Last week, British Home Secretary Amber Rudd dismissed a thirty-year campaign for an official inquiry into the events of the 1984 Battle of Orgreave, where police violently clashed with picketing miners at a coking plant in the north of England.
Despite evidence that the violence was instigated by the police (and undercover military personnel) in an orchestrated attack, as well as evidence of falsified witness statements and an establishment cover-up, the government decided an inquiry was unnecessary because out of the hundreds injured “no one died”, and all of the 95 arrested were eventually acquitted.
Aside from the authoritarian reasoning which argues premeditated state violence is fine as long as nobody is murdered, this announcement suggests the Conservative government understands how integral its lies about Orgreave are to legitimizing the violent worker suppression which facilitated the transition to neoliberalism.
In 1981, Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher launched a war on unions by announcing the closure of 23 coal pits, starting an on-going industrial dispute which crescendoed at a South Yorkshire coking plant three years later.
The National Union of Miners (NUM) mobilized 10,000 pickets at the Orgreave coking plant to stop strike-breaking lorry drivers transporting coke to steel mills.
A force of 5,000 police officers descended onto Orgreave to break the pickets, armed with riot equipment, armoured vehicles, attack dogs and military horses. Unprovoked, baton-wielding police charged the miners on horseback and the fleeing picketers were chased through the terraced streets of Orgreave; many were badly beaten and dozens were arrested.
To justify this violent attack, South Yorkshire Police manipulated witness statements and gave false evidence in court to prosecute the miners with violent conduct and inciting riots. Although the picketers were eventually acquitted, the lengthy and expensive court cases drained union resources and marked the beginning of the end for the NUM. Any pits that survived closure were privatized in 1994 and a government assault upon unions has continued since.
Thatcher’s class war
Thatcher came to power in 1979 after a decade of economic crises. The post-war ‘golden era of capitalism’ typified by high growth rates and full employment was replaced by stagflation and economic and social unrest. Successive Conservative and Labour government had failed to remedy these structural problems and Keynesian economics could not provide the solutions. Inspired by radical neoliberal ideas which idealized a small state with the primary role of protecting the free market, Thatcher viewed unions as obstructive to market forces and saw crushing the trade union movement as integral to her long term economic plan.
Thatcher had seen how Edward Heath’s Conservative government was brought down by organised unions in the early 1970s, so this time the Conservatives were prepared.
The Ridley Plan, concocted by neoliberal Conservative James Ridley, offered a sinister strategy for defeating the unions to clear the path for mass privatizations. Ridley identified the coal industry as key to dismantling the trade union movement as a whole and recommended training a “large, mobile squad of police” in order to defeat pickets. Following this plan, Thatcher was able to suppress the union movement allowing her to implement extensive economic transformations.
To be sure, this neoliberal turn did restore economic growth and control inflation, although nowhere near the high levels of growth in the 1950s. This growth, however, was built upon the mass privatization of public assets, increased levels of public debt and unleashing the destructive power of finance capital, which has created a fragmented society with ever increasing levels of inequality.
This authoritarian episode dispels myths that the Thatcherite neoliberal era represents a retreat of the state, and shows actually existing neoliberalism is brought about through coercion and violence.
Tragically, the violent class war instigated by Thatcher and the South Yorkshire Police at Orgreave had fatal consequences for 96 football fans four years later.
From the 95 to the 96
On April 15, 1989 at the Hillsborough football stadium in Sheffield, inadequate crowd safety practices lead to crushing deaths of 96 people at a match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. A recent inquiry concluded that South Yorkshire Police, who were responsible for crowd safety, were not only accountable for the deaths due to gross negligence, but were also guilty of manipulating witness statements and giving false evidence to shift the blame onto the fans and the victims themselves, as had happened at Orgreave.
Unlike the violence at Orgreave, this tragedy was not intended. Yet the police perception of the football fans as hooligans who needed to be contained (rather than kept safe) and the subsequent attempts to smear the victims and their families, showed a blatant disregard for the lives of the people they were supposed to protect, suggesting contempt for the working class at the South Yorkshire Police.
Whilst it is hard to say how integral the battle between police and miners was to stoking this animosity, the subsequent establishment cover-ups were undoubtedly linked. Thatcher was indebted to the South Yorkshire Police for their assistance with crushing the unions and in return provided them with immunity for their failings at Hillsborough.
Thus, the links between these two events make it all the more suspicious that an inquiry into Orgreave has been ruled out. This, unfortunately, is not surprising.
Despite the incriminating findings of the Hillsborough Inquests, the tragedy can be brushed off as an accident attributed to human error; unfortunate, regrettable, everybody makes mistakes.
Orgreave implies a much more malevolent relationship between the police and the state, and the lies surrounding that event need to be protected. Media organizations have been instrumental in upholding these lies.
The use of the media to subvert memory
The collusion between the state and the media has been integral in aiding the cover-ups at Hillsborough and Orgreave. The Rupert Murdoch-owned newspaper, The Sun, ran a baleful story accusing the Hillsborough crowd of urinating on rescue workers and pickpocketing dead bodies. These were lies peddled by a Tory MP working to cover the back of the South Yorkshire Police department in return for their help in defeating the unions. Whilst The Sun has recently offered a tepid apology for this smear following the findings of the Hillsborough Inquests, it has yet to apologize for its role in smearing the miners at Orgreave when the newspaper claimed it was the miners who instigated the violence. This untruth was also peddled by the BBC who manipulated footage to show miners attacking police first.
But this media campaign against organized labour runs deeper than Orgreave.
A sustained media campaign which blamed militarized unions for the economic chaos of 1970s helped elevate a tough-talking Thatcher into office. This campaign continued after Orgreave and public sympathy towards strikes waned. Once the unions had lost the support of the people they were fighting to protect, they became known as ‘the enemy within’; the movement had failed.
Media animosity towards unions continues today. The same villainous depiction of NUM leader Arthur Scargill was used to delegitimize the late union leader Bob Crow who fought for socialist values and the rights of London Underground workers. This sustained vilification of unions has created a popular narrative based in negative solidarity to the extent that striking doctors are now seen as dangerous radicals.
The truth about what happened at Orgreave delegitimizes this narrative, in turn challenging the foundations of neoliberalism.
Simon Jenkins, in a November 3 column in the Guardian, argued an inquiry into the events at Orgreave is unnecessary because “we already know what happened” and that “inquiries should be for specific system failure, like investigating a political scandal or a dreadful accident.”
Of course, Jenkins is wrong in claiming there was no political scandal. The events at Orgreave suggest political scandal in the form of an insidious establishment cover-up.
This was no accident. The violence at Orgreave was planned, and served as an integral tactical advance in Thatcher’s class war and the implementation of the neoliberal turn.
This was not a specific system failure. Crushing worker solidarity in the interests of capital is how the system survives.
We do already know what happened. South Yorkshire Police used violent tactics to break the pickets and dutifully served as foot soldiers in Thatcher’s broader class war.
The truth about Battle of Orgreave paints an incriminating picture of the neoliberal capitalist state, the police and mainstream media. For this reason, the government will attempt to block any inquiry. They know that if the truth is acknowledged, the structural foundations and imagery of neoliberal society will begin to crumble.
Paul Williams is an independent writer and researcher who holds an M.A. in Global Political Economy from the University of Sussex. He is based in Brighton, UK.