Yorkshire’s Dark Heart - 30 years after pit closures

One Leeds academic tells Neil Hudson why on the 30th anniversary of the end of the miners’ strike, we are only just beginning to understand its true impact

Monday, 2nd March 2015, 6:59 am
Dr Katy Shaw at Leeds Beckett University. Picture by Bruce Rollinson

If you thought the 30th anniversary of the miners’ strike coming to an end would be tinged with any kind of romantic glow, think again - at least that’s the view of one Leeds academic.

Dr Katy Shaw, who is principal lecturer in contemporary literature at Leeds Beckett University, believes we are still feeling the effects of the social upheaval wrought on Britain’s industrial heartland all those years ago. Perhaps more importantly, she argues the wounds inflicted at that time are still wide open.

A Cambridge graduate who grew up in Newcastle, her father Mike worked as a shipbuilder until he was made redundant after the miners’ strike.

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Dr Katy Shaw at Leeds Beckett University. Picture by Bruce Rollinson

“He had about five different jobs by the time I was three,” recalls the 32-year-old, who has authored four books and co-othered four more. “I grew up in landscape where people just disappeared overnight. I remember school friends being there one day and not the next but also the physical symbols of mining disappearing from the landscape.

“What continues to be so emotive about the strike period is the sense that we don’t still fully understand what happened even though we are living with the consequences.”

She points to the publication last year of previously classified cabinet papers which proved the Thatcher regime effectively lied to the British public when it denied it had a pit closure plan. The declassified papers, made public by the National Archives under the ‘30 year rule’, revealed ministers discussed the closure of up to 75 pits, something denied at the time.

The papers contained other revelations, such as the extent to which the Government used MI5 to infiltrate miners’ groups and how they considered using the Army.

It was MI5 infiltration which led to a tip off to the authorities about the infamous Orgreave demonstration and the eponymous battle with police which followed. The incident was the subject of a BBC Inside Out documentary in 2012 which alleged South Yorkshire Police (SYP) doctored the statements of officers and used controversial later known as ‘kettling’. The documentary led to SYP referring itself to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) in November 2012 but to date the IPCC has yet to decide whether it can even begin such an investigation.

Dr Shaw said: “In January this year the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign met with the IPCC [who said] there could be investigation but it could not announce it yet because it needed to check whether it had legal jurisdiction and also whether any investigation would impact on an ongoing investigation into the Hillsborough disaster.”

She also says around 455 cabinet papers are being inexplicably withheld by the National Archives.

She said: “We were expecting another tranche of 500 documents in January this year which would have covered the last months of the strike. In January 7 only 45 of 500 were released. Many are asking why/”

The issue was even raised in Parliament by Dennis Skinner MP and Wansbeck MP Ian Lavery, a former president of the National Union of Mineworkers without response.

It is likely, argues Dr Shaw, if the papers are released, they will further stoke the flames of anger which still rage over how the strike was handled by the establishment and the legacy it left and, she says, will result in renewed calls for a full blown inquiry.

“There are reasons why the papers have been withheld, in terms of them having an impact on the ongoing Hillsborough disaster and the fact it is an election year and also for reasons we do not know about. But,” she adds: “We would like to know the reasons.

“The last tranche of papers had titles like ‘The Last Push’ and were almost warlike and they related to the period of the strike where the Government was in control, while these relate to the end of the strike. We were promised [the papers] right up to December.”

Whether films such as Brassed Off and the more recent Pride, where sympathies lie with workers, have anything to say about a collective view on the strike, is debatable but certainly there are pressure groups committed to ensuring the issue is not swept under any carpet.

March 7 will see an event called With Banners Held High held in Wakefield. Part celebration, part demonstration, the event has been organised by the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign to mark the anniversary of the end of the strike, proof if anything there are still unanswered questions.

Dr Shaw draws correlation between the handling of the strike and subsequent incidents: Hillsborough and the Rotherham abuse scandal.

“I am sure the revelations of cabinet paper has made them realise any investigation could be vast. Additionally, SYP has no urge to enter into another big investigation.” That may be true, with the force already embroiled in several high profile scandals over its conduct, including Hillsborough, Rotherham and the more recent leaking to the BBC about police raids on Sir Cliff Richard’s house, which were said to have come from SYP.

Dr Shaw’s view is clear: “If Orgreave had been properly investigated at the time then they may have been able to learn from it and change practices before Hillsborough. The point is the culture is not changing, so the same problems continue to manifest.”

What about the legacy in general?

“Pit closures were like a blitzkrieg, the pit was the heart of the community. Miners paid toward the local village hall, football team and so on. People forget businesses depended on the pit - butchers, greengrocers, they all went.

“Most were closed in six months and nothing replaced them. In some coalfields there were up to 30,000 jobs lost, they have never been replaced. These communities are automatically lagging behind, nothing has been done to bring them up to a level playing field. It’s the Dark Heart of Yorkshire, a post-industrial culture that in 1970s gave birth to things like the Yorkshire Ripper, it was a very masculine, sexist, dark place. The fallout is what we have now and people are starting to question the austerity we have today and how that was influenced by the neo-liberal policies of the 1970s and 1980s.

“Having studied the strike and the legacies of the strike, all roads lead back to the Yorkshire. There deserves to be investigation into the strike. We cannot begin to move forward until we have reconciled the past.”

The IPCC said: “The IPCC has completed the assessment of matters arising from the policing of events at Orgreave in 1984 and made decisions on whether there should be an investigation. We are awaiting legal advice about the publication of those decisions before we can proceed further. We appreciate the concerns about the delays but we cannot comment further at this stage.”

The Cabinet Office said they were working on transferring the files into the public domain.

It said: “When files are ‘temporarily retained’, it means the files are required for administrative purposes as the record review process is not yet complete. We are working towards transferring the remaining 1985 records later this year.

“There are two reasons why the 1986 files have not been released in full. Firstly there have been a number of reviews across Government of records management procedures and the way in which files are released to the public over the course of the year. As a result, procedures have been tightened up and this has inevitably led to a more rigorous review which has taken longer than in previous years.

“Also previously under the Public Records Act, Government Departments were required to transfer their records to The National Archives not later than 30 years after the latest record in the release was created. But the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act of 2010 implemented a move to a 20-year rule over a 10 year transition period which commenced in 2013 so we now have the challenge of transferring two years’ worth of records each year until 2022 when the transition will be complete. This has proved resource intensive and is another reason why not all the 1985 files have been transferred.

South Yorkshire Police said in reference to Orgreave: “The IPCC continues to conduct its scoping exercise around policing during the Orgreave miners’ strike. This is ongoing and for any further information, you would have to speak to their press office.

“South Yorkshire Police voluntarily referred the matter to the IPCC and is committed to working with them to ensure an open, honest and transparent process.

“In relation to child sexual exploitation in Rotherham, South Yorkshire Police has referred a number of complaints to the Independent Police Complaints Commission. We remain committed to assisting them with their independent investigation into any alleged misconduct.

“The National Crime Agency is carrying out an independent investigation into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham over the period covered by the Jay report at the request of Chief Constable David Crompton. The first stage of the investigation, called Operation Stovewood, is now underway. Any further questions need to be referred to the IPCC or NCA as appropriate.”