Margaret Thatcher dead:
Authoritarian ruler took us to the
brink of becoming a police state
Former Deputy Chief Constable of Greater Manchester says she turned the police into a paramilitary force and put us on to a war footing
Confrontation: Police greet pickets as they arrive on the hill heading to the Orgreave plant
Britain has never been closer to becoming a police state than when Margaret Thatcher was in charge.
As Deputy Chief Constable of Greater Manchester I saw at first hand how her authoritarian policies could have permanently shattered the bond of trust between the police and the people.
She turned the police into a paramilitary force and put us on to a war footing.
I met her several times during my time as a senior police officer.
She took an uncommon interest in law and order, and always acted as if she was the Home Secretary as well as the PM.
That was never more clear than during the miner’s strike in 1984 when I believe Margaret Thatcher took Britain to the brink of becoming a police state.
She decided that “her” police force was going to keep the miners and pickets under control. It was all about showing who was boss.
In 1974 changes in policing had seen the formation of huge new forces, such as Greater Manchester, West Midlands and Strathclyde.
A decade later, the Thatcher government decided to bring them together in a “mutual aid system” to deal with the miners – a nationally mobilised police force working under a central command at Scotland Yard.
And it had one of the biggest impacts on the independence of policing because it put chief constables secondary to government wishes.
We got streams of instructions from the Home Office on how the strike should be handled, cleverly covered with legal fig leaves saying things such as, “of course the Chief Constable has complete control over operational matters, but this is our advice”.
They left me staggered.
Defiant: Striking miner walking past massed ranks of police at Orgreave in 1984
One official guideline said it was “perfectly in order” for miners in Kent to be prevented from travelling to Yorkshire if they were likely to cause disorder – a 300-mile exclusion zone.
It was a form of house arrest and it happened in many places with pickets turned back at county borders.
No chief constable would have taken such measures on his own. The courts would rightly have called it nonsense.
This was a militaristic operation wrapped up in jargon to make it look like policing.
It was even based on national emergency legislation designed for wartime situations.
But to Margaret Thatcher the miners’ strike was a war.
Some chief constables began to see themselves as generals and military strategists.
I’d even heard rumours that soldiers were being dressed up in police uniforms to boost numbers.
An assistant chief constable travelled with Manchester officers wherever they were deployed, so I took him aside and asked: “Are there fifth columnists in there?”
He had no knowledge of it happening and I had to believe him.
But I don’t know for sure that it wasn’t happening in other places – that it isn’t just a myth.
I don’t want to give the impression that the police became a repressive, aggressive force intent on crushing the pickets.
There were excesses on both sides.
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There was some vicious behaviour by police officers – many of whom were responding to violent attacks on them.
I know many officers who never worked again because of the injuries they received.
Our relationship with the public had been set back a long way – and in some parts of the country, such as South Yorkshire, it still hasn’t recovered.
As police we lost a great deal. We became people to be feared, not respected.
There were stories of officers boasting about their overtime money, and sticking notes on pickets’ buses saying: “Thanks, you’ve paid for my two weeks in Majorca.”
The miners’ strike took us beyond what a police force should be.
If it had continued much longer we would have been permanently landed with a nationally-controlled police force.
We could have found ourselves living in a police state.
I could have quit the job I loved because I knew this wasn’t the right way of doing things.
But after the strike I wanted to help build back trust in the police so that young officers didn’t think this was how it should be.
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