Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Orgreave, Coal and Steel (David!).

This government has taken a decision not to investigate what happened at 'the Battle of Orgreave'. Apparently nobody actually died or spent much time locked up, so it's not important to understand the truth. I'm not surprised by this government's attitude, unfortunately, given the kind of dictatorial, authoritarian direction it has lurched in, and given the fact that some of those who might come in for criticism are some of their great mythological heroes. I use the term 'mythological' deliberately, of course, since their heroism may well not be based on an entirely true reflection of reality but on stories about how the great forefathers (and mothers) overcame the pure evil of the socialist dragon. Sadly, that seems to be where we are - that same kind of polarised 'us versus them' politics which created the miners strike and the events at Orgreave.

I disagree with them very strongly. The shadow of the violence Orgreave has been hanging over us for far too long. It has been the subject of accusations, counter-accusations, stories, myths, rumours and whispers for decades, and we need to know the truth. We need to understand exactly what happened, and exactly why it happened, not just so that we can all 'move on', but so that we can make absolutely sure that we never again see such a situation. In today's political climate in the UK, I think that's more important than ever.

Of course, it's not just about the actions of the police on that day itself, and whether they were proportionate and well thought out. We now know for certain from Hillsborough (and we didn't know before, though we may have suspected - I don't buy the defence of aiming cheap 'well if it's so important why didn't you investigate when you were in power' comments aimed at Labour in particular - the Hillsborough investigation changes everything) just how dishonest that particular police force could be around that time when it came to covering its own backside, and we need to know if the same people (or others) were doing the same. It is also about the government of the day, and how they were using the police force. That's long been the source of comment and speculation, and the evidence for that should be properly considered - abuse of state power is one of the most serious charges that can be levelled at any government, and we need to know if that did indeed go on (and whether individuals broke any laws in relation to that, of course). It's about the 'other side' too, and what were really the plans and actions of Arthur Scargill, the NUM and the groups of miners themselves on that day - again, the source of much rumour and speculation (and elements within that union had certainly been guilty of serious crimes elsewhere in their pursuit of the strike, and allegedly in their pursuit of bringing down the government too).

So many stories. So many rumours. So many whispers. We need to get to the truth. It is important, even all these years later. If we don't examine history, and examine all of the evidence, we can't learn from it. If we don't learn from it, we risk making the same mistakes again, and in terms of entrenched and bitter dispute leading to violence potentially between the government, police and organised parts of the population that is a risk we should do everything we can to minimise. A light needs to be shone into all of the dark corners of what happened and why. We need to know. A proper, full investigation is absolutely essential, in my opinion, despite the many painful memories and ghosts from the past that it will inevitably raise. We need to deal with all of that once and for all. There should be truth. There should be justice. For everyone.

Thinking back to that time of the strike, when I were but a lad (not living in a mining community myself, but not far away from many of them, and not many generations away from miners in my own family either), my memories are quite vivid. Not just seeing what had happened at Orgreave, but the whole issue of the strike itself. In many ways it was a very important part of the formation of my political opinion - watching the physical battles of the picket line, and the political battles pitched between shouting, ranting elements taking the lead on both 'sides' of the debate. It wasn't just the miners strike itself, though that was a particularly stark example - it was that whole period of unrest and upheaval, from the winter of discontent through the strike, pit and works closures, and so on. All the time it all seemed so wrong to me, as young as I was. Not 'wrong' because 'evil' was standing against 'good', or because 'the worker' was standing against 'the establishment', or because 'thugs' were standing against 'the forces of law', or whatever, but because it seemed to me that nobody had any real desire to get together and sort it out sensibly instead of just 'smashing' their 'opponent'. I found it all so frustrating (as I still do).

Throughout that time it seemed to me there was one solid, sensible voice of reason. One constant presence with the practical sense and the courage to stand between the sides (metaphorically and politically, at least!) and just say 'hang on a minute', so to speak. One person who actually wanted to sort out a real solution instead of just trying to 'win' a war of destruction that wasn't doing anybody any good. This is what forged the way I thought politically at that young age (I was a young teenager by the time of the miners strike), and what still essentially shapes much of my political identity and thinking today (though I have not always been a party member, and not even always voted for the same party).

Many Liberals, and Liberal Democrats in particular, will cite as their 'political heroes', or as those who brought them to Liberalism and the party, as the likes of Paddy, or Charles, or even Nick. All of those are good answers - it depends on when and how you came to such things, of course. For me, though I'm not given to 'hero worship at all, my big formative influence will always be that quiet voice of reason, standing up for common sense when all around were preaching the kind of entrenched language of war that ultimately led to appalling situations like the battle of Orgreave. Indeed, it saddens me a little that he is one leading Liberal figure that the party does not offer as an option to be pictured on membership cards, despite having been such an important and influential part of forming and shaping the party we have today.

Thinking about the whole Orgreave and miners strike situation this morning, I found this quote:

"During the mining dispute we have seen the Thatcher way at its very worst. She appointed as Chairman of the National Coal Board an elderly American company doctor whose reputation at British Steel had been made by cutting back rather, than building up.

She has effectively torn up the Plan for Coal and replaced it with nothing except a general sense of hostility to what is one of this country’s major assets. She has set up a confrontation which suits her Marxist opponent Arthur Scargill very well. She has allowed attitudes to harden on both sides.

Then this week she has the nerve to talk about the strike going on for a year and demands ‘victory’ over the ‘enemy.’ It may be the Thatcher way but it is not the way to conduct industrial relations - and it is deeply damaging to the national economy.

There is a better way. I want to use this occasion to make a .firm proposal to break the deadlock. It has three elements and it will require the recall of Parliament next week, which is perfectly possible since there are no party conferences.

The first element is that Mr. McGregor should step down immediately. He is now an impediment to a settlement. His replacement should be someone like Eric Varley who has the personal skills and the knowledge of the coal industry. The fact that he is not ‘one of hers’ is a positive advantage. A new Chairman of the NCB is the first pre-requisite to break the log-jam.

The second element is the establishment of a new Community Rehabilitation Programme, funded by the Government. It should undertake the environmental restoration of run down mining communities to create worthwhile jobs for former miners and to get the local neighbourhood thriving again. This Programme would be loosely modelled on the excellent Villiers scheme in British Steel but will concentrate particularly on the physical environment.

This scheme should be jointly managed by the NCB and the NUM but there is one big IF. There must be a ballot on the coal strike. The Alliance will put a short Bill to the House of Commons allowing 10% of miners, to trigger a national ballot. This trigger will be pointed at the head of Mr. Scargill and his dictatorial ways. As the Yorkshire working miners’ letter said ‘he is only a servant of the union.’ We must enable them to tell him what to do rather than the other way round.

I call on the Government and the TUC to put all their weight behind this scheme to set the coal industry on a new course. It is their duty to save the adversaries from themselves."

David Steel, Liberal Party Leader's Speech, Bournemouth 1984.

If only they had listened.

1 comment:

  1. And it is not just about what happened all those years ago, but about what is still happening now. Are any of the police officers who ran amuck at Orgreave still in post? Even if not, they have had careers and rewards lasting up to this day. We know that the stain of Hillsborough still lasts - right up to the day of he announcement of the new coroner's verdicts, South Yorkshire police's barristers were still peddling the lie that the fans were drunk and ticketless. That kind of stain runs through the history of orgreave as well, right up to today.