The lessons from Hillsborough for politics today

by Samuel Dale

My dad stood in the Leppings Lane end at Hillsborough to watch Manchester United play Leeds United in the 1977 FA Cup semi-final.

As soon as he heard about the deadly crush during the Liverpool v Forest game in 1989, he knew what had happened.

He remembered the push coming from the back of the stand as fans rushed forward. He struggled to breath and was lifted off his feet for minutes at a time. And that was when the police supposedly had control of the crowds. It was not uncommon at matches during that are but Leppings Lane was particularly bad.

And his first thought was that most natural of human emotions: it could have been me.

It could have been 96 Man United fans. My dad, my uncle and all their mates. It could have been anyone who went to a football match before 1989.

The standing areas at football matches in the 1970s and 1980s were a national disgrace. Tens of thousands of young men penned in by high fences and crushed so they couldn’t breathe.

Hillsborough was not the first football tragedy. There was the Valley Parade fire in 1985 that killed 56. The Ibrox disaster that killed 25 when a stand collapsed in 1971.

Police, politicians and club owners did not consider match-going supporters as individuals but as a mass of dehumanized, working-class drunken louts with no rights.

This prejudice was driven by the very real epidemic of football hooliganism, which tainted every fan in the country with the same brush. Violence was common at matches and gave them an air of menace. The national solution, though, was to treat all fans as scumbags.

This is why it was so easy for the police to blame the fans at Hillsborough for the crush and feed their poisonous lies to a pliant and gullible media.

It fed into existing prejudices. Football hooligans orchestrating chaos again; stealing, fighting and drinking.

It was an epic smear that has only now been wiped from the record after 27 years in a long, brave and inspiring campaign by the victims’ families.

The tragedy has lessons beyond football. It’s about prejudice and treating a group of individuals as an inhuman mass rather than viewing them as men or women with families, friends and their own passions, loves and hates.

When you treat people as sub-human then don’t be surprised when authorities restrict their rights. It leads to a situation when police feel there is no political cost or risk to lying about fans’ actions because who is going to believe a bunch of drunken football fans? Who is going to champion them?

The Sun, other media and politicians were ready to lap up the narrative that it was the working class fans’ fault. These aren’t human beings, just a bunch of football fans.

When you brush up against no powerful interest and you can cut with the grain of existing prejudices then it provides license for corruption. It is easy and risk-free to smear the voiceless and vulnerable.

It is the same impulse that drives racism. And it drives much anti-immigrant, and especially anti-refugee, sentiment in this country.

It is why it is essential brave politicians such as Yvette Cooper continue to speak on behalf of those refugees who have no voice.

We brand them immigrants or refugees to set them apart. Just like football supporters were set apart in the 1980s. They are not like us, they are The Other.

And when we brand them as The Other then we become immune to tragedies such as boats sinking in the Mediterranean killing hundreds or a football stand collapsing at Ibrox. They are not individuals who died in those tragedies, they are The Other.

If there is any solace from the Hillsborough tragedy then it is that football has been transformed as a direct result.

Grounds are immeasurably safer, policing is better, clubs are richer and politicians queue up to align themselves with the national support. New issues have arisen in football about pricing ordinary fans out games, distant foreign owners and highly paid stars.

But being a match-going football fan today is part of the mainstream. It doesn’t mark you out as a violent drunken lout that smeared everyone in the 1980s. That is progress and I’d rather be dealing with today’s football problems than those of previous decades.

It shows that social attitudes can change. The reputation of football fans has been revolutionized and it should give us pause to examine today’s prejudices.

Politicians should never treat groups of people as an impersonal mass but always remember the individuals within them.

On 20 April, a boat sunk off the Libyan coast and more than 500 desperate refugees drowned. Each had a mother, a father, friends, hobbies, dreams and a future.

They are not The Other, they are human beings. Just like 96 individual supporters who lost their lives at Hillsborough.

Sam Dale is a financial and political journalist

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9 Responses to “The lessons from Hillsborough for politics today”

  1. Sam, I see a former Manchester chief constable is linking police behaviour at Hillsborough with the clashes at Orgreave during the miners strike which was also under the South Yorkshire Police. The story is Wednesday’s Guardian. Not that long ago you were telling us how you were going to vote for David Cameron. Does that mean you are voting Tory today? If that is so maybe you should think who did politicise Britain’s police. Wasn’t it another Tory leader, Thatcher, who the boys like Cameron and Osborne still worship, along with Blair, who they call they the ‘Master’, of course.

  2. TCO says:

    I don’t think the violence and anti-social behaviour associated with football has gone away; it’s just much much better suppressed and controlled. I saw scuffles and police horses outside a League 2 match just a couple of weekends ago.

  3. Tafia says:

    The lesson to be learned from Hillsboro is actually very simple – the ‘Establishment’ must never ever be trusted and must always be 100% transparent and totally open to public scrutiny. It cannot be trusted to scrutinise and/or police itself at all, over anything. Look at the abuse scandals in northern towns as another example, the Iraq war, Afghanistan, Libya and the list goes on and will continue to go on.

    And this ripples all the way down to relatively simple things such as bringing in full disclosure of Police evidence to the Defence.

  4. Tafia says:

    Hillsborough: South Yorkshire police ‘tried to spin’ inquests evidence.

    Media officer employed by force says she was instructed to emphasise allegations of fans’ misbehaviour to press.

    South Yorkshire police sought to influence media reporting of the recent inquests into the deaths of 96 people in the Hillsborough disaster and secure “positive” coverage, according to a former communications specialist employed by the embattled force.

    Hayley Court told the Guardian that she was instructed to emphasise evidence considered favourable to the force to journalists attending the hearings, including allegations of misbehaviour by Liverpool supporters.

    She said she feels duty-bound to expose the South Yorkshire police’s media strategy, which she says she refused to follow and always complained was unethical, now the inquests are concluded, with the jury’s verdicts of unlawful killing and exoneration of supporters.

  5. John P Reid says:

    danSpeight who politicized police,wellwhowqsitwho invited IRA killers with open arms, said the law was wrong so they didn’t have to follow it during the miners strike,trying to block Enterences top its,print works,who was it was said all police,or all white people are racist, so said killing Pilice or Killing Tory MOs at the Brighton hotel was justified,when Labour MPs like Chris Mullin said he knew who really carried out the Bimingham pub bomb, or future Labour mps like Kim Howels tried to cover up who killed Taxi driver David Wilkie, in the miners strike,or Harringey council Covered up who killed PC blaielock with hundreds of anti white racist or factually incorrect statements, it was another police officer who killed Blakelock or he was. Nazi,that only encouraged the locals to hide his killers

    The Labour Party politicized policing, by thinking, we could break the law to try to bring down a democratically elected government,

  6. Peter Kenny says:

    Hi John Reid – you’re thinking us as muddied as your spelling.

    How did “Haringey Council” know who killed PC Blakelock? I guess you are suggesting some individuals did.

    Even if it were so it can’t excuse fitting people up can it?

    I understand Chris Mullen was told, afterwards, who carried out the Birmingham Pub bombings, I think that this is also well known to the various state bodies – what’s your point?

    The Birmingham 6 were framed by a deeply corrupt Police Force and then kept in Prison to protect the reputation of the Police – do you think that was OK?

    You’re the kind of person who thinks that the atrocity of the 7/7 suicide bombings makes killing an innocent man OK, as if the Police are suddenly freed of any restraint.
    The idea of the rule of law isn’t that it doesn’t apply if people do bad things.

    At the heart of your argument you are essentially not a democrat – your suggestion is: people do things they shouldn’t = the Police can do what they want about it and we should cheer them on.


  7. John P. Reid says:

    Paul Kenny I didn’t say Harringey council knew who killed PC blakelock, there were 60 or so witnesses,some of whom would have been splattered in blood, and then all the knives were hid,some witnesses hid the killers,as they were scared of grassing,some hid the killers as they thought the murder justified,some were appalled,then heard 180 anti white racist comments made by labour councillors at Harringey believed those anti white racist lies,and then decided to hide the killers due to it,

    Sorry about spelling IPhone,
    no one was fit up, Engin rghiip took a IQ test that he could be interviewed without a so,icitor, years later took another IQ test that he should have had a so,Citroen, braithwaite said he didn’t want a solicitor years later said he’d wished he had, neither said they were under any duress when interviewed, Silcotts, written statement, had a page of words changed due to wither spelling mistakes or another reason, the cops who took I,we’re instantly cleared by a jury of a fit up, of course had the locals not hid the killers, the police would have had more evidence….

    I have never said the police can get away with it,don’t put words in my mouth,what I’m saying is we should get our own act together, if Mullins knows who carried out the Birmingham bombing she should tell the families.
    Regarding 7/7 killing. Innocent man, I assume you mean JCM, if so ,ken livingstone was the ones who said Jean Charles Demenez was the 53rd victim of it

    Regarding people being held accountable it’s a damn shame we die t have corporate manslaughter when Blakelock was decapitated, the head of Tottenham police would have been in the dock, he of letting the estate run to ruin, sending the Riot police hi,e that day,and then sending the bobbies in the beat from Muswell hill,who hadn’t had any riot training into the estate to protect the white Ambulance drivers the rioters were trying to originally kill, while giving first aid to members of the public injured in the estate
    I heard the head of Tottenham police walked into the police canteen the day after the riot,and other police tried to kill him,because of what he let happen that night.

  8. Peter Kenny says:

    Hi John, sorry for my flippant remark about your spelling.

    The Met were notoriously ‘bent’ – look into the history of it – from straightforward corruption to ‘noble cause’ corruption to paramilitary violence – that was a lot of them.

    Look into it, it’ s pretty much the received wisdom.

    So we could make a woeful list, running up to the near past, of their corrupt, violent incompetence. Part of the problem was the idea that they could no wrong, must be supported etc which politicians, the great and the good etc supported, from all parties until the 80s when the Labour Left broke the spell, one of our many positive contributions along with anti racism, gay rights and gender equality.

    We now have even Teresa May lecturing them about their stop and search practices.

    The end result of their behaviour was whole communities seeing them as the enemy because, to be blunt, they were. This was a failure on a massive scale. Who protects the weak and vulnerable in that scenario?

    What I see you doing is generally blaming anyone but the Police for what are actually their historic failures, of culture, of leadership, of organisation, in other words continuing the failed stance of the past.

    I think at the heart of this, and at the heart of the political differences in the Labour Party is differing views of the ‘establishment’. The ‘moderates’ see it as essentially benign, well meaning and are happy to slip into it’s warm embrace.

    The left are critical and aligned with pratices of transparency and accountability at least along with radical changes in structures and performance.

    So you think the Broadwater 4 weren’t fitted up by a Police Force whose default investigative style was the ‘fit up’? I’m often accused of being a dreamer – what kind of dream is that?

    I don’t care what Ken said, JPM was killed by the same useless force – he died in the context of 7/7 but he was actually a victim of the Met. It’s why Corbyn was spot on to be highly dubious about ” shoot to kill” – JPM is what that looks like.

  9. john says:

    great quote here from Denis MacShane w in his book Prison Diaries ‘that a blind eye had been turned to “bad practices” within “communities of incomers” because they contain “vast reservoirs of votes” as he wrote it.’

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