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Hillsborough was the acme of real Thatcherism

The Real Truth” shouted the headline of The Sun today, as it revealed the truth of the Hillsborough disaster, the 1989 catastrophe at a Sheffield football stadium that claimed 96 Liverpool fans who were crushed to death during an FA Cup semi-final. Due to incompetent crowd control, an unsafe stadium and inept emergency management, thousands of fans were crushed between walls and fences in the spectator area.

The disaster itself was bad enough, but what followed was atrocious: the police and ambulance services, aware that their ineptitude had cost many lives, went on a sustained campaign against Liverpool FC fans, alleging that many of those killed had been too drunk to manage, that they had assaulted ambulance crews and urinated on victims.

Such lies were convenient for a Tory government whose decade-long neglect of the north had essentially put a Labour-Tory divide through the middle of the country. Equally eager to jump on the bloodwagon was the Murdoch press, through its 3.5-million selling The Sun, which repeated the official lies under the bold headline “The Truth”. Then-Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie insulted the people of Liverpool as a bunch of whiners and scroungers, and Boris Johnson, then “editor” of The Spectator, joined in.

The insults were, it is no exaggeration to say, a blood libel. They were a product of the social division created by Thatcherism, and the reason that her era remains public anathema for all parties, even as she herself remains an idol. The Hillsborough victims were refused the most basic solidarity due to the dead, a sense of shared fate in rotten luck. The desperate assault on their humanity was a measure of the nihilism that lurked at the heart of the Thatcherite project, its brute belief that “there was no such thing as society” — and hence no such thing as shared meaning.

Had the attacks not been so brutal, the relatives and survivors of the Hillsborough disaster might not have been so determined to fight for justice, might have retreated into their private grief. Instead they contested the atomised anti-vision of Thatcherism with a campaign lasting more than two decades. An immediate report into the disaster, known as the Taylor Report, had dispelled many of the myths about drunken and loutish fans, but it had not shone a light on the behaviour of police and ambulance services.

Having promised a fresh inquiry while in opposition, in 1997 Labour offered only a process known as a “scrutiny”, which did not re-examine existing evidence, sided with the police, and managed to gratuitously insult survivor families all over again. Only in the dying days of the Brown government, did northern MP Andy Burnham succeed in having a full inquiry re-established.

It is this inquiry, headed by the Bishop of Liverpool, that has now delivered its findings, and they are disturbing and heartbreaking. The inquiry, which interviewed and re-interviewed hundreds of victims and witnesses, established first that the police had been inept, negligent and apathetic in managing the crowd — actually sending hundreds of people into an area where they became jammed between fences, and crushed to death by the press of the crowd, that ambulance services had not bothered to query police instructions not to drive onto the pitch and attend to the injured (only three ambulances out of 40 defied the orders and acted on their own initiative), and that, appallingly, more than 40 of the near hundred dead would have survived if their injuries had been attended to.

Following that, another process took over — a cover-up of mammoth proportions involving the police and ambulance authorities, who doctored more than 200 individual statements regarding the event, to remove any sign of official fault, and the then-MP for Sheffield Hallam, Tory (and now Sir) Irvine Patnick, who fed false statements to the press. There is now a move on to have Patnick’s knighthood rescinded, just as the victims’ families continue to press for criminal charges to be laid against many of the (still-serving) police officers involved in the cover-up.

The Hillsborough judgment has transfixed the UK for two days, prompting a variety of lame apologies and justifications from The Sun, Boris J, etc. The tragedy was bad enough in terms of human cost, but it is what it represents in social and historical terms that has made it so impossible to be dismissed. Hillsborough came at the end of a decade that had seen the riots of the early ’80s in the north, the destruction of industry, the war against the miners, and the refusal to make any significant reinvestment in ruined cities.

The increasingly harsh individualist rhetoric by which a division between the fortunes of the south and the north was made legitimate, led inevitably to an attitude in which northerners were sub-humans, responsible for suffering largely caused by indifferent and inept authorities. The attitude was enforced by police who had become alienated from their own society by the bitter divisions of the miners’ strike, and rendered nihilistic by years of widespread and unchecked corruption.

Hillsborough was the acme of real Thatcherism — one in which a corrupt police force, corrupt state and corrupt oligarchic media defined a “social enemy”, and poured all the hatred and frustration of a divided society onto their heads. That they chose the most abject of victims was no coincidence — the greater the withdrawal of human sympathy, the more that a rigid and life-denying political ethos could be reinforced. Sun journalists of the time spoke of the absolute mania with which editor Kelvin MacKenzie drove the Hillsborough campaign, against all evidence; the degree of complicity, with dozens upon dozens of officials involved, was so large as to go beyond any rational calculus.

But though it is of little comfort to the victims, it might be said that the event was a turning point in the fortunes of Margaret Thatcher. Within a year or two, the poll tax would break her, and see her unceremoniously dumped, but it may well have been the Hillsborough events that began the process, whereby people began to understand the lethal intent of the Tory ideal.

If David Cameron could not summon a majority of seats in his own right against a discredited Labour government in 2010, it is because the north is a closed book to the Tories these days, their hold on power surprisingly tenuous. Most citizens of Liverpool would approve of that, but who would rate it as worth the cost, the images forever unscrolling on video loops, the faces pressed against the cyclone wire, open-mouthed in horror and surprise breathing their last, the broken limbs lying on the grass in the afternoon sun, while, like pallbearers, the white ambulances waited in a line outside.

34
  • 1
    Mark Duffett
    Posted Friday, 14 September 2012 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    Less sociological but nevertheless fiercely brilliant reportage of Hillsborough by Brian Reade is a must-read: mirror.co.uk/sport/football/hillsborough-documents-released-brian-reade-1318730

  • 2
    Microseris
    Posted Friday, 14 September 2012 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    A good reminder of why we subscribe.
    A powerful, emotion charged piece. Journalism lives.

  • 3
    Posted Friday, 14 September 2012 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    Johnson was editor of the Spectator 15 years later, in 2004, when he published the vile editorial in question; he doesn’t even have the excuse of publishing before the facts were known.

  • 4
    Kristian
    Posted Friday, 14 September 2012 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Guy. Excellent article.

    I was only a kid back in ‘89, isolated down in Australia, so didn’t understand it at all. So much so, as kids in the playground we did stupid things like “stacks on” while shouting out “Liverpool!”. I shudder at that thought now…

    Just like I (literally) shuddered when I read your last sentence.

  • 5
    David Hand
    Posted Friday, 14 September 2012 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    Guy, Guy, Guy.
    Blaming Thatcher for Hillsborough is like blaming Tony Blair for phone hacking. Or Bob Carr for the criminal activity exposed by the Wood royal Commission. Or George W Bush for 911.

    It all seems so self-servingly logical to the left elites who are addicted to interpreting events such as these to some sort of grand narrative of socialist emancipation.

    Memo to Guy
    The Labour north / Conservative south divide has existed for decades. It was there when I was a kid in Swindon in the 60s and it is greater now than it has ever been before. It is not a Thtcharite phenomenon.

    Hillsborough was a monumental police stuff up. The fiction they produced to cover for their ineptitude deserves retribution. Hillsborough took place in a climate where football fans were herded by police to stadiums like cattle. In London as well as Sheffield.

    To suggest police ineptitude has only just come to light is laughable and refutable. Hillsborough initiated sweeping reforms of football such as all seat stadiums for all 92 league clubs.

    Hey guy, keep rewriting history. Didn’t that Tory PM named Churchill bomb London or something? He must have as he was running the country at the time.

  • 6
    Guy Rundle
    Posted Friday, 14 September 2012 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    david

    i didn’t blame Thatcher or Thatcherism for the actual tragedy at Hillsborough. I said that the way in which the cover-up was done was emblamatic of Thatcherism

    Why don’t you read the article, in particular this paragraph:

    Hillsborough was the acme of real Thatcherism — one in which a corrupt police force, corrupt state and corrupt oligarchic media defined a “social enemy”, and poured all the hatred and frustration of a divided society onto their heads. That they chose the most abject of victims was no coincidence — the greater the withdrawal of human sympathy, the more that a rigid and life-denying political ethos could be reinforced. Sun journalists of the time spoke of the absolute mania with which editor Kelvin MacKenzie drove the Hillsborough campaign, against all evidence; the degree of complicity, with dozens upon dozens of officials involved, was so large as to go beyond any rational calculus.”

    Before you go off on one of your auto-rants about left elites…

  • 7
    Benedict
    Posted Friday, 14 September 2012 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    This article implies a sequence of events that involves Boris Johnson jumping on a “bloodwaggon”. Hmm…Hillsborough happened in 1989, Boris’s comments were made in 2004. That suggests poor old Boris was a bit slow because he missed the “bloodwaggon” by about 15 years.

  • 8
    izatso?
    Posted Friday, 14 September 2012 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

    Hand ? David Hand ? Are you the David Hand who wrote the thesis ’ Disassociation in Modern Political Discourse’ ? Really ? No. It was well constructed. Quite erudite, even. Had to look words up, ‘n stuff ! No, not you then.

  • 9
    izatso?
    Posted Friday, 14 September 2012 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    the fat tory shite was at Oxbridge, natch

  • 10
    izatso?
    Posted Friday, 14 September 2012 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    sorry guy, people ……

  • 11
    David Hand
    Posted Friday, 14 September 2012 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    Sorry Guy, I’m clearly not very bright. I thought prose such as,

    Such lies were convenient for a Tory government whose decade-long neglect of the north ….”

    …a blood libel. They were a product of the social division created by
    Thatcherism…”

    …assault on their humanity was a measure of the nihilism that lurked at the heart of the Thatcherite project…”

    ”..they contested the atomised anti-vision of Thatcherism with a campaign lasting more than two decades..

    Hillsborough was the acme of real Thatcherism — one in which a corrupt police force, corrupt state and corrupt oligarchic media defined a “social enemy”, and poured all the hatred and frustration of a divided society onto their heads…”

    …the event was a turning point in the fortunes of Margaret Thatcher”

    …the lethal intent of the Tory ideal”

    I thought you were writing about the evils of Thatcherism in the 80’s and how it contributed to the hillsborough tragedy. You do understand that dumb non-lefties like me might misunderstand.

    I will read your item a third time and try to work out what you were actually trying to say.

  • 12
    David Hand
    Posted Friday, 14 September 2012 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

    Sorry Guy, I’m clearl y not very bright. I thought prose such as,

    “Such l ies were convenient for a Tory government whose decade-long neglect of the north ….”

    “…a blood l ibel. They were a product of the social division created by Thatcherism…”

    “…assault on their humanity was a measure of the nihil ism that lurked at the heart of the Thatcherite project…”

    ”..they contested the atomised anti-vision of Thatcherism with a campaign lasting more than two decades..

    “Hillsborough was the acme of real Thatcherism — one in which a cor rupt pol ice force, cor rupt state and cor rupt ol igarchic media defined a “social en emy”, and poured all the ha tred and frustration of a divided society onto their heads…”

    “…the event was a turning point in the fortunes of Margaret Thatcher”

    “…the let hal intent of the Tory ideal”

    I thought you were writing about the ev ils of Thatcherism in the 80’s and how it contributed to the Hillsborough tragedy. You do understand that dumb non-lefties l ike me might misunderstand.

    I will read your item a third time and try to work out what you were actually trying to say.

  • 13
    David Hand
    Posted Friday, 14 September 2012 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    Izatso,
    Well constructed? Erudite?
    Definitely not me.

  • 14
    michael r james
    Posted Friday, 14 September 2012 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    GR doesn’t mention it — except in the general social decay under the “acme of real Thatcherism” — but this took place against the background of the worst period of British football hooliganism. Some European countries/towns/stadia were trying to ban the Brits coming over for games, police were compiling blacklists and the continental police and football fans were starting to fight back as viciously as the Brits gave. It was all very ugly and I am sure that the reaction of the The Sun (funny because those football hooligans would be amongst its readership) and people like Johnson was strongly influenced by that reality.

    The 80s were perhaps the ugliest decade in recent British history with the general decrepitude, escalating costs, constant IRA bombings (Hyde Park and truly shocking Regents Park bombings, Brighton Hotel bombing to try to kill Thatcher), the Lockerbie bombing in 1988, police enforcing “suss” laws on ethnics/minorities (Toxteth & Brixton riots). Petty crime like house breakins and car vandalism/theft became the worst in the developed world. The Poll Tax riots came at the very end of the decade.

    The Hillsborough disaster was bad but I was more shocked (though perhaps not surprised) by the Kings Cross Underground fire in 1987 in which 31 died and 60 were seriously injured. This was no “accident” but a near certainty after decades of neglect and incompetence of all manner of things, certainly of the Underground. Essentially nothing had been done to the station or the escalator where the fire began since before the war. There were no fire sprinklers, no smoke or fire detectors and clearly inadequate emergency preparations. Smoking was banned but not enforced: the enquiry concluded that a smoker dropped their lit cigarette down the side of the wooden-treaded escalator and it fell into a mess of accumulated grease and paper rubbish that hadn’t been cleared for almost 50 years. The wooden treads brought the fire from below to up top. Most of the fire brigade were ill equipped and one of them also died from smoke inhalation (no breathing apparatus; all the deaths were from smoke inhalation). It was an appalling indictment of the state of post-war Britain.

    It is debatable how much things have really changed — notwithstanding the feelgood Olympics. When the recent London riots happened, those of us who lived in the UK thru the 80s were not in the least surprised.

  • 15
    izatso?
    Posted Friday, 14 September 2012 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    just my escape clause. THIS SITE IS NOT ABOUT YOU ! crissake

  • 16
    belcham
    Posted Friday, 14 September 2012 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

    Fabulous piece, really brings the event and the context of the times together eloquently.

  • 17
    Steve777
    Posted Friday, 14 September 2012 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

    If there’s no such thing as Society then we’re a glorified troop of baboons.

  • 18
    izatso?
    Posted Friday, 14 September 2012 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

    yup unconscionable, little wonder they persevered all this time. saving of society that more blood was not spilt. lot of Honour up north. ‘nuff.

  • 19
    Dion Giles
    Posted Friday, 14 September 2012 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

    How long ago was all this police malfeasance inquired into and known about at the highest level? Who made the decision to hide the facts for three decades (cut a bit short, thankfully, by David Cameron)? Who acted on the secrecy decision and shrank from blowing whistles? Such people deserve to be outed or this sort of disgraceful conduct will go on being buried by successive judges and administrators. Name, rank, serial number. Permanent public record. The world needs people like Bradley Manning and Julian Assange.

  • 20
    izatso?
    Posted Friday, 14 September 2012 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

    guardian uk has coverage of this disgrace

  • 21
    Matt Hardin
    Posted Friday, 14 September 2012 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

    David, as Guy said the cover up and reporting were the acme of Thatcherism, not the actual event.

    The event was caused by poorly trained cops who believed the worst of the fans. Could an an attitude consistent with Thatcherism ave lead to that? Possibly, but that is left to be debated.

  • 22
    Matt Hardin
    Posted Friday, 14 September 2012 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

    have” not “ave” sorry

  • 23
    izatso?
    Posted Friday, 14 September 2012 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

    half right Mr Hardin …… poorly trained police, ‘working within a cuture of impunity’ ……………….

  • 24
    izatso?
    Posted Friday, 14 September 2012 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

    and fyi, the debating has been done, the truth is (nearly almost) out, and it belongs entirely to Liverpool.

  • 25
    izatso?
    Posted Friday, 14 September 2012 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

    well that is ‘culture’ natch.

  • 26
    c k
    Posted Monday, 17 September 2012 at 12:46 am | Permalink

    Considering the Tories received 31% of the NW vote compared to Labour’s 39% I call BS on Guy’s hypothesis.
    The Tories are in a hung parliament because a. they allowed UKIP to split and gain support and b. because Scotland, Wales and NI proportionally have too many seats.
    Whilst the Thatcher Government is not innocent in this whole fiasco, Lancashire, the time, was Labour controlled. I don’t see you placing any blame there even though South Lancashire Police were not administered from London.

  • 27
    izatso?
    Posted Monday, 17 September 2012 at 1:29 am | Permalink

    ck. Guy tells us of an official inquiry into a turd that would not flush. you waive your pencil at him ? go read up on the turd before you start polishing it. k ?

  • 28
    c k
    Posted Monday, 17 September 2012 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

    Izatso, what on earth are you talking about? Are you capable of entering a discussion or do you just snipe from the sidelines?

  • 29
    izatso?
    Posted Monday, 17 September 2012 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

    the discussion is ended.the debate went on for a long time. this last inquiry has finalised nearly all questions. what is left is neither for you or me to use. do you realy want to polish that thing you picked up ?.tis yours to deal with.do not bother me.

  • 30
    izatso?
    Posted Monday, 17 September 2012 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    ck. go quietly please, and nuance your life. heres one . don’t touch what belongs to others ………

  • 31
    Marty
    Posted Tuesday, 18 September 2012 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    @ CK

    Hillsborough is in Sheffield, Yorkshire. What does Lancashire have to do with it? Also, the administration of local police forces doesn’t change with the political affiliation of local members of parliament. The actions of police during the miners strikes shows that the command, if not the individual officers, was firmly onside with the Tories.

  • 32
    Emma Goldmann
    Posted Tuesday, 18 September 2012 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

    A good reminder of why we subscribe. A powerful, emotion charged piece. Journalism lives.” well said Microseris. Amazing piece Guy, it’s sad to say I had completely forgotten the word Hillsborough but as soon as I heard to even being a kid back then I still vividly remember those shocking images. Let Justice bite the arses of those involved..

  • 33
    c k
    Posted Wednesday, 19 September 2012 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

    My Error Marty. I meant Yorkshire!
    Could it be possible that the police forces during the strike were actually policing the law? The strikes were illegal after all!

  • 34
    izatso?
    Posted Thursday, 27 September 2012 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

    yes ck, your Massive Error. It has been shown that Police were Complicit in the deaths of 96 people at Hillsborough, and also in the following Cover Up……. Denial will provoke Heart Disease. May you live long.

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