The unhidden truth about Hillsborough
The political reasons why 96 Liverpool fans died in the football disaster of 1989 have always been clear enough to those who want to see.
As the UK Lib-Con coalition government confirms that all official papers relating to the Hillsborough tragedy of 1989 are to be released, there is excited talk about ‘finally learning the truth’ of what happened when 95 Liverpool fans died in a crush at that football ground, and of ending what the Labour spokesman calls the ‘Establishment cover-up’ of who was to blame.
Maybe I have missed something, but surely the truth about Hillsborough has been evident to those who want to see for the past 22 years. Moreover, the current narrow focus on the details of exactly who said and did what in Sheffield on 15 April 1989 risks missing the most important factor of all: the wider political context of the state’s war against football supporters in the 1980s.
No doubt it is understandable that the bereaved families of the 96 victims (the last of whom had his life support machine switched off a couple of years later) should want every shred of evidence about how and why their loved ones died. For the rest of us, however, this should be more than a question of setting the historical record straight or naming, blaming and shaming a few guilty coppers.
Getting to grips with the powerful culture at the top of society that paved the road to Hillsborough remains a live political question today. Not least because, despite the rather bizarre round of applause from MPs when the names of the Hillsborough victims were read out in the House of Commons this week, the political and media class is still pursuing a more insidious campaign against the working-class ‘mob’ in general and unruly football fans in particular.
The central truth about Hillsborough was becoming clear enough even as some of us watched it unfold live on television on that Saturday afternoon, when Liverpool were playing Nottingham Forest in an FA Cup semi-final. The fatal crush was a result of the authorities treating football supporters not as members of the public, but as a public-order problem to be caged and controlled. That so many died was the result of the police force responding to the terrible events that were unfolding not as a rescue operation, but as a potential riot.
Neither of these can be put down simply to technical problems or individual blunders on the day. They were consequences of a culture that was institutionalised in UK politics, policing and the media, from Margaret Thatcher’s government downwards.
The day after Hillsborough happened, an angry twenty-something football fan and propagandist/journalist called Mick Hume wrote a front page article for the next step, weekly newspaper of the Revolutionary Communist Party. Under the headline ‘Why 95 died: CAGED BY POLICE ON TORY ORDERS’, it began ‘The government, police and the football authorities have treated fans like animals for years. They are responsible for turning the terraces at Hillsborough into a slaughterhouse.’ It then continued across the back page in similarly intemperate but accurate style.
That first article ran through the important facts about Hillsborough that were already known within 24 hours of the deaths: that a combination of police tactics and the security cages built on police advice had caused the crush; that the police had first tried to push escaping fans back into the deadly pens, then lined up across the pitch in battle formation, presumably to prevent dying Liverpool supporters charging the Forest end, while desperate fans tore up advertising hoardings to use as stretchers; the contrast between the tons of riot gear around the stadium and the lack of medical equipment, exacerbated when only one arriving ambulance was allowed through the cordon of police hooli-vans to treat the injured and dying. A fuller account of these events is in the article I wrote for the 20th anniversary of Hillsborough in 2009 (see HILLSBOROUGH: only half-remembered).
When some of these extraordinary facts have been ‘revealed’ again this past week, 22 years later, seemingly bewildered politicians and media commentators have asked ‘Why?’, and expressed the hope that the release of the official papers in a few months time might finally answer the question. But anybody aware of the political context in which Hillsborough happened could have given them the main answer back then.
Hillsborough came at the end of a decade in which the Tory government and the state machine had been in a state of war against the British working classes. The authorities had campaigned to defeat and subdue both the organised sections of the working class, the trade unions, most notably in the 1984-85 miners’ strike, and the disorganised sections, the young football crowds, historically often seen as the most unruly and violent wing of the proletarian ‘mob’.
Branded as hooligans and enemies of civilisation, football fans became the lab rats on whom police tried out a raft of control measures, from CCTV and snatch squads to hooli-vans and cavalry charges. Away supporters were treated with particular suspicion, marched to and from railway stations by troops of police almost as if they were prisoners of war, and penned into metal cages inside the ground.
After the Heysel disaster at the 1985 European cup final, when 39 Italian fans were killed after a charge by Liverpool supporters caused a dodgy wall to collapse, the Thatcher government stepped up its crusade to tame the terraces. Many years before New Labour had the idea, the Tories even announced plans to bring in ID cards – not for everybody, but only for those wishing to attend football matches. As one angry doctor present at Hillsborough said, the only difference ID cards could have made that day was to make it easier to identify the young corpses.
Alongside these measures of control went a propaganda war to demonise football fans and rally respectable society against the alleged scum of the English cities. This week, attention and demands for apologies have focused once again on the Sun’s infamous ‘The Truth’ front page after Hillsborough, which falsely claimed Liverpool fans had robbed the dead and urinated on or attacked policemen who were only trying to save lives. That paper has been singled out, but many others had long been singing from the same appalling hymn sheet where football fans were concerned. The Sun’s mistake was to try to repeat after Hillsborough the sort of crap that might have been widely considered as the truth until shortly beforehand.
It is worth reminding ourselves of how respectable and mainstream the vilification of football fans had become by the 1980s. After Hillsborough, the highbrow Sunday Times piously decried the ‘tragedy’ and reminded its readers of the 1985 editorial in which it had described football as a ‘slum sport played in slum stadiums’. Strangely it missed out the last part of its original sentence ’…watched by slum people’. In the run-up to Hillsborough one Tory lord demanded football ID cards to deal with ‘the yob class’ of teenagers who went to matches – that is, people like those who died that day – while another Lord and Admiral said football should not be the national game as it was ‘a slum game played by louts in front of hooligans’. Nor were the prejudices about football supporters confined to crusty Tories and military men. I shall always remember how, a week before the disaster, I saw a top ‘alternative’ comic crack a gag about how she did not want English football fans allowed back into Europe , she wanted them all to stay here ‘and kill each other’. Just a joke, of course, not a serious suggestion; even the Tories did not actively want fans to die. But all signs nonetheless of the spirit of the age across large sections of middle-class society.
Looking back at the policing of and attitude to football crowds, the question might not be so much why did it happen that day, but more why didn’t it happen at countless other matches where there were similar situations. Every big away game I went to in the 1980s, being hurled around and fighting to stand upright in those packed steel cages, now looks like it might have been a Hillsborough waiting to happen.
MPs and other prominent supporters of the Hillsborough campaign have talked this week about how they hope releasing the papers will finally convince public opinion that the Sun and the police were lying. It seems they believe (again) that the Murdoch press has duped the gullible public for the past 20 years. In fact, people’s differing responses to Hillsborough were about them taking sides, not just about the press twisting facts. It divided the nation along Eighties lines. Some would have been inclined to side with the government and the police and blame the rabble, regardless of what lies the coppers fed the press. Others instinctively sided with the young working-class football fans in those cages – even such a lifelong Manchester United nut as me felt nothing but solidarity with the Scousers. Indeed as I pointed out at the time, if the Liverpool crowd’s reactions had gone way beyond the Sun’s claims and they had rioted against the police, some of us would not have blamed them.
Those divisions, like other conflicts of the 1980s, are now seen as belonging to the past. Instead, parliament this week sought to portray an image of Britain united over Hillsborough in a very belated display of national mourning, righteousness and grief-lite, symbolised by MPs standing to applaud rather than in silence, in the style of many football commemorations these days. While the official papers are being released first to a pious committee headed by the Bishop of Liverpool, the Labour sports spokesman Andy Burnham talks of moving on to a new era of ‘truth and reconciliation’, presumably like the post-Apartheid peace process of the same name, perhaps with the Bishop presiding in the role of Archbishop Tutu.
Call me a bitter old Red (in every respect), but I would rather we remembered and reinvented the spirit of opposition to the authorities that was evident in the angry responses to Hillsborough. Behind the applause for the victims, the authorities still have as much contempt for the masses as ever, albeit expressed in more twenty-first century style in discussions of everything from their unhealthy lifestyles to unhealthy reading habits. And football fans are still being used as guinea pigs in more insidious experiments in control, most recently in the crusade against ‘offensive’ chants and songs now moving southwards from Scotland. The message is that freedom of expression is important for Chinese dissident artists and the like, but not for fat, white, British football fans whose obnoxious ditties have no higher merit.
Many of the new measures to police fans of course had their origins in the aftermath of Hillsborough. Lord Taylor’s report into the disaster dismissed the allegations that fans were to blame on the day, but effectively endorsed the wider ‘crowds = problem’ sentiment by imposing all-seater stadiums. These have since made watching the game safer, more comfortable – and sanitised beyond recognition. As Duleep Allirajah wrote on spiked around the twentieth anniversary, back then fans were treated like beasts and caged, now we are treated like little children and told to sit down and shut up (see The policing of fans is more insidious now
by Duleep Allirajah). Any complaints about the lack of atmosphere in the no standing/swearing/singing/smoking stadiums are likely to prompt a reminder of Hillsborough and a warning that there can be no going back to the bad old days.
Indeed there is no going back, and thanks be for that. Nor is there any need to invent fresh conspiracy theories or demand more inquiries in order to know what happened. But that is no reason for forgetting the truth that was evident 22 years ago and should still be in the changed world of today: that the authorities play on a different team from us.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.