Lessons from the Miners' Strike?

Miners Strike "Battle of Orgreave" shaped later thinking of Sheffield academic Dave Waddington
Image caption The Battle of Orgreave shaped the later thinking of Sheffield academic Dave Waddington

As we approached the 30th anniversary of the start of the year-long Miners' Strike against pit closures I spent a lot of time revisiting my memories of covering it as a young television reporter and reflecting on the enormous social and economic changes that it triggered.

It is clear that a lot of others have been doing exactly the same.

At Sheffield Hallam University a group of senior academics sent me a few notes on their thoughts - and they make fascinating reading.

Prof Dave Waddington was among many young university staff and students who supported the miners.

He took part in the infamous Battle of Orgreave where police used horses and baton charges to disperse striking miners who were trying to shut down what was then a huge coking plant on the outskirts of Rotherham in South Yorkshire.

"I remember pushing up against this young police officer and, although I was still only 30ish, I was thinking, 'Crikey, he could be one of my kids'. The fear on his face," he writes.

Police suspicions

He fled from a mounted police charge and witnessed at first hand violent dispersal tactics that few outside the coalfields knew were being deployed in mainland Britain.

Now he is co-head of the Cultural, Communication and Computing Research Institute at Sheffield Hallam University and those experiences formed the basis of some of his research and publications over the next three decades.

In the early years much of it was treated with suspicion by the police and other authorities.

"I think the police now occupy more of a societal goldfish bowl: social media and citizen journalism holds up a mirror on their behaviour that just wasn't there at Orgreave," he says.

"My work in a way has been vindicated and I've played my part in highlighting a form of policing which is just as unacceptable now as it certainly was then."

Richard Severn was on the other side of the police lines. During the Miners' Strike he was a detective in north-east Derbyshire but now finds himself teaching in the same department at Hallam University.

"We used to get a lot of conflict between groups of striking miners and those who were still working - there was a lot of criminal damage and assaults," he says.

"A lot of the damage was when working miners were bussed in in cages and they used to get ambushed by some - not all of course - but some were hell-bent on criminal activity."

These days he is an associate lecturer in policing and counter-terrorism.

"The police learnt a lot from the Miners' Strike and it's moved on," he says.

"The force talks to people more now. The police force used to be very defensive, you've got to accept mistakes were made, but now you've got to understand where people are coming from and facilitate that protest."

Picking up the pieces

It is not only the police who have had to change the way they work. Local councils in the coalfields had been used to administering relatively prosperous areas with low levels of unemployment.

The miners' failure to keep their pits open changed all that.

The statistics tell the story. There were 180 collieries in Britain at the start of the strike, but many never opened again.

The wholesale dismantling of the industry since then has left just three now operating - two in Yorkshire and a third in Nottinghamshire.

In 1988 Steve Fothergill, a researcher at Cambridge University, was invited to lead a new initiative based in Barnsley aimed at spearheading aid to the shattered economies.

"In the wake of the Miners' Strike the local authorities in the thick of the strike got together and formed the Coalfields Communities Campaign," he says. He is now a professor at Sheffield Hallam University.

"They knew they were in for a beating and were going to lose lots of jobs and were trying to keep the coal industry alive and pick up the pieces when pits shut."

Before they could even start to appeal for regeneration funds from Westminster and Europe it was vital to know the full extent of the economic problems they faced.

In pioneering work with fellow researcher Tina Beatty, he uncovered what he saw as blatant political attempts to make it appear as though the pit closures were less damaging than they had actually been.

"At the start of the 1990s where the pits had shut but unemployment hadn't gone up and no-one quite knew why, our very first substantial piece of work was to look at labour market adjustment in the former coalfields - me and Tina picked this jigsaw apart and saw a huge diversion away from unemployment on to incapacity benefit.

"So the government of the day was hiding official figures by packing them on the sick. That great discovery to rumble what was going on has triggered a whole chain of work here at Sheffield Hallam."