Leon Brittan and the miners who would never forgive him

Police in riot gear during the 1984/5 miners' strike
Image caption The miners' strike saw a big change in police tactics, training and equipment

Three decades ago in the early hours of what promised to be a beautiful spring morning my car was stopped at a police roadblock on a quiet country lane and I was threatened with arrest.

It came as a complete shock.

As far as I was aware there was no mad gunman on the loose, no dangerous road traffic accident ahead, no sensitive military secrets being defended and this was certainly not one of those countries with a cavalier attitude to legal and civil rights.

This was the 1980s in the English countryside on a road passing through the glorious natural beauty of the Cannock Chase Country Park in North Staffordshire.

It was also the road that five miles further along led to a coal mine.

Net set for flying pickets

This was within weeks of the start of what developed into the year-long miners' strike and I was experiencing the government's reaction to it.

My television camera crew and I had been caught up in a police net set to catch flying pickets from South Yorkshire heading for the pit gates.

It was an extraordinary shift in police tactics. A specialist national intelligence unit had been set up to track striking miners as they were bussed across the country by their union to add weight to the picket lines.

Image caption Leon Brittan making a speech in 1985

It was the brainchild of the then Home Secretary and North Yorkshire Conservative MP, Leon Brittan.

In a year of covering the miners' strike as a reporter I never laid eyes on Leon Brittan.

In a television speech he said there was no alternative if the government was to ensure violence and intimidation were not used as a weapon in an industrial dispute.

Love and loathing

It was a view that clearly had a lot of popular support but was met with wry smiles in the coalfields.

As the weeks went by literally thousands of cars, vans and buses loaded with striking pit men were intercepted and turned back.

It was just the start of a transformation which saw fleets of now familiar specially-reinforced police mini buses packed with squads equipped with helmets, riot shields and batons being sent to confront mass pickets.

It was the biggest change to policing since Victorian times when dozens of local forces had emerged.

No alternative

The legality of the whole operation was hotly contested by trade unions at the time but Leon Brittan, strongly backed by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, was convinced this was the only way to preserve democracy in the face of militant trade union forces.

Leon Brittan, who died on 22 January, continued as a cabinet minister in Mrs Thatcher's government until 1988 when she appointed him as one of the UK's European Commissioners where he served for another decade.

Though not a Yorkshireman by birth, he never forgot the county he represented as an MP for so many years. He made his home here and, when he later became a peer, took a title associated with his North Yorkshire village: Lord Brittan of Spennithorne.

He will be remembered for many things from his high profile career but for the thousands of striking miners his part in the strike overshadows everything else.

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