Michael Matheson’s announcement that the Scottish Government is to set up an independent review of the impact of policing on communities in Scotland during the miners’ strike in 1984-5 will have evoked many a painful memory.
It is a stark reminder of the long shadow cast on mining communities by the police handling of the strike across the UK. Communities which were devastated and have never fully recovered. Tactics which many of us witnessed and have never forgotten. ‘It’s high time that what mining communities endured is properly understood,’ Matheson said. And he’s right.
During the strike, I was branch secretary of NALGO, the white-collar union, at Westminster City Council. They were heady days. The now disgraced Shirley Porter was leader of the council. Just across the Thames, Ken Livingstone was running the Greater London Council. They locked horns regularly. But it was nothing compared to what we saw on the miners’ strike picket lines.
Like many trade union branches, Westminster NALGO twinned with an NUM branch during the dispute as a focus for our fundraising efforts to support striking miners and their families. In the summer of 1984, we twinned with Carcroft NUM, near Doncaster, in what is now Ed Miliband’s constituency.
‘They want us there today’, is an article written by my late friend, Tim Taylor, and me following a visit to Yorkshire to forge relations with our twin NUM branch. It was published in Westminster NALGO’s branch magazine, State of the Union, in September 1984.
The article describes what happened when we found ourselves on a mass picket at Gascoigne Wood, near Selby, the day after the first Yorkshire miner had returned to work. It’s just one story. A story which we took away with us. But what happened has remained in mining communities with those who took part in the strike.
Their stories have been waiting to be heard and acknowledged for more than three decades.
‘They want us there today’ by Tim Taylor and Chris Creegan, State of the Union, Westminster NALGO, September 1984
The report that follows is an account of what happened when we were taken to a mass picket during our visit to a mining community in South Yorkshire. We wanted to view for ourselves the actions of miners and police on the picket lines so much talked about in the news. Quotes are from miners we met on the day.
We were staying with a miner’s family in the Brodsworth area just outside Doncaster. Having reported along with local striking miners to the welfare, we were driven to Gascoigne Wood colliery, near Selby, where the previous day the first Yorkshire miner to break the strike had returned to work.
‘They want us there today’, commented our driver as we asked whether the police were likely to prevent us from reaching the colliery. On arrival we were met by hundreds of miners keen to indicate that support for the strike was still strong.
‘It’s as much a display of solidarity as anything else and, God, we need that now.’
We were instructed to move towards the pit gates and joined maybe 2000 other pickets in a field adjacent to the colliery road, which was occupied by a line of police several thousand strong.
‘This pit has been democratically closed by those who work there. There’s all this talk of the ‘right to work’ but you don’t get this lot down (the police) when MacGregor shuts a pit, to defend our right to work.’
As we stood in anticipation, local union officials moved through the crowd urging pickets to remain calm.
‘This isn’t exactly what I’d call fun. We’ve been beaten and punched and kicked and it’s bloody cold.’
The situation did remain peaceful until police ‘thoughtlessly’ rushed two vans towards the pit gates. Pickets thinking (wrongly) that this was the man’s return to work, surged forward in an attempt to block the road. As scuffles broke out and truncheons were drawn, police were heard to say ‘take your pickets now.’
‘This bloke going in today, I don’t blame him. We’ve all suffered and for some, I suppose, it just gets too much. But he’s still a scab and he’s letting everyone down — himself, his community, his kids…’
The situation soon calmed and by about 11.00am miners began to drift off, anxious to avoid further clashes but satisfied that their presence had been felt. ‘Coming in? With you lot here? You must be joking’ said a superintendent as we walked away.
Pickets were soon reflecting on the morning’s events. Many of the older pickets were critical of others’ hot-headed response to the police. They were conscious of having been used and sure of what the press would have to say.
‘Mindless hooligans’, ‘mindless horror’, ‘mindless violence’ said the Express. They all got it wrong. We saw the police charge first and pickets act only in defence. Maybe they had been right — they had wanted us there that day.