In Context: Miners’ Strike Pardons Bill
The Miners’ Strike (Pardons) (Scotland) Bill, which was introduced by the justice secretary at the end of October, seeks to pardon some of the miners who were convicted during a bitter year-long strike whose ultimate aim was to prevent colliery closures.
There are three specific offences included in the bill – breach of the peace, breach of bail conditions and obstructing police – and, in order to be pardoned, the miner must have been charged with these offences while taking part in a picket line, demonstration or similar gathering in support of the strike.
If the bill is successful those affected will be pardoned automatically, with no application process required.
Why was it introduced?
Over the course of the year-long strike around 1,400 miners were arrested and 500 were convicted, many of whom lost their jobs and were unable to secure new work as a result. The impact on mining communities was both devastating and long-lasting.
Despite the passage of time there has been residual bad feeling in these communities, particularly in relation to the police, with many miners and their families maintaining that they had been wrongly criminalised for their role in the industrial action.
In 2018 then justice secretary Michael Matheson commissioned human rights lawyer John Scott QC to carry out a review on behalf of the government, the aim being to investigate what actually happened during the strike and whether or not people had been wrongly prosecuted.
The government said the purpose of the review was to “provide an opportunity to those who were affected by the strike to share their experiences, as a means to aid understanding and reconciliation – and to help heal wounds”.
In addition to Scott, the review group was made up of former Police Scotland assistant chief constable Kate Thomson, University of Glasgow public law professor Jim Murdoch and former MP and MSP Dennis Canavan. When it reported in October 2020, the group made a single recommendation: that, subject to suitable criteria, “the Scottish Government should introduce legislation to pardon men convicted for matters related to the strike”.
The report’s authors did not recommend blanket pardons because, they said, “without greater scrutiny of individual cases, it is not possible on the basis of what we know to suggest that the context of the strike trumps all criminality, regardless of gravity”.
However, they said that for the many men with no previous or subsequent convictions who had never been in any other trouble, a pardon was the only way to make amends for overly draconian policing at the time and the stigma they suffered as a result.
“Today, leaving aside context, it is unlikely that the underlying behaviour in these cases would be the subject of prosecution at all,” the report said. “At most, some sort of diversion from prosecution might follow, perhaps a fiscal fine. Context is, of course, crucial but so is some consideration of the actual behaviour.”
What have people said about it?
Brown said the collective pardon would “restore dignity to those convicted, provide comfort to their families and, I hope, will bring closure to the sense of injustice members of mining communities may feel”.
Chris Kitchen, general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, welcomed the bill but suggested it did not go far enough to fully right the wrongs of the past.
“It’s a significant step in the right direction and recognition from the Scottish Government that the strike was political and there were miners who were victimised and the law used against them illegally. It’ll mean a lot to workers,” he said.
“At least it recognises the miners’ innocence and will offer some comfort for the families of those no longer with us.”
However, former miner Jim McMahon, who is the SNP councillor for Cumnock and New Cumnock, noted that a pardon does not ultimately quash a conviction, something he believes is necessary given the context of many of the arrests.
Speaking to the Cumnock Chronicle, McMahon said a lot of the convictions were “orchestrated” by police who “taunted and tormented” miners to get a reaction they would go on to arrest them for.
“Some serious offences we know of... I cannot condone them, not then or now,” he said. “There can’t be pardons for those types of offences in my view but for the less serious ones, I think they should have been quashed across the board.”