that there were 95 miners charged with violent offences of which 71 were charged with riot. Fifteen of these endured a 58-day trial where the prosecution case eventually unravelled to the point where charges were dropped because of the unreliability of the Police evidence which should also raise questions about the role of the CPS in this event.

After the closure of Cortonwood pit, I was moved to Kilnhurst and then Silverwood pit in 1989 when Kilnhurst closed. At Silverwood, I worked with Arthur Critchlow who was one of the miners charged with riot at Orgreave and one of the main interviewees in the C4 programme. Arthur can only be described as one of the nicest people you are likely to meet. What also came across in the programme was that the other two miners interviewed who had been charged with riot also came across as nice people. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone when you consider that the miners charged with riot were not chosen because they had been threatening anyone but were arrested as a result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time during a period of prolonged and vicious episode of organised police violence. I.e. they were arrested at random and those arrested could have been anyone who was on the picket line that day.

The events of the day are captured by the programme and miners’ views on the events, from archive footage as well as recent interviews, are presented as well as testimony from a few coppers who were prepared to give their version of events.

Most people who were around at the time will have got their information about the events from the news reports of the day. One crucial element of the news story is that the BBC reversed the chronology of the events to show miners throwing missiles and the police responding with a horse charge. By July 1991 the BBC acknowledged that this was the case claiming it was an accident caused by trying to get the news on air in haste. However, if this was the case, they could have found this out much sooner and given an apology on air the next day.

If we look at the action chronologically; we can see that when the lorries started leaving there was a big push by the miners and this was repelled by the massed ranks of the police. The miners then retreated opening up a space between the pickets and the police and this is when the horses went in. The initial charge led to confusion, panic and anger among the pickets as well as a desire to escape from the violent police attack. The police then went further on the attack sending in the short shield snatch squads and increasing the intensity of their attack. Clearly, if any riot was taking place, it was the police that were the perpetrators.

The arrested pickets who had already suffered extreme violence against them were then put through the nightmare of being charged with riot. This was a worrying time for them and this agony was protracted as a result of the length of the trial. The trial collapsed as the evidence provided by the police didn’t stand up to scrutiny. The programme does a good job of covering this aspect.

The state had learned the lessons of Saltley Gate, where a mass movement of miners and local trade unionists had united to close the coke works in 1972 and had chosen the coke works at Orgreave as the symbolic place for changing the dynamics of picketing in the strike. Orgreave was a perfect place to get a large armed body of men to be ready to take on a mass picket. There was also plenty of open ground for charging horses into the mass picket and the subsequent escalation of police violence.

The key lessons of Orgreave from a socialist perspective have to be recognition of how brutal the state can be when workers are in dispute and when comparing Orgreave to Saltley Gate, how important it is to build a wide base of support amongst fellow trade unionists to build effective solidarity in a dispute.

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