The police, past injustices and rewriting history

As at Hillsborough, the police at Orgreave doctored evidence.

Police and miners at a demonstration at Orgreave Colliery, South Yorkshire
Police and miners at a demonstration at Orgreave Colliery, South Yorkshire, during the miner's strike in 1984. Photograph: Getty Images

The Battle of Orgreave is seared into the memory of the former Yorkshire miner Mick Appleyard. He remembers every minute of that day, 18 June 1984. He witnessed violence at the hands of the police of a kind he had never seen before and never thought could happen.

Since then, Appleyard has harboured no illusions about the police being brought to book for what they did to the miners at Orgreave – the cavalry charge, the beatings, the dogs tearing at men’s flesh, then the arrests and prose - cutions for “riot”.

The Hillsborough inquiry changed all that. With South Yorkshire Police and senior officers under investigation and facing possible prosecution for their actions, there is now a glimmer of hope in his mind that justice might be done. On 22 October, a BBC TV Inside Out documentary aired claims that officers were told what to write in their statements after Orgreave, suggesting a Hillsborough-style cover-up. Labour is calling for an inquiry. If the Hillsborough families could do it after 23 years, perhaps the miners can do it after 28.

Appleyard, now 67, was a miner at Sharlston colliery outside Wakefield in West Yorkshire. He was the pit’s surface workers’ representative for the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). The strike was four months old when Orgreave cokeworks in South Yorkshire was targeted for picketing on 18 June. There was no secret about the miners’ plan. Coaches and cars full of pickets were travelling from as far away as Scotland and south Wales.

Orgreave was intended to be the equivalent of the Battle of Saltley Gate, the 1972 confrontation in which thousands of engineering workers in the Midlands downed tools to reinforce pickets at another coke depot. But this time the miners, about 10,000 of them, were on their own. The police were waiting, their operation planned with military precision.

“I went [to Orgreave] in a car on the M1,” Appleyard recalls. When he got there, he met his old comrade Frank Watters, a Communist Party organiser in South Yorkshire. “Frank said, ‘We’re all right here. We’ve won this. The police are guiding us in. They’re very nice, these police.’

“But . . . there was a wall of police and they opened up and there were the horses. I’d never seen owt like it. At first they’d been so nice then it altered just like that . . . Frank was an old man. He said, ‘Christ, they’re going to fucking kill us.’ I ran up the banking. I’d a pain in my chest. I thought I was having a heart attack. I had to lie down, and I saw, there were the horses, they were braying everybody. We’d seen . . . what the apartheid police did to people in South Africa. It was worse than that. Dogs were ripping people. I’ve been down the pit all my life and it was terrible conditions, but that was the worst thing I’ve seen in my life, those police.”

The miners regrouped and retaliated. Notoriously, BBC television news switched the order of events, showing the miners attacking first and the police responding. In the end, 95 miners were arrested and charged with rioting, an offence carrying a potential life sentence. The courts threw out every case and the police had to pay compensation. Now it is emerging that police evidence had been rigged. The NUM is calling for an investigation into Orgreave and the events surrounding it.

The miners’ experience of the police in 1984- 85 took place in a political context that went far wider than the Hillsborough cover-up. They believed the police were being used as the military wing of the government in a planned strategy to destroy the miners’ union. The attitude towards the police of many of those involved in the miners’ strike was changed for ever.

The media had a role in Hillsborough, but with the miners it was more sinister. The rightwing press, predictably, did what was expected of it. But was the BBC acting knowingly and willingly as a government propaganda department? The switching of the sequence of events at Orgreave would suggest so.

The persistence of the Hillsborough families in pursuing justice may be the catalyst for a reexamination of many more cases of alleged injustice and police corruption – the Shrewsbury conspiracy trial involving Ricky Tomlinson and Des Warren has again become a live issue. More recently, alleged rioters and looters have been given hefty sentences for apparently minor misdemeanours such as stealing a bottle of water. How many more will there be?

Peter Lazenby was the industrial reporter on the Yorkshire Evening Post during the miners’ strike of 1984-85