Bruce Anderson is a journalist.
A couple of days ago, Nick Timothy made an eloquent case on this site for an enquiry into the police’s handling of the Orgreave disturbances in 1984. But I believe that he is profoundly mistaken.
Orgreave has come back on to the agenda for one simple reason: Hillsborough. Critics of the police are trying to draw a comparison between the two incidents. But in reality, they have nothing in common.
At Hillsborough, 96 people died, largely because of incompetent policing. There was then a cover-up. Actually, that is a euphemism – there were lies. Policemen defamed those who had died because of bad policing.
All that is shocking, and it is good that the truth has now emerged. But even so, these events must be kept in proportion.
Because some policemen were guilty of negligence and dishonesty, this does not mean that all policemen are blameworthy. That would be like an account of the British Army’s role in Northern Ireland based solely on Bloody Sunday.
It is crucial to remember exactly what happened at Orgreave: thousands of militant mine-workers converged on the area in order to force the closure of a British Steel coking plant.
The militants’ tactics were based on intimidation and violence, as they had been throughout the dispute, and their aims went far beyond the coal industry.
Arthur Scargill and striking miners had helped to bring down the Heath government, partly with the help of widespread intimidation. In February 1972, picketing miners had shut down a coking plant at Saltley – a crucial incident on Ted Heath’s route to defeat.
As a result, many observers concluded that, as the slogan put it, ‘The miners, united, cannot be defeated’ – but that the Conservatives could. That was Arthur Scargill’s view, and by the time of Orgreave, it was Margaret Thatcher’s turn.
And some of the miners’ leaders had ambitions which went beyond another Tory premier’s scalp – the free market system was at stake.
In 1983, when Margaret Thatcher won re-election, Scargill declared that this did not mean that the country was stuck with the Conservatives for the next four years. A Marxist himself, Scargill was also caught up with syndicalism. Syndicalists believed that the trade unions should take over the running of the country.
Scargill wanted to start by making it impossible for the elected government to run the country. That is why he sent thousands of miners to Orgreave.
The police resisted. That was their job. They protected the rights of those who wanted to work and forced back the bullies. Anything else would have been a dereliction of duty.
Does this mean that no policeman over-reacted or that no militant was hit unnecessarily hard? Of course not – but in most other countries, the disturbances would have been quelled much more harshly. Tear gas would certainly have been used; bullets might well have been fired.
In the circumstances, the police deserve to be praised for their restraint, as they would have been in most other countries. Several hours of dealing with violent pickets and nobody killed: commendations all round.
There were mistakes. Attempts were made to bring charges against some of the protesters. These were unsuccessful, and predictably so. In the midst of melees and scrimmages, it is impossible to work out exactly who did what and when. Some police evidence may have been embellished.
But the success of the police operation did not depend on court proceedings. Its aim was to frustrate lawlessness and to uphold the rights of the law-abiding. That was the outcome.
The events of one particular day at the plant quickly became known as the Battle of Orgreave. That may sound hyperbolic: not so. It was a battle, and a victory. Indeed, it was one of the more important events in modern British history.
The striking miners’ defeat at Orgreave made it clear that Scargill could not win and that his version of trade union militancy had no future in this country. It also helped to remove socialism from the British political agenda, at least until Jeremy Corbyn. It meant that Margaret Thatcher had won.
At the beginning of the 1980s, many left-wingers assumed that she was a mere epiphenomenon. Socialism was inevitable; she was merely the dying spasm of the bourgeois order. Then came Scargill’s great syndicalist offensive. The striking miners, the Labour movement’s brigade of guards, were thrown into the battle. They lost.
Socialism was no longer inevitable. The ‘ism’ had become a ‘wasm’. Of course, the Labour party did have a future and could still win elections. But the price of victory would be Blairism. Orgreave helped to make Tony Blair possible.
That is why so many on the Left are obsessed with Mrs Thatcher and also with Orgreave. They understand that it was a pivotal moment. They claim that they are merely upset that so many of Scargill’s shock troops ended up in A&E. Their real grievance is that the thin blue line held.
The police were wrong at Hillsborough. This does not mean that they are also wrong. They have a hideously difficult job and they sometimes make mistakes, for which they must be held accountable. But wholesale denigration is not the answer.
Because the police won the Battle of Orgreave, this country is much freer and more prosperous than it would have been if Scargill had prevailed. Gratitude is in order. Instead, Timothy is playing the Left’s game. That brings him perilously close to becoming what Lenin would have described as a useful idiot.