In their frenzy to smash the miners' strike the government judiciary and the police took gigantic steps to reduce the civil liberties of the striking miners and their supporters.
Perhaps the first outrage was the public declaration of the Attorney General Sir Michael Havers on a radio programme that the police had sufficient power to stop pickets travelling to pits if they took the view that a breach of the peace might take place. Within hours of this declaration the Kent police put a road block across the Dartford Tunnel some one hundred miles away from the closest Midlands pits and stopped any car that looked as if it might be carrying Kent miners, and threatening the men with arrest if they went through the tunnel. After injunction proceedings brought by the Kent NUM, and a considerable protest by the public, the Attorney General remained silent, but the pattern had been set.
From then on massive forces of police blocked various routes from the M1 leading to the Midlands pits and prevented the miners and their supporters from getting anywhere near the pits they wished to picket peacefully. Any foreign visitor driving along the Ml could have been forgiven for thinking that they were entering a high security war zone judging by the enormous numbers of police and police vehicles which either blocked the roads, stood parked along the verges or travelled systematically in long convoys from one area to another.
No longer could a miner exercise his lawful right to travel peacefully to any other part of the country without being stopped. No longer could any other man or group of men who looked like miners travel peacefully through the Midlands without being stopped by the police.
The government openly exhorted the police to take whatever steps the police thought necessary to stop picketing and enable the few pits that were still producing coal to continue working. They lavished money on the police despite generally denying there was no money for public expenditure in even the most needy areas of the deprived inner cities. Was there an outcry from the government when one southern constabulary chartered a jet to carry the police from the southern counties to the Midlands for picket duties?
The government carried out an active campaign throughout the media wholly blaming the striking miners for violence on the picket line, as well as totally ignoring the escalating violence in the police and the continuing erosion of the public's rights. Police were encouraged and allowed to use pre-emptive charges by batten swinging police horsemen. They were allowed and encouraged to use snatch squads often of heavily armoured policemen who would force their way into a line of pickets to break up the line and give other constables opportunities to arrest pickets without reason. Evidence at the Orgreave trial revealed internal police directions which actively encouraged the police officers to use violence when dealing with picketing.
The government assisted in the organisation and paid for the National Reporting Centre, the first attempt in Britain to organise policing on a national strategic level without taking into account any of the needs or views of local inhabitants.
The police for their part generally pursued a vigorous aggressive campaign against striking miners. The policemen on picket duties in many areas were encouraged to view striking miners as the enemy. The frequently used excessive violence on even elderly miners who were arrested for trivial offences and despite the fact that no resistance was offered by the men.
The miners were abused and openly insulted by the police who faced them on the picket lines. There was no prosecution of police officers who were seen to assault pickets, even when clear evidence of the attacks were shown on the television.
The police openly refused to allow pickets to speak peacefully to miners who were going to work. The pickets who managed to get through the road blocks were kept even a half a mile or more away from the pit gate. Gone completely are the days when it was accepted law that a number of pickets could stand across the workplace gate and speak to their fellow workers going into work so as to try to put the striker's point of view. The police developed the tactic of making mass arrests in order to completely remove pickets from the picket line, knowing that the magistrates would impose bail conditions that were so oppressive that the result would be that the men could no longer take part in the strike.
In Colchester the police went even further and arrested pickets who were behaving quite peacefully so as to reduce the number of potential pickets in one area to prevent the possibility of a breach of the peace. The Colchester police had no intention of charging any of these men, and indeed there was no suggestion that any crime had been committed.
Nevertheless, the dozen pickets found they were unlawfully imprisoned in a Colchester police garage for a day.
Not satisfied with the Public Order Act offences the police resorted to the ancient crime of watching and besetting under the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act 1875. Several men, including a passing farmer, were arrested in their pit village in Kent for standing on a street corner talking. All the men were found not guilty by the magistrates, there being no evidence against the defendants. The police rapidly dropped the case against the farmer when they realised their blunder.
The Act was also used against 21 kent miners who were following in their motor cars behind a convoy of four police cars, and an NCB bus. The police alleged that the occupants of the bus were intimidated by the men in the vehicles up to half a mile behind, and out of vision. A novel if not vicious approach by the police. All the men were acquitted.
Perhaps the most serious prosecutions, however, were those in the Midlands and Yorkshire where dozens of miners are accused of unlawful assembly and riot. The evidence when presented by the prosecution was non-existent and exposed an overwhelming prejudice of senior policemen towards the miners on strike. The country now knows from the details of the remaining cases which were dropped by the prosecution that there was no substance in the charges brought against the men who were doing no more than standing up for the jobs of themselves, their workmates and their children.
It has always been a working rule that prosecutions should not be brought unless there is a reasonable prospect of the offence being proved. Indeed the DPP will not prosecute a policeman accused of a crime unless there is more than a 51% chance of the prosecution succeeding. The police during the strike, particularly in relation to the most serious charges, worked on the basis that they should charge the miners on the basis of prejudice, assertions made by Ministers of the government, and senior employees of the NCB and allegations carried by the media.
Pickets have been brought before the magistrates on and off over the years, but the dispute soon saw magistrates setting bail conditions in respect of largely trivial crimes which were so oppressive that even the most conservative of lawyers found them unjustifiable. Indeed, in the early days of the strike the Essex magistrates ordered bail restrictions that prevented Kent miners from picketing at any of the three ports in Essex where coal was being imported, even though the alleged offence occurred at only one of the ports. This was despite the fact that some of the alleged offences were no more than sitting down in the road. The magistrates' aim was clearly to drive the miners out of Essex.
The magistrates in Ramsgate who first of all restricted Kent miners from picketing anywhere in Kent, including their own pits went even further in other cases by restricting the men from picketing anywhere at all. These magistrates took it upon themselves to prevent the men from fighting for their jobs. The conditions were so hastily imposed that men found that they were in breach of the conditions by going to the local Tesco's to shop, to their doctors or the hospital and in some instances even to their own homes. One London magistrate upon hearing that the accused miner was not a resident in London imposed a condition of bail that he should not come to London for any reason whatsoever.
No matter what arguments were put up by lawyers representing the miners they were not listened to because the magistrates were showing their class colours. In Mansfield the magistrates even had bail notices with bail restrictions pre-printed ready to hand out to the accused miners even before their names were read out in court.
What did the High Court Judges do to prevent this appalling erosion of civil liberties? They stood by and either condoned the erosion without any care whatsoever or formally supported the erosion of liberties in order to suppress the miners' strike.
An application for an injunction against the Kent police for blocking the Dartford Tunnel failed. The judge was not sufficiently interested to safeguard the individual's rights to travel peacefully across the country. The applications to the Divisional Court for an order preventing the police road blocks in the Midlands failed, the court endorsing the police action.
The application to the High Court to quash Mansfield's preprinted bail notices was lost, the judges endorsing the magistrates' actions.
Already the general erosion of civil liberties which occurred during the miners' strike is being felt by the public. There are calls for longer prison sentences by those in power. Magistrates now feel much more ready to impose stringent bail conditions. The police have developed an aggressive mode of dealing with other strikers and dissenters. The Police and Criminal Evidence Act was passed by Parliament giving the police much wider powers to deal with the public. Plastic bullets and tear gas will be used in inner city disturbances and it will not be long before a coach load of CND supporters are prevented from travelling to a demonstration. Those who have fought for civil liberties over the past fifty years are aware of the adage – "give the police an inch and they will take a mile"
The role of the judiciary
There is no doubt that arrest and criminal charges where used as a weapon to contain or weaken the strike action. The total number of persons arrested was at least 11,312, of whom some 1,504 were released without any charge whatsoever.
Some other facts:
1) Of those charged less than 9% related to offences against the person and 11% for criminal damage. The vast majority, nearly 70%, had charges brought for obstruction or breach of the peace.
2) Of those sentenced 4.2% received a custodial sentence and the vast majority were fined: 53.6%: or bound over: 30%.
3) Of those charged and who appeared before the Courts, over half were either acquitted or bound over.
4) The use of bail conditions shows that two-thirds had imposed conditional bail upon them and clearly the intention was to restrict their ability to picket or otherwise participate in strike action.
5) Acquittal rates varied area by area and nearly 40% of cases in Nottinghamshire received acquittals, whilst only 20% in South Wales. The decision to make use of stipendary magistrates was to reduce the acquittal rate to under 30% whereas those acquitted who appeared before lay magistrates was some 36%.
Select Committee on Employment
The National Coal Board in evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee on Employment appearing before them on 22nd May 1985, confirmed that a total number of 995 men were sacked for activities arising out of the strike. That figure is substantially greater than that recorded by the NUM, and the NUM records reflect those sacked from private mines who are not employed by the NCB.
The report of the Select Committee indicated that the NCB had not followed the ACAS Code of Conduct in relation to those dismissals and had agreed that their procedures amounted to summary treatment'. It was recommended that the NCB institute a review of all cases at individual level consistent with the spirit and guidelines of the ACAS code.
Strike Related Offences
Only a small number of miners had been dismissed for offences against the person or damage to property. If the NCB criterion for re-employment as laid before the select committee had indeed been followed, it is contended that 90% would have been reinstated. Indeed, some 21 miners cleared by the courts were still not reinstated.
The vast majority of miners who were taken back onto colliery books were re-engaged and only a few reinstated. The NCB maintained that these matters rested with their area directors. However, the preceding table quite clearly shows the inconsistency of approach. Discussions finally commenced in Scotland in late October 1985 with 53 miners being either re-engaged or reinstated.
Victimisation for Trade Union Activities
Many of those sacked and not re-employed had been active branch officials and, it is contended, are clear victims of NCB attempts to stifle them, to remove them from the industry and thereby to reduce the effectiveness of the NUM as a trade union.