In a dramatic decision, Amber Rudd, the home secretary, decided a year ago not to hold a Hillsborough-style inquiry into the Battle of Orgreave. This conflict during the 1984-5 miners’ strike resulted in the arrest of 95 miners and a trial on the (very serious) charge of riot that collapsed spectacularly due to unreliable evidence from South Yorkshire Police.
Files newly released and declassified since Rudd’s decision shed more light on the actions of both South Yorkshire Police and the Thatcher government during this time. These new files add more evidence relating to many long-standing accusations made by the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign, which continues to press for an inquiry.
Principle among the claims from the original 1985 trial is that the police collaborated on their statements about the incident. They’ve been accused of directing or consulting with each other on events, rather than providing their actual evidence or experiences of events.
This claim is now arguably supported by a 1991 letter from South Yorkshire Police deputy chief constable Peter Hayes to West Midlands chief constable Ron Hadfield in 1991. Hayes wrote that given the large number of different police forces present, “teams of South Yorkshire detectives found it necessary to assist them in the preparation of their statements”.
Hayes claims this was done because some officers drafted in from other parts of the country had a “complete lack of local knowledge” of the area and needed assistance with their statements. Or it was for “scene-setting and introductory information before those officers left the South Yorkshire Police area” and returned to their home force. Whatever the reasoning, this is a clear admission of some kind of collaboration on police statements by South Yorkshire Police.
The newly released files also shed more light on the role played by the government. As shown by previously released files, Margaret Thatcher had a strong personal investment in ensuring the dispute was (heavily) policed. These files further demonstrate her strong personal involvement. In the weeks following the strike, Thatcher attended a drinks party held for chief police officers, where she took the time to “thank them personally for all that they and their forces did to maintain public order”, and “discuss with them other matters of current concern to us”.
This sense of gratitude was clearly shared by other senior cabinet ministers. They also felt the need to offer some protection to South Yorkshire Police and other forces involved in the strike. In a January 1985 meeting at his department, Leon Brittan, then home secretary, said he “remained of the view that the government should not encourage any form of public enquiry [sic] into the conduct of police during the miners’ dispute”. He said he feared an “anti-police bias” that would eventually turn into a “witch-hunt”. This was despite suggestions from civil servants present at the meeting that such an inquiry would be “helpful in terms of enabling the police to defend their conduct of the dispute”.
The Home Office’s policy of resisting such investigations, particularly into the Battle of Orgreave, continued. Civil servants stated in a 1991 brief on policing at Orgreave, prepared for John MacGregor when he was leader of the House of Commons, that “the government does not believe that a public inquiry into police operations during the miners’ strike is necessary”, feeling there was more to lose than gain. The argument was that such an inquiry “would stir up the deep feelings which were aroused by the miners’ strike and its policing at the time”, and would simply turn into an exercise of seeking to apportion blame.
For the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign, finding out about all this has been a slow and arduous process. Many files related to the battle have been held back from public release. Indeed, some of the files from folders I’ve used in my research are to remain classified until 2072.
South Yorkshire Police is under intense public pressure over its actions in the 1980s. Several senior officers are currently being prosecuted in relation to their roles in the Hillsborough disaster, which left 96 dead. The Hillsborough disaster also involved allegations of fabrication of police statements and cover-ups designed to blame fans by South Yorkshire Police – allegations that were eventually proven to be correct.
The Hillsborough campaign has shown what can be achieved by persistence from a determined organisation eager for the truth. As more files are declassified and released, pressure will continue to mount on the government and South Yorkshire Police to hold an inquiry into this crucial event in post-war policing. Did South Yorkshire Police seek to turn the striking miners at the 1985 trial into scapegoats? The appetite for answers regarding South Yorkshire Police will not be sated anytime soon.