Battle of Orgreave: police were ready to trigger a riot

Continuing the false narrative

Will Moore reviews Tom Barrow (director) 'The miners’ strike 1984 - the battle for Britain' Channel 4

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the miners’ Great Strike - a pivotal event in British politics and trade unionism. As such it was always going to be of interest to television producers (as was the 20th anniversary back in 2004). The first new documentary to be aired was this three-part series.

Being a young miner at the time (having begun work for the National Coal Board in 1978 as a 16-year-old,) I watched this series through the filter of someone who was there from start to finish - someone who many times stood in front of the massed ranks of policemen (sometimes they were wearing body armour, sometimes they were on horseback). So I watched the three episodes with great interest and measured the accounts and the narrative against my memories of that desperately long, hard year.

Episode 1, entitled ‘On strike’, focused on the community of Shirebrook, a pit village in Derbyshire. This would have been a good point to outline the lead-up to the strike: particularly the votes taken before the strike to give the National Union of Mineworkers a mandate to take action if the NCB closed a colliery on purely economic grounds. Or indeed it would have been useful to explain how many pits were on the closure list and, perhaps more importantly, where those pits were. The official number was 20, but the NUM claimed that the accurate figure was actually 70. This was something that was denied by the NCB and the then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, many times, but was later proved to be correct, when documents with annotations from Thatcher, in her own handwriting, contained that figure.

So the programme proceeded as if no votes were ever taken and there was no preamble or campaign in the year before the strike. It focused on several workers in the local community and at the start of the action all were on strike. Picketing at this particular colliery had been minimal, but that situation ended when one man, said to be new to the village, started scabbing on his new community. This led to a few others doing the same, and we were shown the man who began the scabbing phoning other miners who he claimed “wanted to work”. There was no mention here of how he transitioned from being a miner to a ‘back to work organiser’, but this was briefly covered in episode 3.

The community reacted with fury, as one would expect. But it was not just the miners: their wives and families were introduced at this point, reminding us all that this fight was about working class communities and generations of mining families. The programme proceeded to follow the slow build-up of scabs and a growing divide within the community, plus the growing deployments of police to ensure the scabs were able to cross those picket lines.

The barrage of propaganda issued by the NCB and the daily onslaught of incredibly biased media coverage were only hinted at in a short interview with Anna Soubry, former journalist and Conservative MP. Inevitably the programme concluded with the miners and their families who had stuck out the year-long strike returning to work, in line with the NUM call to end the action. Nothing was said about the damage to the community and to many individual families.

The scab organisers were to return in the final episode, where a little more light was shone on their backers and activities. Shirebrook Colliery was closed in 1993 - to the surprise of many of the men who had crossed those picket lines.


The second episode was actually much better than the first. This may have been due to the conclusion of the events at Orgreave - the site of a mass picket over several days - with the high-profile trials that would follow.

The police and the government characterised what happened at Orgreave as a riot and the pickets as ‘vicious thugs’, intent on conflict with the police. What actually happened was a punishment beating instructed by the government and planned by the South Yorkshire police (and carried out by police from across the whole country). This was filmed from behind police lines and then disseminated as propaganda after careful editing, with a scripted voice-over telling the story from the police’s side only.

But one of the reasons why this episode was better than the first was the inclusion of a video from the NUM’s own film crew - one that has been available for 40 years, but rarely seen publicly. The NUM had called for a picket at the Orgreave coking plant in Sheffield to disrupt steel production, and pickets from all coalfields answered the call.

During the strike flying pickets were often stopped from reaching their destination by roadblocks and threats from the police of arrest for whatever the reason of the week was, but this was not the case at Orgreave. Here the pickets were marshalled to the site by the police themselves, who showed them where to park and where the picket line was. This raised suspicions immediately. It was clear that the police response was something very different than experience up to that point - just the sheer number of them on site and ominously the mounted police, who were waiting in the wings, made this obvious.

The programme reasonably showed the events and individual accounts from a few of those who were there on both sides of the police line. Of particular note was a policeman form Hertfordshire stating that they were instructed only to use truncheons on arms, legs and the body, but never to the head - despite the fact that footage was shown where precisely the opposite happened. More than 50 pickets were arrested over the course of the Orgreave events. The police found a way to raise the charges to include riot - an offence that carried grave penalties for those found guilty.

Here we heard from one of the solicitors who represented arrested pickets. She recounted finding seriously injured pickets in the cells of Rotherham police station and being told they had “fallen down some stairs”. She spoke about having not seen this level of corruption in a police force before Orgreave, referring to the almost identical police statements presented as evidence, but clearly dictated by one police officer to all the others.

This was confirmed by an ex-officer from Hertfordshire on camera, while Michael Mansfield KC, who was defending the pickets, highlighted the same issues, when the police offered as evidence a collection of would-be weapons, but could not link them with anyone in the pickets’ ranks or locate them anywhere in the hours of police videos of the events. He also pointed out the failings in the police statements - and in particular that of the deputy chief constable, which read as fiction.

The trial collapsed spectacularly due to the sheer weight of police fabrication, but none of the officers faced disciplinary action. In contrast, many of the men charged had to live with the damage inflicted upon them - physically by the police at Orgreave and mentally by the justice system afterwards.

Useful idiots

The final episode was just a hatchet job on the NUM, aimed at reinforcing the myth that the Conservative government built with help from the media. Bear in mind that this was 1984 - a long time before the current scale of social media, the internet or mobile phones. All we had was the pro-establishment mass media, plus a few leftwing papers with their relatively small readership.

Clearly the programme was to continue the anti-democratic storyline developed by the government during the strike, while ignoring or underplaying the votes held before the mass action. The myth produced by the government was that large numbers of those taking action were only striking due to intimidation from their workmates. This, of course, ignored the fact that the vast majority of miners took part in the strike, having voted in national ballots and individual branch meetings to proceed with the action.

We were shown again the scab organiser from the first episode, but now he was seen as part of a wider group, funded by very rich associates of the Conservative Party. The main focus of this was David Hart, a property developer, but there was actually a network of very wealthy individuals funnelling money to the ‘Working Miners Committee’. These useful idiots proclaimed to be non-political, while being funded by friends of the prime minister, and to be democrats, while crossing picket lines, where the vast majority of the workforce had voted to strike.

WMC was guided by people who saw trade unions as the enemy or - as Thatcher called the striking miners - the “enemy within”. It would be this group that took legal action against the NUM, leading to the sequestration of its funds.

The programme then moved on to the Libya funding debacle, when the government tried to smear the NUM and its leadership as friends of terrorists. This was an odd affair, which, although presented as very secret, was photographed by the security services from start to finish. I believe no funding was actually forthcoming, but there was a deluge of very bad press built upon this smear. And, of course, this would not be the last time leaders of the left would be victims of a smear campaign.

As the strike came to an end, there were celebrations in Downing Street, while miners who had stuck it out for a year returned to work - defeated, but defiant still. Members of the Working Miners Committee, which, as I have said, claimed to be non-political, were rewarded with dinner at Downing Street with Thatcher - someone not known for entertaining workers socially.

For its part, the WMC would morph into a breakaway union - the ironically named Union of Democratic Mineworkers - or, as it came to be known when pits began to be closed and the immensity of its foul actions were realised, ‘DUM’.

The series overall missed the mark, but it did include some individual stories that were well in line with my experiences of the strike. The inclusion of the NUM video from Orgreave was worth the watch, as was the admission of mass acts of perjury by the police. But the definitive story of that year is still to be told on our TV screens.

The next documentary on the strike anniversary will be aired on BBC2 - as I write it is scheduled for 9pm on February 18. Perhaps they can do better?