Leon Neal via Getty Images
For a time, I truly thought we were on the cusp of real change.
When the historic Hillsborough verdict came, I felt certain it would have major reverberations in Whitehall and lead to changes in the law. It would also lead, surely, to the opening up of the most symbolically divisive event in recent British social history: Orgreave.
Those feelings only grew stronger with Theresa May’s visit to the Police Federation Conference in late May. The reckoning with our country’s troubled past would have to continue, she said. “We must never under-estimate how the poison of decades-old misdeeds seeps down through the years and is just as toxic today as it was then. That’s why difficult truths, however unpalatable they may be, must be confronted head on.”
Less than two months later, Theresa May was walking into Downing Street pledging to fight “burning injustice”. From my knowledge of working with her, I thought we were about to see a Prime Minister who would do more than any other to shake up the Establishment.
How wrong I was.
Far from being held to account, an unruffled Establishment is now comfortably closing ranks. And the Prime Minister whose willingness to challenge injustice did so much to propel her towards No10 is now firmly placing the lid on the past and closing the door on the campaigners she once courted.
Since the Hillsborough verdict, there have been a string of negative developments that provide clear evidence of the Government’s determination to keep it as the exception to the norm rather than a powerful engine for social change.
It began with the rejection of the idea of equal funding for bereaved families at inquests – the so-called Hillsborough Law. Then came the denial of funding to the families of those who lost loved-ones in the Birmingham pub bombings. But the surest signs came last week: the flat rejection of an inquiry into Orgreave and, the next day, a heavy hint that the second stage of the Leveson Inquiry – into the police-press relationship – would not be proceeding.
So the big question is – what changed in Theresa’s May mind between her speech to the Police Federation and the dropping of these bombshells?
It is clear to me is that there has been a big change in the person I shadowed as Home Secretary and the one I now observe as Prime Minister. The person who right up to the point of entering No10 was making powerful speeches about healing divides in society, and holding elites to account, has done the exact opposite once inside.
The only plausible explanation I can find for the startling turn-around in Theresa May is in the promises she must have made to win power. As she entered the final stage of the leadership contest against Andrea Leadsom, she would have been desperate for the support of prominent Brexit-backing Tory MPs. To get that, she promised to lead a ‘Hard Brexit’ Government. So deals were done – and at that moment Theresa May made herself the prisoner of the Tory Right.
Alongside Brexit, an inquiry into Orgreave is of course a lower order issue. But I always believed that Theresa May’s handling of it would be very revealing of her political direction as Prime Minister. It would determine whether she would return to her style as Home Secretary or whether she was indeed in the grip of the Tory Right who would not like the idea of any inquiry into the Thatcher era.
We got our answer in the House last week. The Hard Right of the Tory Party turned out in force to brand the miners “thugs” and to defend the threadbare and flawed case advanced by the Home Secretary.
If Amber Rudd’s “nobody died” justification had been applied before, there would have been no Leveson Inquiry into phone hacking. It sets an alarmingly high bar for the future and potentially allows for all manner of abuses in public bodies.
But Rudd hadn’t finished with her sweeping and unfounded assertions. “There were no miscarriages of justice,” she claimed. True, there were no wrongful convictions. But we are all in trouble if our new Home Secretary considers spending months in prison on remand on the back of fabricated police evidence not to be a miscarriage of justice.
Almost as pathetic as the Home Secretary’s argument was the extent to which the right-wing commentariat attempted to lend it a veneer of credibility. Simon Jenkins was the worst culprit, with a stunningly glib and ignorant column in the Guardian.
“We know what happened at Orgreave”, he pronounced. Not we don’t. The operational order for the day has never surfaced and, until it does, we will not have clarity about police tactics.
Inquiries should be restricted to “political scandal”, Jenkins opined, clearly implying that he thought Orgreave was no such thing. I can only assume that he is unaware of the secret Cabinet paper published in 2014 under the 30-year rule which record then Home Secretary Leon Brittan piling pressure on the police to “expedite trials” of miners.
Perhaps his most offensively inaccurate point was that I and others had “equated” it with Hillsborough. I have never said any such thing. The point I have consistently made is that the two are inextricably linked. Until we have the full truth about Orgreave, we won’t have the full truth about Hillsborough. That’s because the tactics the South Yorkshire Police used against the miners, most notably the interference in police statements, would later be used to much more devastating effect against the Liverpool supporters. If SYP had been properly held to account in 1985 for the collapsed Orgreave trial, then I am absolutely certain that the course of Hillsborough would have been very different. Indeed, the cover-up may never have happened.
These issues are of massive significance to many millions of people in the North of England. But, as of yet, we only have half the story. If things stay like this, the sense of injustice over Orgreave will only grow.
Simons Jenkins was right, though, on one thing: Select Committee inquiries can often be effective in unlocking the truth but can do so more quickly and cheaply than other inquiries. I agree with that.
I have never insisted that a judge-led inquiry is the only acceptable way to establish the truth about Orgreave. I would have preferred a Hillsborough-style disclosure panel but I do not rule out the potential of a Select Committee inquiry to help take things forward.
The one glimmer of light in an otherwise grim exchange in the Commons on Monday was Sir Edward Leigh’s suggestion of a select committee inquiry on Orgreave and Amber Rudd’s reply that it was an “interesting” idea.
I have now written a cross-Party letter to the Home Secretary urging her to cooperate fully with this proposal if a Select Committee of the House decides to take it forward. It seems to me that this is now the best compromise around which all parties can now unite.
What is clear to me is that something has to give. Things cannot be left like this. If they are, we will never have the full truth about Hillsborough, former miners will die without any sense of resolution and the poison of decades-old misdeeds will carry on dripping down the years.
Andy Burnham is the Labour MP for Leigh, and Labour’s candidate to be Mayor of Greater Manchester
YOU MAY LIKE