Saturday, March 10, 2007

The Battle of Orgreave

History cannot be reduced to particular events
. There are always complex forces at work. Nevertheless certain moments can seem to carry a resonance, representing a point of change in the life of the nation and defining, in a symbolic way, what went before and what came after.

One such “moment” occurred on June the 18th 1984.This was the so-called Battle of Orgreave, during the year-long Miner’s strike, a day when massed battalions of trained riot police were directed at the ranks of picketing Miners attempting to close down the British Steel coking plant in South Yorkshire. It is this moment that helps us to understand British history before and since.

Anyone above a certain age will remember it: will remember the sight of Arthur Scargill, his dignity severely compromised, clutching a baseball cap while being dragged away by the police; will remember the scenes of charging horses and stone-throwing rioters; will remember the incongruous picture of baton-wielding policemen, clutching shields, charging from behind protected lines, like medieval knights going into battle; will remember the war-cries and whoops and chanted slogans, the drumming, the jeering, the primitive clatter of wooden truncheons against riot shields, the surges and the counter-surges, the indelible impression of a nation at war with itself.

Which is exactly what it was, of course. The police were being withdrawn from their proper battleground - on the streets, fighting crime - and being redeployed, instead, in a war on Trade Unionism. It was the beginning of what has since become known as “globalisation”: the wholesale privatisation of public services and publicly-owned utilities that has continued ever since, and the attack upon anyone who stood - or who stands - in the way.

These are the events that a film by Mike Figgis seeks to commemorate, based around a re-enactment of the day, organised by artist Jeremy Deller. The film is available on a new website from Channel 4.

At first sight it is a strange conceit. The artist has called on the services of various re-enactment societies, more used to taking part in recreated battles from the English Civil War or the Roman invasion of Britain, than to play-acting an event in living memory. And yet it is not so strange. Police tactics on that day were exactly those used by the Romans, and revised again and again on the battlefields of history. The Miners represented a strand of tradition in British society that the government of the day had called “the Enemy Within” and openly declared war on.

Figgis uses the re-enactment as a sort of framework on which to build our perceptions. We are introduced to a variety of people, including ex-Miners along for the re-enactment, an NUM official, an ex-police officer, a former chair of Rotherham Miner’s Support Group; and Tony Benn, of course, that stalwart of traditional British values and historical good sense.

There are some very poignant moments. The ex-policeman, in particular, makes a number of very moving observations.

“People travel through Yorkshire or mining communities,” he says, “and all they see is slag-heaps and a bit of muck and grime. They don’t realise about the love and closeness that exists in mining communities....

“One of the reasons I joined the police,” he continues, “were I wanted to do some’at for the community I came from. And thanks to Margaret Thatcher I did. I helped to destroy it..."

The consequences of the destruction, not only of the NUM and the mining communities, but of a whole proud tradition of solidarity and mutual support in British Working Class life, is still with us: in poverty, unemployment, anti-social crime and drug addiction.

Margaret Thatcher called the process, euphemistically, “modernisation”. What she actually meant was a direct attack upon the networks of support devised by working people over the centuries to protect them from degradation and exploitation. “Modernisation” as a concept always serves those who have wealth and power against those who have most to lose.

It is one of Tony Blair’s favourite words.

I took a copy of the film to the Snowdown Welfare Club and Institute in Aylesham in Kent - once the social club for the Snowdown Colliery - to show it to some of the ex-Miners who still use the place. My thanks to Monty, Ian, Bridget and Graham for helping me to review the film, and to Bridget in particular for providing the TV and video.

The reaction was swift, and, I have to say, very intense. Despite the criticism that the re-enactment was unrealistic - there were thirty times more police in 1984, they said, and it was much more violent, much more frightening - it was clear that many memories were brought up. The sight of police snatch-squads, even fake ones, batons raised, cracking arms and heads in a riot of hate-filled reprisal, roused a deep, stirring anger. And they all agreed that the often repeated slogan of the time - “the Miners united shall never be defeated” - was wrong, echoing one of the sentiments of the film. It shouldn’t have been only the Miners, they said. It should have been "the Workers".

At one point a heated argument broke out, about who had been at Orgreave and who had not. Accusations were flying about all over the place and voices raised. At another point someone came over to me and abused me for forcing the film on them and reminding them of times best forgotten: “those days of anarchy“, as he described them.

“Don’t worry about him,” someone else said. “He doesn’t understand. He was never a miner.”

I was made to put the film on twice in a row.

“Every penny they had was to defeat the Working Class,” said Graham at the end, reflecting an anger at the way vast amounts of public money was so blatantly used for political ends, to attack people for merely defending their communities.

I suspect that this is precisely the reaction that Mike Figgis wants us to have.

The Battle of Orgreave was conceived by Jeremy Deller.

Commissioned and produced by Artangel in association with Channel 4 Television.

Directed by Mike Figgis.

The film can be viewed online at:
Original article appeared in The Big Issue June 2002.


Anonymous said...

What did the miners expect ? Did they seriously believe that the country would kowtow to their mob rule ?

For all the talk of "solidarity" and "community", they had no qualms about harassing those who decided to exercise their democratic right to go to work.

I was on the dole in 1984. The trades unions did bugger all for the unemployed. Scargill was an egotistical cretin and just as much out for his own ends as Thatcher.

Inadvertently, Thatcher did the miners a favour; ie most of them didn't have go down coal mines any more. An end to men dying of industrial diseases such as miner's lung is a good thing.

Good riddance to the filthy rubbish that is coal. Hundreds of people died in the great smogs of London in the 50s. Nuclear power is a safer, cleaner alternative.

Anonymous said...

Un grand salut aux mineurs en lutte à cette époque.

Vive la sociale et mort au capitalisme !

Anonymous said...

No one in the US knows much about the strike. Arthur is probably the greatest trade union leader of the century. The miners themselves show what people can do--God I wish we had Arthur and the mining community over here!