On 6 March 1984, several thousand British miners walked out of their coal mines in protest of the Conservative government’s plan to close over 70 pits. As picket lines formed, primarily in South Wales, Yorkshire, Scotland, Kent, and the north east of England, police resistance often became aggressive, and 11,291 arrests were made over the almost year-long strike. Of these, 8,392 people were charged.
Since the end of the strike in 1985, there have been calls for those charged during the strike to receive formal pardons or even monetary restitution. While Scotland has issued formal pardons, mining communities in England and Wales are still waiting for their records to be expunged. But how close are we to a resolution?
“The most bitter industrial dispute in British history”
The strike was known as one of the most long-lasting and violent strikes ever to occur. While most picket lines were peaceful, intense violence and clashes with police were frequently seen. Arguably the most violent and intense of these was a confrontation on 18 June 1984 in south Yorkshire, later named ’the Battle of Orgreave’. Five thousand picketers came to a British Steel coking plant in Orgreave to prevent strike-breaking lorries from accessing the site; they were faced with 6,000 police officers equipped with riot gear as well as 42 mounted police officers. Three ‘mounted advances’ by police ended with officers “delivering baton beatings to the unarmed miners”. Charges were given to 95 miners – 71 were charged with riot and 24 with violent disorder.
The over-action of police has long been a sticking point for mining communities, especially in regard to the Battle of Orgreave. Calls for pardons and financial reparation have been long-standing, and some victories have been won in this arena. In June 1991, the South Yorkshire Police paid £425,000 compensation to 39 miners for a slew of civil rights violations including assault, unlawful detention, wrongful arrest, and malicious prosecution. While this is a significant triumph for those involved, there has as yet been no public inquiry into the actions of the police at Orgreave. The Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign (OTJC) has been demanding an inquiry into the events of 18 June 1984, with a June 2023 protest march drawing thousands. However, the Home Office has repeatedly denied requests for an inquiry into the Battle of Orgreave.
Kevin Horne, one of the 95 arrested at the Battle of Orgreave, argues that an inquiry is in the public interest, noting that “continuing anger in ex mining communities, papers from the time of the strike embargoed from public release until at least 2066 and growing numbers who support this campaign for truth and justice, show it is in the public interest to hold an Orgreave inquiry to have a full and authoritative review of what happened and why we were treated so badly”. However, some commentators oppose the idea of an inquiry, with a column in The Telegraph stating in 2014 “we should remember that the police at Orgreave were upholding the law in the face of intimidation from thousands of strikers trying to blockade the coke works”.
Meanwhile, in Scotland, major strides have been made in redressing some of the harm done to mining communities during the strike. In 2022, Scottish Parliament passed The Miners’ Strike (Pardons) (Scotland) Bill, which overturned the convictions of miners and supporters found guilty of breach of the peace, obstruction of the police, or a breach of bail conditions during the strike. However, amendments to the bill which would have seen those whose convictions were overturned provided with financial compensation failed, a disappointment to many.
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While this only applies to those convicted in Scotland, fresh calls for similar bills to be passed across the UK have been ongoing, with Midlothian MSP Owen Thompson speaking on the issue in the House of Commons on 19 December 2023. Thompson called the convictions “a travesty of justice”, adding “the miners deserve to have their convictions wiped away; they deserve to be remembered as the heroes they were in their communities”. The bill is still in the early stages, so it remains to be seen if English and Welsh miners will receive the same legal forgiveness as their Scottish counterparts.
What can we learn?
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” is a quote most often attributed to writer and philosopher George Santayana, and one that is worth bearing in mind in the current mining climate. Last year alone, Newmont, Gold One, Grupo Mexico, and South32 have all faced labour disputes and strike action, and we must look to history to ensure that disputes are resolved as quickly and fairly as possible. If modern mining firms are to avoid the violent clashes and long-running disputes of 1980s Britain, good communication with unions and avoiding police escalation are key. Indeed, by listening to workers and taking concerns seriously as soon as they are raised, the industry can avoid the potential of strike action altogether; so often, major industrial action stems from the feeling of “last resort” by the unheard and unvalued.
The path forward is twofold; repair the damage of the past, and look forward with clearer eyes to work better together in the future.