Battle of Orgreave: A bloody battle which transformed industrial relations

Alastair Stewart

Former ITV News presenter

I joined ITV News in 1980, months after Margaret Thatcher had swept to power and four years before the Battle of Orgreave.

My first job at ITN was as an Industrial Correspondent.

It gave me a ring-side seat at one of the defining decades of modern British history.

Labour, with the support of the Liberals, had finally limped out of office in 1979 in the wake of the Winter of Discontent.

That came at the end of a period that had seen the trade unions in the ascendant, supping beer and eating sandwiches with Labour's Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan at Number Ten.

It was briefly interrupted by Ted Heath's Tories in the early seventies who, themselves, fell foul of an earlier miners' strike in 1974.

Ted's question to the country - 'Who governs? Me or the unions?' - was met with an answer that ended his premiership.

Margaret Thatcher was in power during the Battle of Orgreave Credit: PA

But industrial decline and inflation had already combined to change the atmosphere.

Many, rightly or wrongly, blamed the unions for both.

Restrictive practices, it was argued, had made great industries like ship-building and motor-car manufacture uneconomic.

The collective bargaining power of the closed-shop unions secured high wages under threat of strikes.

The unions saw it differently but that was the perception in Whitehall and Westminster, whichever party was in power.

Labour's attempts to negotiate a change to that balance led, instead, to clashes with the unions.

They were the party's organisational and financial base. It was heady stuff and culminated in that Winter of Discontent and Labour's defeat at the 1979 general election.

The Winter of Discontent led to Labour losing power in 1979 Credit: PA

In the mid-seventies, however, a group of right-wing thinkers had already begun to work up a new approach.

Its number included the Leeds Tory MP Sir Keith Joseph, the former Communist Party member Alfred Sherman and the future Director General of the Institute of Directors John Hoskyns.

Their Centre for Policy Studies was an early "think tank", designed to overturn the political and economic orthodoxies of the day via a piece of work called "Stepping Stones".

At the heart of their analysis was what they saw as the power of the trade unions on Britain's manufacturing base, their restrictive practices and ability to extract money from government and employers.

It was contentious and revolutionary, aimed, as it was to destroying the post-war consensus.

They captured Margaret Thatcher's heart and mind when she was leader of the opposition from 1975 while they had so enthralled her by 1979 that much of what she stood for at that general election was theirs.

She won a mandate that included weakening the unions and their powers.

To defeat the union movement, they had figured, meant defeating the most powerful and economically significant of their number: the National Union of Mineworkers.

The National Union of Mineworkers became political targets in the 70s Credit: PA

There was a strategy that involved building up coal-stocks at the power stations and then confronting the NUM with proposed pit closures - a red rag to a bull.

But the strategy also involved exposing what they said was the unbridled power of the unions: an easy democracy, with block votes at the TUC and Labour party conferences; the power vested in union executives, often elected on low turn-outs; and a cross-union solidarity which saw mass picketing and secondary action.

Again, the unions and others within the labour movement saw it differently and would defend decades-old practices that had served them well.

But Thatcher and her intellectual lieutenants were not to be dissuaded.

An early skirmish with the steel workers union is now seen by many as a "dummy-run".

The 1984-5 miners strike was no such thing.

It ended in defeat for the NUM and another five years of Margaret Thatcher.

In those five years, industrial relations law began to be transformed and that reform continued under Labour's Tony Blair.

From the banning of secondary action to minimum requirements for strike ballots, the union's powers were slowly but surely curbed.

The National Union of Mineworkers' power was slowly curbed on Thatcher Credit: PA

And so to Orgreave. The scenes there were reminiscent of the English Civil War and, in some senses, it was an ugly, bloody skirmish in another civil war.

Had the miners succeeded in shutting down the coking plant they might have prolonged the dispute; they might even have gone on to win.

It was a decisive battle neither side could afford to lose but the government of Margaret Thatcher won and the NUM didn't.

As Michael Mansfield QC said: "They wanted to teach the miners a lesson - a big lesson, such that they wouldn't come out in force again".

In reality they didn't.

It was all over within a year.

What the Home Secretary decided against today was an enquiry into the scenes of violence, the role of the police and the NUM, the tactics, and the allegations of collusion in police statements.

But Orgreave will always be more than that.

It was a defining and ghastly moment in a period of turmoil that split the United Kingdom and changed, forever, the conduct of industrial relations and how this country functions as an economy and as a democracy.

Tensions culminated in the Battle of Orgreave in 1984 Credit: PA