Anniversaries help us to remember the past, but they can distort and conceal it too. That much is clear from the commemorations of the ‘Battle of Orgreave’, the violent confrontation between thousands of striking miners and police officers outside a coking plant in South Yorkshire thirty years ago, on 18 June 1984.
The clash was the most dramatic set-piece of the bitter miners’ strike of 1984-85, with numerous injuries inflicted and over 90 pickets arrested. Exactly what happened that day is still hotly contested, with doubts cast on both participants’ testimony and media reporting. The BBC was accused of producing misleading coverage by reordering their footage of the police actions, and the prosecutions of the pickets collapsed due to inconsistencies in the evidence against them (compensation was subsequently paid in out-of-court settlements, but no police officers were charged with misconduct).
These disputes are still not resolved: the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) is currently considering whether to investigate the activities of the South Yorkshire Police in protecting the plant. There is a strong sense in parts of the local community that the ‘truth’ of that day has not yet been established, and the example of the successful campaign for a public enquiry into the Hillsborough Stadium disaster has motivated others to pursue this case too.
Yet if there is not yet an agreed version of what happened at Orgreave and who was responsible for the outbreak of violence, the wider public meaning of that day seems much clearer. It has become not only the main symbolic incident of the miners’ strike, it has been enshrined as one of the key turning-points in modern British history: the Thatcher government’s moment of victory over the unions which decisively shifted the balance of power away from the organised working class. This is why the battle has had such a powerful cultural presence – perhaps most famously in the Turner-prize winning artist Jeremy Deller’s filmed re-enactment. The twenty-fifth anniversary in 2009 prompted several books, television documentaries and public histories, many reinforcing the view that this was a historic and conclusive defeat.
It is, of course, important to remember and understand the events of Orgreave, but we should not see them as the end of this particular story. There is a danger that Orgreave is casting a shadow over later campaigns against pit closures; the language of battle, defeat and turning-points can imply that future resistance was futile and insignificant. It did not seem like that to people at the time. As part of the Sheffield Stories of Activism project, which I help to run with my colleague Gary Rivett, we have been working with some of the women involved in resisting a later wave of mine closures, announced by the Major Government in October 1992.
Caroline Poland, whose partner was a miner, and other members of Sheffield Women against Pit Closures (SWAPC) set up a women’s pit camp at Houghton Main, near Barnsley. The camp was the hub of a cross-generational campaign, including local school children, with adults and children often staying overnight in caravans or the local youth club. At one point the camp launched a hot air balloon to publicise their cause. It may not have prevented the closure of the pit, but it had real meaning for the people involved, and helped to forge and reinforce bonds in the local community. The Stories of Activism project is currently seeking funding to record and make available the stories of these women, because they have so much to tell.
So when you read about Orgreave in the coming days, don’t be led into thinking that there was nothing left to fight for in its wake. For women like Caroline, there were plenty of battles still to come.
Adrian Bingham is Reader in Modern History at the University of Sheffield specialising in 20th-century Britain and the popular press. He is also involved with the Stories of Activism project, and is a Senior Editor of History & Policy. You can find Adrian’s other History Matters blogs here.
Header image: Paul Castle (far left) and George ‘Geordie’ Brealey (right) at Orgreave, 1984. ©Don McPhee/The Guardian [via Flickr]
Inset image 1: Jeremy Deller and Mike Figgis, The Battle of Orgreave, 2002 [Independent Curators’ International via Flickr]
Inset image 2: Orgreave today [http://underclassrising.net via Flickr]
Are there any useful parallels with Peterloo or the less well known massacre in Preston?
Interesting. They’re very different incidents, so difficult to compare, but Peterloo, like Orgreave, certainly had a powerful impact on ‘the left’ and shaped its view of the state.