This is why we still need an inquiry into the Battle of Orgreave

There’s one question that needs an answer: did the government of the day use the police as if they were a standing army?

Andreas Whittam Smith@indyvoices
Tuesday 01 November 2016 11:48
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A police officer wrestles a miner to the ground during the violent confrontation in South Yorkshire on 18 June 1984
A police officer wrestles a miner to the ground during the violent confrontation in South Yorkshire on 18 June 1984

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, just doesn’t get why an official inquiry into the violent confrontation between police and miners’ pickets in 1984 at a coking plant in Orgreave is still necessary, albeit some 32 years after the event. In her statement yesterday, she stated: “There would ... be very few lessons for the policing system today to be learned from any review of the events and practices of three decades ago. This is a very important consideration when looking at the necessity for an inquiry or independent review and the public interest to be derived from holding one.”

Thus Rudd thinks in terms of lessons to be learned for policing, whereas many of us want to understand whether – as Alan Billings, the South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner, recently commented – the police had been “dangerously close to being used as an instrument of state”. Dangerously close or the real thing? This is a question not about policing itself but about the conduct of the government of the day when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister.

It is important to recall the pre-history of Orgreave. During the 1972 miners’ strike there had been the battle of Saltley Gate, where thousands of miners attempted to stop lorry drivers from moving supplies in and out of the coking works of the West Midlands Gas Board near Birmingham. The drivers were protected by hundreds of police, but the miners prevailed.

As a result, the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) established a National Reporting Centre which would be “operationalised in times of industrial or political crisis [to provide] a coordinated national response to demands on policing”. This meant that police officers from any force in the country could be deployed to areas of high tension.

It was a big step towards creating a national police force. In fact, such a development has always been resisted on the grounds that it would give too much power to the state. No wonder it was to be done “across force boundaries without the knowledge or consent of local police authorities”.

At Orgreave we saw the consequences of such planning. Some 6,000 officers from 18 different forces were deployed. They were equipped with riot gear and police dogs. In addition, there was a squadron of 42 mounted police officers.

Orgreave: Home Secretary will not launch inquiry

The miners’ pickets were corralled, or “kettled” as we should now say, into a field overlooking the coke works. A railway cutting at the top of the field made retreat difficult. But a road along one side of the field allowed the mounted police to deploy rapidly. The stage was set.

Then the first convoys of lorries arrived. The pickets surged forward. The police commander ordered a mounted charge against them. He must have thought he was fighting a colonial war in the British Empire of old when the natives could be trampled underfoot by the cavalry.

After the physical battle, which the police won, came the legal battle, which the South Yorkshire Police lost on all points (the same police force that was involved in the tragic events at Hillsborough football stadium in Sheffield). Some 71 Orgreave pickets were charged with riot and some 24 with violent disorder.

The trials collapsed when the evidence given by the police was deemed “unreliable”. Then, in June 1991, South Yorkshire Police paid £425,000 in compensation to 39 miners for assault, wrongful arrest, unlawful detention and malicious prosecution.

Finally last year the Independent Police Complaints Commission was, if anything, even more damming. It reported that there was “evidence of excessive violence by police officers, a false narrative from police exaggerating violence by miners, perjury by officers giving evidence to prosecute the arrested men, and an apparent cover-up of that perjury by senior officers”.

I don’t doubt the Home Secretary when she says that “the operational delivery and practice of public order policing has moved on a great deal from the arrangements in 1984, and tactics have now been reviewed and altered several times both by the police and the courts. Protections which were singularly lacking at the time of Orgreave now exist with the introduction in the mid-Eighties of the Police & Criminal Evidence Act which has vastly improved the way police investigations and powers operate.”

Yes, indeed. But none of this gets at the politics of the miners’ strike.

Did the government of the day contrive to use the police as if they were a standing army to parry what was perceived as a threat to the state? That is the question to which we need to know the answer: yes or no?

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