HILLSBOROUGH: only half-remembered

The deaths of 96 Liverpool fans were not only a tragic accident; they were also the unintended consequence of a deliberate policy.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

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It was 20 years ago today that a crush at Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield before an FA Cup semi-final left 96 Liverpool supporters dead. The images of that day remain haunting for those of us who only watched it unfold live on television, never mind for those who were trapped inside that suffocating cage at the Leppings Lane end.

Yet the history of Hillsborough has been somewhat rewritten, so that it is only half-remembered in the media. To judge by much of the anniversary coverage, you might think that those who died were victims of just another natural disaster or accident, killed by an earthquake or some other unavoidable calamity that somehow occurred in south Yorkshire. It seems that few want to apportion responsibility for the terrible events of April 1989, events that are described in almost neutral-sounding language as the Hillsborough Disaster or the Hillsborough Tragedy.

If anything is blamed for Hillsborough, it tends to be the ‘sheer incompetence’ of the police who failed to prevent the fatal crush, or the rickety state of the outdated football stadium. This follows the line of Lord Taylor’s official report into Hillsborough. These criticisms are often followed by self-congratulation at how much crowd safety and control have improved in our post-Taylor Report age of all-seater stadiums and CCTV.

This rewriting of history removes Hillsborough from the political context that contributed to those deaths – and in so doing, it largely lets the authorities off the hook. There was certainly official incompetence in evidence, and Sheffield Wednesday’s ground was indeed, like most football stadiums of the time, an unsafe dump. But there was something else more dangerous at work there.

Hillsborough can be better understood as the grim culmination of a crusade against football fans led by Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government and prosecuted by the police and media. Looking back at what I wrote at the time in the next step, newspaper of the Revolutionary Communist Party, I note that an angry twentysomething journalist/propagandist called Hume told a London protest meeting that week: ‘The government has branded young football fans as hooligans, an enemy within that must be contained and cut out like a cancer. So when the police herded Liverpool fans into that suffocating pen, they were carrying out Tory orders.’ Of course nobody wanted 96 fans to die. But their deaths, while an accident, were also the logical outcome of a deliberate policy of treating football crowds as animals to be caged and corralled.

There is a long history of conflict between the British state and working-class football crowds, viewed in many quarters as the unruliest wing of the great unwashed. In the 1980s, while pursuing its political war against the organised working class of the labour movement, the Tory government also sought to criminalise and control the disorganised ‘mob’ of football supporters. They launched a national crusade against the evils of football hooliganism, treating the sporadic outbreak of trouble at matches as if it were a mortal threat to the fabric of civilised society.

It is worth reminding ourselves of the atmosphere in which that fateful match at Hillsborough took place. Just the month before, Tory Lord Onslow boasted that the government was determined to deal with the ‘members of the yob class’ who attended football matches. Lord Hill-Naugton, admiral of the fleet, argued that football was not fit to be called the national game, since it was ‘a slum game played by louts in front of hooligans’.

Meanwhile, Tory sports minister Colin Moynihan, who seemed to appear on television almost weekly to denounce football hooliganism as if it was all-out war, was busy singling out football fans to carry compulsory identity cards at matches, years before anybody dared suggest a national ID card scheme for the rest of us. The police put these policies into practice, treating big matches as military operations where riot vans lined the streets and away supporters were frogmarched to and from the ground. Inside, they would be crammed into wire mesh cages around the terraces, to stop them getting near opposition supporters or the pitch.

We are told today that there remain unanswered questions about Hillsborough. Why were Liverpool fans crammed into those central pens; why did nobody intervene to try to stop the carnage until the match was well underway; why were the 40 ambulances at the ground not allowed access to the injured and dying? The answer to all these questions and more is that Hillsborough happened the way it did because it was state policy to treat football supporters not as people, but as a public order problem.

So fans of Liverpool, with an average home crowd of more than 40,000, were allocated the cramped Leppings Lane end at Hillsborough while their opponents Nottingham Forest, with an average gate less than half as big, were given the more spacious end of the ground – because it suited the police strategists that way. Everything the police commanders did on the day, from holding a huge crowd of fans outside to opening the gate and cramming them into the central pen, stemmed from the policy of acting as if a football ground was a battlefield.

The reactions of the police when the horror started to unfold were even more telling.

This week’s coverage has highlighted the efforts of some individual officers to help fans. But the official response was to treat it as a riot rather than a rescue operation. As the first young Liverpool fans tried to save themselves from the death pen by climbing out of the cage towards the pitch, the immediate reaction of the police was to try to push them back in there. As supporters struggled to break free, the police were lined up across the pitch in defensive formation, presumably in case any of the gasping and dying Scousers attempted to charge the Forest end. And as Liverpool supporters fighting to save their mates broke up advertising hoardings for makeshift stretchers, police dog teams moved in to make sure they did not get out of hand, while officers prevented supporters checking for loved ones among the bodies that were brought outside the ground.

Official priorities were well illustrated by the dilapidated or non-existent state of medical equipment available to the rescuers, compared to the well-stocked arsenal of paramilitary gear available to the police. Meanwhile only one of the 40 ambulances parked at the opposite end of the ground was allowed to cross the pitch to assist the wounded. Well, they might have been hijacked by hooligans, you know?

After years of being told that more policemen and police powers were necessary to maintain public safety, we saw at Hillsborough how the safety of the public was the last thing on the mind of the authorities. This week senior police officers have been in the media claiming that modern methods of crowd surveillance and control, such as CCTV, would have prevented what happened at Hillsborough. But it was not a technical problem. It was a political and cultural issue of how the state viewed the crowd, and no gizmo would have made much difference.

After Hillsborough, the tabloid newspaper the Sun published its infamous front page headlined ‘The Truth’, which claimed that drunken Liverpool fans had robbed the dead, urinated on corpses, attacked emergency service rescuers and all the rest of it. The paper is still understandably vilified for printing such lies. As one fan who was trapped at Hillsborough wrote to other papers at the time, he had indeed been pissed and vomited on in that cage – by crushed people in their death throes.

But 20 years on, there seems too much of a tendency to single out the Sun as the villain of the piece. Its poisonous coverage really gave voice to the sort of ‘football fans = scum’ prejudices which, until a few minutes after 3pm on 15 April, had been commonplace across much of the British media. The Sun was caught out like the one idiot at a match who carries on with a chant after the rest of the crowd has temporarily stopped shouting it. But the paper was far from alone in its contempt for football crowds.

The civilised Sunday Times, for example, tried to claim the high ground after Hillsborough by reminding us of its earlier complaint in 1985, after 38 Italian fans died following a charge by Liverpool supporters at the Heysel stadium, that football had become ‘a slum sport played in slum stadiums’. Strangely, it omitted the last part of that line from its 1985 editorial – ‘watched by slum people’ – which gave away the true feelings of the respectable media towards football fans pre-Hillsborough.

Nor were such sentiments confined to the media. Middle-class fear of ‘the mob’ and the hooligan, a traditional British sentiment, was often focused on football crowds in the 1980s – and not only among Daily Mail readers. Just three days before Hillsborough, I saw a leading ‘alternative’ stand-up comedian, now a fixture on national television, on stage in London telling an alleged gag about how she didn’t want English football clubs to be allowed back into European competition (they had been banned following Heysel), she wanted them all to stay in England instead ‘and kill each other’. No doubt she stopped using that material afterwards, but it was a revealing insight at the time.

Others, of course, saw things very differently. Hillsborough might now unite the nation in a show of official grief, at least publicly, but at the time it was more divisive. There were those who accepted the attempt to blame the crowd. And there were many others, especially among the working classes, who sided unreservedly with the Liverpool fans, putting aside the usual footballing animosities.

For many match-going football supporters at that time, what happened at Hillsborough was a shock but not really a surprise. Anybody who had been trapped inside those omnipresent cages at the away end knew that every big match was effectively a Hillsborough waiting to happen. Many supporters of other clubs (such as me, a lifelong Manchester United fan) felt genuine solidarity with those Liverpool supporters and fury at the authorities. I thought the Scousers showed remarkable restraint in their immediate response to the deadly events. But so brutally were they abused that even if they had gone beyond the Sun’s claims, rioted and tried to string up some policemen from the goalposts, or burnt down the stadium, some of us could not have really blamed them.

Much of this context has been forgotten or papered over now, as Hillsborough is remembered as just another disaster with victims to be mourned. I wrote at the time that, despite the outburst of popular anger over the Hillsborough deaths, the absence of a clear political response to the authorities’ crusade to criminalise football crowds meant that ‘the expressions of solidarity can take on an excessively maudlin character’, so that ‘an outburst of working-class anger is thus damped down into a mood of passive grief’. This has largely proved to be the case, as this week’s events illustrate. That has less to do with Liverpool’s reputation as ‘self-pity city’ than with the way that emotional correctness, public displays of grief and victim culture have grown into Britain’s national sport over the past 20 years.

Before and since Hillsborough, British football crowds have been used as laboratory rats for experiments in policing and social control, from CCTV to riot tactics and ID cards. Even the much-vaunted improvements in football post-Hillsborough have proved a mixed blessing, making all-seater grounds more controlled as well as more comfortable. Anybody who complains about the sanitised nature of the modern football experience, such as those who want to see the return of terraces and ‘safe standing’, can expect to be accused of insulting the dead by those in authority who have exploited the Hillsborough victims and their families as human shields. That, too, is part of the political legacy of Hillsborough.

Remembering the past is important, although sometimes it is just as important to forget and move on. But when we do remember, as this week, let us make sure it is the whole story in its proper historical context, so that we can apportion responsibility and see the consequences clearly. After all, despite the anti-crowd scaremongering over the past 20 years, it is very unlikely that there will be ‘another Hillsborough’. But the elite prejudices about ‘the mob’ and the ‘yob class’ which paved the way for those terrible events are never very far beneath the surface of society today.

Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large.

Previously on spiked

Duleep Allirajah looked at the post-Hillsborough sanitisation of football, thought recent trouble at Hull City was not a return of the ‘English disease’, and noted how modern British policing is insidiously infiltrating football. Mick Hume provided a short history of hooligan panics. Graham Barnfield reviewed The Football Factory. Or read more at spiked issue Sport.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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