An Interview with David Douglass

David Douglass is Hatfield Branch Delegate for the National Union of Mineworkers

Jeremy Deller: What was Orgeave’s strategic role in the context of the strike of 1984-85?

David Douglass: Prior to the development of the breaking of the strike and what happened at the coke and coal-producing plant at Orgreave, the National Union of Mineworkers had an arrangement with the steel works at Scunthorpe. We allowed them to have sufficient coke, just enough to keep the boilers ticking over. We had been told that the linings of these boilers would crack if they got cold, and they’d close down the steel plant permanently. Obviously we wanted them to keep using coke, and keep producing steel.

Around this same time we had put blockades on the import of fuel into Britain. So the dock-workers were refusing to unload or supervise the unloading of coal, coke or anything that was going to be used in process-plants that we were picketing. And of course, we stopped iron ore being brought into the Scunthorpe plant by picketing the railway. No train carrying coal, coke or iron ore would pass, so we’d effectively sealed it off.

Arthur Scargill never agreed with the arrangement to send sufficient coke for the boilers to keep ticking over. He thought we should give no exemptions. We thought it was better though: as long as we were stopping production it didn’t really matter if we were doing it through the front door, so to speak. He told us we were being kidded, that they were using far more coke than we were sending them and that they were actually producing steel. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that were, British Steel then decided to start running coal from Orgreave without any sanction from us, as much as they wanted, to overcome the blockade at the port.

When that happened, Orgreave became another picket target. I would estimate that in Yorkshire, which produced most of the pickets, we had about six thousand pickets, half of which came from Doncaster. So we had about six thousand pickets to picket all of the working coal mines, or the potentially working coal mines, in Nottingham and in Leicester and in the Midlands. That’s not to say that there was nobody on strike in those coalfields, quite a large number of people were on strike, but in Nottingham pits in particular about fifty per cent of them wanted to work.

So we’d initially been picketing pits elsewhere, and we were also picketing the steel-works and any ancillary places like that. So there was a large number of places to go to. The cops outnumbered us by far, but the trouble for them was they didn’t know where we were going until we turned up. So it was a cat and mouse game. We would turn up at one pit in Nottingham or all the pits in Nottingham; we’d send a mass-picket or we’d send a small picket and they never knew how to respond, so they had to keep moving about. That was the strategy we were pursuing in Yorkshire. Scargill again didn’t agree with that strategy, he thought Orgreave should be made a central picketing point and that was the place we should concentrate the efforts on.

From one point of view it was right because Orgreave was a running sore. We had Yorkshire miners picketing down in North Wales or down in Nottingham, while in the heart of the South Yorkshire coalfield a scab operation was running. So it was a target that rankled with people and we had a job stopping people going there spontaneously anyway and we tried to maintain some discipline to keep the whole picket operation going. There was the disagreement between him and us about keeping a flexible strategy, going to Orgreave one day but not the next day and his wanting to go there every day. Then Arthur announced publicly – it was even broadcast on television – that he wanted all the pickets to go to Orgreave. Once he’d made that call pickets went there. They just went to Orgreave, Orgreave became the battleground. Once the battle started and people started to get injured and the bloke next door came in with his head split open, of course we got drawn into Orgreave deeper and deeper every day we went there.

The day after Orgreave started in earnest the Nottingham coalfield went on to two shift production. It had only managed to do a day shift because it could never get enough workers through the picket line to do the second shift, but the coal started to come out. It was a second front and it opened up. The crucial target wasn’t Orgreave, it was Nottingham. We needed to keep going to Orgreave for political reasons, propaganda reasons, but strategically it was Nottingham that we needed to stop. People in other industries were saying ‘well if you can’t get the miners on strike why try to get us on strike’. It became an excuse, they knew damn well it wasn’t just about miners, it never was just about miners or about pits even, but it was an excuse.

There was something funny about the whole operation. Whereas in Nottingham they put up road-blocks, at Orgreave they had signs telling you where to go – ‘this way to Orgreave’; they had arrows pointing you to where you should go. All you needed was an official starter with a flag and a whistle to set us off and we could batter each other for three hours, go for dinner, have a pint, come back and do it again in the second half! In strategic terms it was like the scene from The Charge of the Light Brigade, with the cavalry in this field, the horses down that side, rows and rows and rows of the people with the long riot shield, the snatch-squads placed behind them and the whole thing set out. We turned up with pit wit to try and fight them in the way we’d fought them in 1972 and 1974, but the odds were very, very strongly against us.

When it came to the last big crunch, it was an attempt by Arthur Scargill and the N.U.M. leadership to bring some strategy to Orgreave. There was a plan to attack from three places at the same time. The intention was to seize control of the place where the trucks were being loaded, so they couldn’t get in, and if they did manage to get in they couldn’t load. Orgreave was in the heart of steel-producing Sheffield with foundries, factories and engineering works. If we could work on people’s conscience maybe like at Saltley, the workers would put their tools down and march to that field in Orgreave and flood the site with workers and close the plant down. That was the strategy. There was the hope that all of the left, who never tired of talking of revolution, could actually put their papers down and come and do something constructive and fight in that field alongside us. So the idea was that we could get everybody there together and we could make this into a mass battle.

JD: Why exactly was Saltley so important?

DD: Saltley Gate had gone down in trade union history as one of the key moments of the 1972 strike. That strike had a different temper. We were still in the hey-day of what was affecting a whole generation of working class people as well as students. There was a certain revolutionism in the air, and in most British workers a militant trade unionism was still alive. During the strike in 1972 we pretty well closed down most of Britain with our picketing.

Saltley Gate was a coal and coke depot. We allowed some lorries to get through picket lines, if they had an exemption from the N.U.M., to supply hospitals, schools and places like that. But there were also unregulated lorries that were coming in, just taking scab fuel basically and running through the picket line. Arthur Scargill got his reputation by taking down a large group of miners and carrying out militant picketing operations at Saltley. As the battle grew more intense and more violent, the workers in Birmingham, factory workers, car workers, steel workers, put down their tools and literally marched with banners flying to Saltley Gate. They absolutely crowded the place with their numbers, and the police made the decision to put the chain on the gate, locked the padlock and closed that gate down. When that was done the strike was won. The strike was won because we could do that anywhere and really that was it.

If he could do that again in 1984 at Orgreave, it could become another crucial victory, not only for Scargill, but for the N.U.M. The 1984 miners’ strike was a crossroads in history, when a whole generation could have gone a different way had the outcome been different. Orgreave would help determine which way the strike was going to go. That’s why the battle became so bitter – we were fighting for more than just that field and more than just those few lorries. It was an attempt to create a catalyst, and it was necessary to try and prick the consciousness of the British working classes. They had kept their heads below the parapet with few notable exceptions. We weren’t getting the support and Orgreave was going to be a test. You knew what was happening every day and we could let the rank and file people do the work themselves. If the leadership of these unions wouldn’t fetch people out, they’d come out themselves and we’d throw the ball determinedly in their court.

JD: So it was a rallying cry almost?

DD: Absolutely.

JD: What was your role on the day?

DD: I had previously been deploying the pickets to all picket targets. On that day, the 18th of June 1984, I was actually given charge over about a third of the entire picket force. Our intention was to invade the plant, and occupy the loading bay. There were two sections of my lot, one was Doncaster which I represented directly and South Yorkshire which had been linked up to us. Unfortunately the people in South Yorkshire like to do things early. No matter how early you plan things, some of them wanted things to happen even earlier, so they’d set off before we even got there. Half of them had already got there and they were like milling around when we arrived. The rest of us, we got there and we got in, and because we outnumbered the police, they backed off once they’d seen how determined we were. We could see the loading bay, and the lorry-drivers had seen us coming and knew the game was up. We had part of the plant in our hands when the cops came back, tooled up with the riot sticks and all the rest of it and we were prepared to fight it out. We all grabbed a railing a piece and a pick shaft a piece and were ready for the fight.

Unfortunately, there was only about eighty of us left, the rest had gone back to the gate. Miners aren’t soldiers, they won’t always do what they’re told and they behave quite spontaneously according to how they feel. So when we went back to try and get them to come in and do the bit we had to do, they didn’t want to do it. Instead they all went round to the bottom gate and flung themselves into the riot shields at the bottom and got stuck into the most heroic and bloody pitched battle down at the bottom gate. There they fought a lot harder than they would have had to do where we wanted them to stay. For some reason they didn’t like being in that pack at the back, they felt easier and better out in the front fighting it out in the open on their own. It did tend to become more like guerrilla-style fighting. Mass-picketing never happened again after Orgreave.

It was a guerrilla sort of thing because we were picketing targets here, there and everywhere. We had to, we had to strike when we were strong and they were weak and retreat when they were strong and we were weak. They issued tear gas at Orgreave on the last day but they didn’t use it. I’m told because the wind was blowing back in their direction. But you don’t have to be a very far-sighted thinker to know that if they’d started firing tear gas at us and maybe rubber bullets that the whole thing would have gone up another notch. It’s easy to speculate now, but I’m pretty certain that we wouldn’t have just thrown bricks if they’d started firing tear gas or rubber bullets at us.

What we needed was decisive industrial action in support of the miners. If you read [British Steel chairman] Ian MacGregor’s book, he says that on two occasions Thatcher told him to give in and to surrender. If the dockers at Scunthorpe had held out for another day, she would have been ready to cave in. Unfortunately the dockers at Scunthorpe started to allow scab workers to unload scab fuel and run lorries from the picket line because they couldn’t get it on the railways. And of course we all know what happened – the dockers went down after we went down, after the printers went down because they didn’t hold that picket line. In terms of crossroads, had they held that picket line and we’d won, think of the things that wouldn’t have happened, the wars that we wouldn’t have been involved in, the attacks on benefits that wouldn’t have happened. The whole change in social policy about benefits and privatisation, the whole things that could have happened that didn’t happen.

JD: What’s happened to you since the strike?

DD: The end of the strike wasn’t the end of the Union. From about 1985 to about 1988-89, the powers that be still wanted a large coal industry, but it had to be a privatised coal industry, and they tried various ways to break the Union. They weren’t able to do that by just outright management bully-boy tactics or by bribery, or through bringing in new incentive schemes that could make people lots and lots of money. People could earn good money, but the men stuck with the Union. Wild-cat strikes still stopped coalfields. I was taken to High Court, under the new legislation of illegally stopping the mines and costing them all this production. There were lots of wild-cat strikes and I think somebody somewhere thought they would never make a leopard change its spots and they’d never separate the coal industry from the Miners’ Union. They went for the rush for gas, they started cranking up the nuclear power industry again, even though it was a hundred and thirty per cent more expensive than the dearest coal fuel. You got the generators separated from the suppliers, they broke up the network, so they could buy on the spot market whatever cheap coal was flooding the world. Colombia was supplying coal for nowt, with seventy-five per cent subsidy from the Colombian government. All of these factors were used to allow the British coal industry to be decimated.

But it was never about economics. It was never about an uneconomic coal industry. We had the most modern coal industry in the world. We had coal faces with five people on them pressing buttons and operating coal cutting machinery. Still dirty and black and dangerous, but they weren’t old-fashioned coal units with a pick and shovel, this was the most modern industry in the world. The absolute irony of it is all of that equipment was just left and abandoned and buried.

JD: How much do you think in terms of strategy that the media were relevant in what they were doing at Orgreave?

DD: There were some classic situations where we know the media were used against us. We had scenes cut and reversed, where the police charged with battens, the people responded throwing clumps of earth. They opened the television news with the miners throwing bricks followed by the shots charges as if they were acting in response: they literally cut it and turned it round. We didn’t trust the media, we didn’t like them on our side. So they were only ever filming from the other side. We’ve got the ITN news report from that night and it is as though it’s been written by a policeman. The police always braved the picket lines, we never braved the police lines.

JD: Were you hurt on the 18th of June?

DD: Because I was one of the leaders, people would grab me and bring me to the front – “Hey man, come on, you organised this, come on!” I’d get to the front and they could see me with a walkie-talkie and the cops would hone in on me and within like two minutes they’d batter me, grab me and pull me and the men would think I’d given myself up. If you stood at the back they’d say “Stop skulking away down there”. So I was always at the front row with these blokes that were six foot tall and five foot broad and weighed about nineteen bloody stone and I was wedged in the middle. I had ribs done, things like that, they were going for your shins as well, stamping on your shins. And you’d just get into the front line and there’d be bricks falling on you from your own side.

JD: Do you think there were outsiders that were not pickets?

DD: There were provocateurs, we know that, we’ve got them on tape. We’ve seen them getting changed into their donkey jackets, covering their eyes. And they turned up and suggested things to people like, you know, like “Are you going to throw that brick?” We had them targeting us for the horses on their walkie-talkies. One of the guys from round here used to wear grey tracksuit bottoms and was a militant picket. I heard this guy say into his walkie-talkie “Grey bottoms, grey bottoms” and when the cavalry came riding through were shouting “Grey bottoms!” picking their targets they were all going to mow down. So they definitely had spotters and people like that in.

So there was all that against you plus the media, plus the kind of the numbers that you faced. It wasn’t all the king’s horses and all the king’s men that did us, it was the workers with the boilers switched on that were still at work. Who couldn’t see further than their own nose that their place would be closed next. All it needed was for the bloody workers at Orgreave to walk out of the plant. Game shot. Fifty thousand cops couldn’t have kept it open if the workers had come out of the plant. That was the key.

JD: When I met you for the first time you talked about how this area has changed.

DD: All of it has changed and run down, it’s riddled with poverty, most people on benefits, or trying to work on the black market, anti-social crime, heroin addiction, anti-social violence. Which we could have predicted: if you take the pit out of the pit community what is it there for? All of the things that people considered to be meaningful in their lives, their history that they’d literally heard from grandfathers, their parents, dads, grandfathers and great grandfathers all working in the pits, they lost that. They emigrated to other coalfields to work in the pits and indeed went abroad to populate coalfields in other parts of the world. I mean, we are part of a mining race of people. So when you take the pit out you are left with nowt really. That’s even supposing they’ve tried to bring some kind of industry back into these places. All these coalfield regeneration schemes and European coal steel funding and Lottery money and all that – where is it? The only growth industry is lots of people walking around with clipboards ticking boxes, but they’re not local people.

The mines are supposed to be dead and gone and the coal communities buried, but they refuse to die, refuse to become something else that somebody’s trying to make them. They have these traditions. There’s still miners’ galas where people turn up with bands and banners and their families and listen to speeches and talk about the things they’ve always talked about.


Images: Production stills from Jeremy Deller's The Battle of Orgreave, 2001. Photographs: Martin Jenkinson