2 November 2016

Orgreave was not the worst crime of the Miners’ Strike


Justice for Orgreave! The call comes with one voice from those on the Left. Amber Rudd may have ruled out a new inquiry, but the campaigners are not giving up – and nor is Jeremy Corbyn along with many other senior Labour figures, who have pledged that they will continue the fight.

The confrontation at Orgreave, on June 18, 1984, was the most violent day of the miners’ strike. It was the day the police shifted from defence to attack – using dogs, horses and riot gear to charge into the crowds and break them up.

The allegation from campaigners is that the police, in their conduct, went beyond the confines of the law. Orgreave, they claim, was not an operation but an ambush – an illegal assault to break the miners and break the strike, whose true nature was then concealed by mass fabrication of the evidence.

It is not just those on the Left who have called for an investigation into Orgreave: the moral case was eloquently put by Nick Timothy, now Theresa May’s chief of staff, in a recent piece for ConservativeHome. That article helped raised campaigners’ hopes that there would be an investigation under the new government – only for those hopes to be dashed by Rudd.

Given the accusations of a cover-up by South Yorkshire Police, there is an obvious parallel with Hillsborough – a point made by Timothy and also by Owen Jones in Tuesday’s Guardian.

But there is an equally obvious political agenda. As Ross Clark points out over at the Spectator, for many of those calling for justice for Orgreave, the issue is not so much about the police, but the government. They do not want an apology from the bobbies, but from the Tories.

More broadly, they want to ensure that the story that is told of the miners’ strike is not one of violence and confrontation on both sides, but one of heroic workers oppressed by evil bosses – aided and abetted by Margaret Thatcher as part of her sinister plan to destroy the British coal industry and impoverish working-class communities.

They want Orgreave to be seen (as Hillsborough rightly is) not as a mistake but as an atrocity.

However, there is a double standard at work here.

In November 1984, a taxi driver called David Wilkie was driving a miner called David Williams to the Merthyr Vale pit, accompanied by two police cars and a motorcycle outrider. The protection was necessary because Williams was a scab – a miner who was breaking the strike.

Just as the car turned on to the A465, two striking miners dropped a large concrete block on to the taxi from a bridge above. Wilkie was killed instantly. The two men, Dean Hancock and Russell Shankland, were convicted of murder on May 16, 1985 – a conviction that would later be reduced to manslaughter.

The day after Hancock and Shankland’s conviction, the Labour Herald newspaper announced a new appointment to its editorial board: John McDonnell, who was at a loose end after falling out with Ken Livingstone over McDonnell’s failed attempt (as finance chair of the GLC) to destroy London’s public services and thereby hound Thatcher from power.

The Labour Herald, the mouthpiece of the Bennites, was little read then and less read since. But its back issues – hidden away in the archives and unearthed by CapX – offer a fascinating (and gruesome) insight into the mentality of McDonnell and the other members of the far Left.

In July 1985, for example, the paper announced a campaign by Tony Benn for amnesty for “everyone fined, imprisoned or otherwise penalised for their actions during the miners’ 12-month strike”.

Benn made it clear, said the news story accompanying the piece, “that his measure would include Dean Hancock and Russell Shankland, who were sentenced to life imprisonment as a result of the death of a taxi driver in South Wales”.

In an accompanying editorial endorsing the campaign, the Herald announced:

“The campaign continues for the reinstatement of the NUM members sacked during the strike and the release of jailed miners. It is not just a fight to get men back their jobs, but to maintain trade union confidence and organisation in the pits. It is a campaign the whole movement must join to make sure it is won.”

In September, the Herald returned to the theme. It demanded that those on the Left must strain every sinew to secure the release of imprisoned miners:

“The objective must be to force upon the Labour leadership a clear commitment that once in office the Party will free jailed miners, reinstate the sacked men and return confiscated funds to unions.”

Insisting that the consequences of the miners’ strike be undone was a legitimate – if wrong-headed – position. But demanding a pardon for Hancock and Shankland most certainly was not. Unless you took the position that by breaking the strike, Williams and the taxi driver who carried him across the picket line had forfeited any rights they possessed, including the right to life.

Like Nick Timothy, I believe the dark story of Orgreave should be brought into the light.

Today, the basic Thatcherite argument is generally accepted – that the pits were uneconomic, and that the power of the miners and other hardliners needed to be broken if Britain were to achieve its economic potential.

Equally, it is recognised that this process left many of those communities scarred and broken. An inquiry into Orgreave will not dilute Thatcher’s accomplishments, but it might bring those communities some relief.

What we should not tolerate, however, is any attempt to make the past into a political weapon – to pile up all the guilt on one side and all the innocence on the other.

Nobody died at Orgreave – but Wilkie’s family have had to grieve for him ever since. Yet search as I can, I cannot find any record of John McDonnell apologising for the position held by the newspaper he edited.

If the Tories are to be held to account for their alleged support for police brutality, should not McDonnell be held to account for his failure to condemn violent and ultimately fatal action? Should he not admit that he was wrong – that what Hancock and Shankland did was morally indefensible, whatever the provocation, whatever the threat to their livelihoods?

Yes, there should be justice for Orgreave. But we also need justice for David Wilkie, and all the others caught up in the strike.

And above all it should be justice delivered for its own sake – not as part of some decades-old ideological vendetta, dusted off and pursued anew.

Robert Colvile is Editor of CapX.