Opinion Articles

Too long ago? Orgreave and the challenge of understanding the past

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Home Secretary Amber Rudd has declared that the clashes between striking miners and police at Orgreave in 1984 happened ‘too long ago’ for a government inquiry to be useful. Orgreave has become iconic of the divisions and tensions of the 1984-5 miner’s strike.  Yet Rudd implied that its scale was insufficiently grave to merit further investigation.  Her statement to Parliament rejecting an inquiry noted the lack of acute catalysts such as deaths or wrongful convictions.  This ducking of the chance to investigate seems premised on the idea that a public inquiry can only be held if it works to the same level of proof as a criminal court. The questions that lawyers might ask – was there unlawful killing? Is there an unsafe conviction? - have set an insurmountable bar for how politicians approach the past. The Home Secretary may be nervous that investigation of Orgreave will lead to an inquiry along the lines of that conducted by Lord Saville into the policing in January 1972 of the ‘Bloody Sunday’ events in Northern Ireland. It took Saville 12 years, and cost in the region of £400 million, mostly spent on lawyers’ fees.

In a similar way, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse has been dogged by criticism from its legal team that its scope is impossibly broad and it cannot be brought to a satisfactory conclusion. Repeated resignations of lawyers involved in the Inquiry have chipped away at public confidence. This again suggests that a particular mode of approaching the past – putting it on trial – has become the dominant and often disabling mode when trying to understand traumatic events of the past. Amber Rudd would be well advised to think about the modes of understanding that can come from different perspectives.

While some Orgreave campaigners may hope that charges can still be brought, most are motivated by the desire to have respect shown to their experiences by being given a hearing. Most would hope that, even at the distance of 32 years, policing lessons could be learned.  And this does not seem an unrealistic hope. The whole project of historical enquiry is premised on the idea that the past can be understood, even if considerable time has passed. A distance of  32 years places Orgreave in the most recent period that historians work with – to historians’ eyes, this is an event that happened only yesterday.  Ample records and sources are available, whether in oral history testimonies, the media of the time, or in the official documents of police, civil servants and the National Union of Mineworkers. To say that this happened too long ago indicates a dangerously narrow sense of historical time.

History helps us understand the past better. This does not mean a whitewash – understanding different sexual cultures or policing cultures does not mean that sexual assault or police violence is condoned. Historians are able to generalise, to ask critical questions, and to understand the past on its own terms. The work of historians centres on providing context, and understanding causality. It is informed by evidence, and has established analytic approaches to historical sources that excel in teasing out the complex ways in which stories, texts or images come into being, and the work that they do. History offers a sense of change over time rather than the static snapshot that can come from a courtroom approach. It offers understanding rather than proof – and this may be just what is needed to acknowledge and diffuse the mistrust and anger that has built up over Orgreave.

There are examples of inquiries that have successfully shed light on difficult incidents, and brought some closure to those who have suffered trauma. The recent inquiries into the sexual assaults perpetrated by Jimmy Savile on BBC and NHS premises, conducted by Dame Janet Smith and Kate Lampard QC are good examples of how lessons can be learned, even where no conviction is possible and central protagonists are dead. The unaddressed past will fester; history can give us ways of redressing and moving on.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.



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