“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.