Secret support from government law officers for South Yorkshire police during miners’ strike
- Category: Trade Union Reporting
South Yorkshire Police, the force that faced the most violent picketing during the 1984-5 miners’ strike, forged a close working relationship with the Prime Minister and the government’s law officers.
Four months into the strike, the South Yorkshire Chief Constable, the late Peter Wright, was given secret authorisation to go on incurring the additional cost of bringing in police reinforcements to help ensure the resumption of coke deliveries during what became known as the “Battle of Orgreave”.
Mrs Thatcher told the Home Office to give the South Yorkshire force “every support”; in the corner of one document is her hand-written note asking: “Can we provide the funds direct?”
Wright’s tactics in commanding the massive police operation to prevent mass picketing outside the British Steel Corporation’s coking plant at Orgreave had been condemned by the South Yorkshire County Council and its Labour majority on the South Yorkshire Police Authority which both supported the National Union of Mineworkers.
After the county council passed a resolution calling for the Orgreave coke depot to be closed, the police authority withdrew Wright’s discretion to spend up to £2,000 without prior authority; it said he could not incur any expenditure without authority.
Leon Brittan, the Home Secretary, and Sir Michael Havers, the Attorney General, took swift action on 3 July to support Wright and set in train a series of secret contingency measures. Confidential correspondence released in the 1984 cabinet papers reveals that Brittan proposed the Treasury Solicitor should immediately make funds available if required by the chief constable.
Wright needed to prepare a local RAF barracks to accommodate police support units needed to reinforce South Yorkshire Police ready for the re-opening of Orgreave the following Monday.
“We need to move quickly in this way to forestall public speculation that police operations against the dispute will be hampered, or even that the Armed Forces would have to be brought in instead,” said Brittan.
Next day at a ministerial meeting in Downing Street Sir Michael said he was seeking a judicial review of the police authority’s decision. He was also considering whether to seek an injunction to prevent the authority from suspending its chief constable on “improper grounds”.
At cabinet, Brittan reported that police operations to control picketing in South Yorkshire had continued to be successful and the following day the authority was ordered by to suspend its action against the chief constable pending a further court hearing.
Brittan feared that other police authorities under political control sympathetic to the miners’ strike might copy South Yorkshire’s tactic. The previous month the Merseyside Police Authority had attempted to prevent its chief constable from sending reinforcements to help prevent mass picketing.
In backing the steps taken by Brittan and Sir Michael, Mrs Thatcher said the South Yorkshire Chief Constable should be given “every support”. It was most important that police authorities should not be allowed to take action to “interfere with the operational judgement of chief constables in policing the dispute.”
Peter Wright was supported again by the Home Secretary in September after his “left-wing” police authority said it intended to “phase out all horses and some dogs” from the South Yorkshire force, a proposal which Brittan said would result in the authority failing to carry out its statutory responsibilities to maintain “an efficient police force.”
After an escalation that same month in picket-line violence outside the Maltby pit, Wright assured Brittan that his force required “no additional resources.”
As the mass picketing intensified during the early weeks of the strike, the Prime Minister ordered a full review of the effectiveness of both police tactics and enforcement of the criminal law.
In June 1984 the Attorney General assured Mrs Thatcher the criminal law was sufficient “to embrace all the mischiefs” which had manifested themselves during the dispute.
Despite criticism of the way pickets had been turned back on main roads and motorways, Sir Michael was confident of the government’s position on “well-established principles of common law” regarding the power of the police to stop people travelling to the scene of an actual or apprehended breach of the peace.
He thought there was no doubt the efforts of the police had achieved “a greater degree of success” than in any similar law-and-order confrontation. The key to this success had been the “deployment of thousands of additional police officers in the areas concerned”; chief constables had not lacked the manpower they thought necessary.
According to the Home Office statistics on police reinforcements up to June, about 4,000 additional officers were being supplied on a daily basis.
Eight months into the strike the Home Office prepared a report on the effectiveness of the mutual-aid reinforcements to control mass pickets. Officials monitored police operations at the Rossington pit in South Yorkshire and Woolley colliery in West Yorkshire.
The report revealed that the forces most sought-after to supply reinforcements were from non-metropolitan areas in the south of England such as Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, Surrey, Avon and Somerset and West Mercia.
“Metropolitan police support units were valued in violent confrontations but at other times, and these occasions were more frequent, their attitudes were thought to be harder for local people to identify with and so perhaps more likely to lead to an increase in tension.
“The casual approach of metropolitan police support units had been a surprise to these forces which had not the same experience of public order problems being treated as everyday occurrences.”
Illustrations: Sun, 30.5.1984; Morning Star, 30.5.1984; Morning Star, 30.5.1984.