EVERY FOOTBALL SUPPORTER can remember where they were when the Hillsborough disaster unfolded – it is our JFK moment. I too was standing on an open terrace behind imposing metal fences, though in a much sparser crowd, watching Leyton Orient beat Torquay in a Fourth Division match in East London. But the horror of Hillsborough (though obviously felt most painfully on Merseyside where so many were bereaved) resonated among match-going fans throughout the country: there but for the grace of God went we.
The anger resonated too. We knew – though our grievances got little attention – that a tragedy such as this was possible, given years of mistreatment and neglect at the hands of police and football authorities in frequently dilapidated stadiums. Football supporters in 1989 were an often-demonised “other”, one more problematic Enemy Within in a divisive decade, even among some on the left and liberal-left who were not immune to dismissing us all as lumpen racist thugs, and our sport as a bread-and-circuses diversion from The Struggle.
This context is important as we pick through the unlawful killing verdict that was finally, and rightly, delivered at last month’s conclusion of the two year inquest, and what it told us about 1980s Britain and the baleful legacy we still grapple with today.
The justice secured in Warrington was first and foremost a vindication of the Hillsborough families’ struggle – the most tenacious and successful working class political campaign in Britain of the past 25 years, one fought in the face of smears, legal obfuscation and establishment indifference from the start.
Almost as importantly, the catalogue of police failings, cover-ups and media lies is finally putting Hillsborough in its proper political context – alongside Orgreave, Wapping, the urban disturbances of the ’80s – as an event that defined a decade in which different working class communities came under attack.
The now generally sympathetic portrayal of the Hillsborough victims and their families might encourage us to think that 1989 was a different country, or that theirs has always been a positively covered struggle. Neither is true. The Sun’s infamous “The Truth” front page, which falsely accused fans of pickpocketing victims and urinating on police, was a result of malicious police briefing and a right wing rag’s willingness to print an unverified story about a demonised sub-group, but it took place in a general context of contempt for fans. The Sun ran that story because the climate of the time encouraged them to believe they’d get away with it; that other papers might run with it too; that the story was plausible enough to be believed given the perception of football supporters in Thatcher’s Britain.
For all the talk of the hooliganism of the period, crowd trouble was in decline by 1989. Football-related arrests were down. Ordinary fans were beginning to fight back, against their ill treatment and exploitation, against racism, against Thatcher’s punitive and failed attempt to force all spectators to carry ID cards. Hillsborough happened at a time when fanzines and the first independent national fan group, the Football Supporters Association, were flourishing. And the most important lesson of the disaster – that fans now must be listened to and given a stake in the game – went largely unheeded.
The post-Hillsborough gentrification of the game brought us the Premier League breakaway, a new pan-European elitism and the transformation of supporters from cattle to be herded to consumers ripe for relentless exploitation, but we earned little more respect. Thirty seven of the 96 Liverpool fans who died were teenagers, an age group increasingly priced out of the game now. Some way for the game to honour them.
Nor is the immediate struggle completely over. It may have been an inquest into the past but it required taking on the establishment in the present, and prising open its doors.
It is to be hoped that successful prosecutions will now follow the Warrington verdicts but the conduct of South Yorkshire police during the inquest, where they compounded families’ distress by reviving discredited narratives about supporters’ conduct on the day of the disaster, suggests contrition is still in short supply. As do the revelations from a former police officer that she was pressurised to aggressively spin the South Yorkshire force’s bogus line during the hearings.
For now, though, we should the salute the combination of courage and commitment, plus a forensic quest for accurate accounts of what happened, that led to last month’s verdicts. Smeared, ignored, ridiculed, mocked, patronisingly told to put it behind them because the result they sought would never be possible, the families and their supporters instead stuck together and kept on keeping on. May they never walk alone!
Walthamstow Constituency Labour Party