At 12.32 on 12th September 2012 I was in the kitchen, listening to BBC Radio Merseyside in Liverpool, waiting for them to go live to Westminster for the Prime Minister’s response to the findings of the H.I.P. I wasn’t getting my hopes up. Even though messages of cautious optimism had been coming through in the months and days leading up to yesterday’s full disclosure, a lifetime’s experience told me not to expect too much. My assumption was that, over 23 years, much of the critical and damning evidence would simply have disappeared; SYP would have covered their tracks and wiped their dabs. The Panel would, perhaps, be able to exonerate the 96 of any blame for the Hillsborough Tragedy, but I fully expected SYP to somehow wriggle off the hook. So what came out of the radio yesterday took my breath away.
The longer I listened, the more the sense grew that we were witnessing history in the making. Not solely because, at long last, The Truth was being told; but here was a Conservative Prime Minister, a former member of The Bullingdon Club, as establishment an Establishment figure as you could ever conjure, excoriating the individuals and institutions who sought to bury the truth along with the dead of Hillsborough. David Cameron castigated the smear campaign, the cover-ups, the downright lies and the institutional corruption that his Tory forebears presided over in 1989. But to fully understand the enormity of yesterday’s disclosures, and the responses which followed, we need to go back to the election of Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government of 1979.
David Cameron castigated the smear campaign, the cover-ups, the downright lies and the institutional corruption that his Tory forebears presided over in 1989.
In the run-up to Thatcher’s election as PM, she and her cabinet-elect branded themselves as no-nonsense defenders of traditional British values. Anyone who stood in the way of their very narrow vision of Britishness was a potential Enemy of the State - a “Wrecker”, in Thatcher-speak. “Wreckers” were a broad church, but among those targeted by The Iron Lady were Trades Unions, non-Caucasians, the unemployed and football supporters. To Maggie, all football supporters were Wreckers.
Once elected, the Thatcher government, wasted little time in putting their policies into action. There was a huge recruitment drive for the police and armed forces - traditional symbols of Britsh strength, reliability and continuity - the start of a near symbiotic relationship between the government and the police. To an unemployed, left-leaning football supporter, there was a feeling that the police were unaccountable - and that they viewed us as scum. Whether you were Chelsea, Newcastle, Plymouth or Aston Villa, if you were going to away games in the 70s and 80s you will have experienced the iron fist of the local constabulary, corralling you onto one narrow pavement and greeting any protests with the witty rejoinder of, “You act like animals, you can expect to be treated like animals.”
Among those targeted by The Iron Lady were Trades Unions, non-Caucasians, the unemployed and football supporters.
And we were treated like animals - but for us football fans it was, in the main, every other Saturday. For the citizens of Brixton, St.Paul’s, Chapeltown, Toxteth, Handsworth, Moss Side and many other racially diverse areas around the country, injustice and prejudice at the hands of the police was a daily, often hourly occurrence. The feeling in the communities was that elite snatch squads like the OSD and the SPG were unaccountable; quite literally, a law onto themselves. If they felt like it, they could come into a neighbourhood like Liverpool 8 and do what they wanted. They would pull someone over and subject them to a body search on the basis of suspicion - “suss” - though their suspicions seldom went further than ethnicity: “He’s black. He’ll do.“ There was no right to reply; no complaints procedure. Most young people in those communities grew up with direct experience of harassment, ill-treatment and marginalisation, and there’s only so much of that, that people can take. The riots of 1981 tell their own story. For the hundreds and thousands of jobbing bobbies who were drafted in to bear the brunt of the violence, the venom of the anger and hatred they faced would have been a complete shock to them. The origins of that enmity, and the originators of the policies that struck the match and fanned the flames, lay in Downing Street. In plain and simple terms, we felt as though our elected national government was against us.
Thatcher got a bloody nose over the riots, and seemed hell-bent on salvaging - or savaging - a victory from wherever she could find a legitimate target. The war over the Malvinas gave her government a heady taste of self-esteem and it was no surprise when they were re-elected on a wave of retro-patriotism in 1983. They quickly set their sights on the miners. This is a long, long, bitter story, but it is most graphically symbolised by the events at the Orgreave plant on 18th June 1984. Most people today are familiar with the tactic of “kettling” - Orgreave saw it implemented on a scale and with a violence that was unprecedented in post-war socio-political history. It was common practice for police to “escort” large crowds at events (political rallies, football matches) where there was the potential for confrontation, but Orgreave saw policing replaced by an organised, pre-meditated, militia-style approach. The pickets deployed at Orgreave to stop or stem the coke deliveries (British Steel had exceeded agreed quotas on coke allowed into smelting plants), were marshalled into one cohesive group by mounted police and herded into a large field adjoining the plant, which was cut off at its far end by a mainline railway.
[Police] would pull someone over and subject them to a body search on the basis of suspicion – “suss” – though their suspicions seldom went further than ethnicity: “He’s black. He’ll do.“
The photographs accompanying this piece are a graphic narrative of the wholesale brutality that resulted but, once again, the distinct impression was that the police were acting on instructions to smash the Wreckers; if they get it, then they deserve it. If they’re here, they’re asking for it. Ordinary decent people don’t complain about Police Brutality, because ordinary decent people don’t break the law. Well, the pickets at Orgreave weren’t breaking the law, either. They were exercising a constitutional right to protest, and protect their livelihood. But the way the pickets were policed that day suggested a top-level collusion between the government and her storm troops of the day - quell the Wreckers by any means necessary.
The year after Orgreave, Millwall fans rioted at Luton. There was a major disturbance at the Birmingham v Leeds match at St. Andrews. The Heysel Stadium tragedy occurred. The government initiated a debate about I.D cards and the return of the Short, Sharp Shock (literally; there was brief support for electrified fences at football matches.) Football supporters were demonised. We were only a year away from Italia 90, World In Motion and the subsequent annexing of the people‘s game by the affluent middle-classes and, ultimately, by Sky Sports TV. Yet, in the context of an ultra reactionary government and a media fixated on the stereotype of the “mindless hooligan”, it was no surprise to any of us who arrived in Sheffield on the 15th April 1989 that we were greeted with surly expressions and a brusque commands by the local police force. Everybody knows now, for an absolute fact, what happened in the moments leading up to the match, and shortly after its kick-off. Everybody knows, now, why Liverpudlians couldn’t “get over it”; why we had to fight for the truth to come out; why we don’t and won’t ever play a football match on the 15th April; why we don’t and won’t ever read The Sun newspaper; why we organised concerts, bucket collections, rallies and events to raise the funds and spread the word and keep the cause alive; why we insisted it wasn’t our fault; why we sang, at every single game, for Justice for the 96.
Most people today are familiar with the tactic of “kettling” – Orgreave saw it implemented on a scale and with a violence that was unprecedented in post-war socio-political history.
I’m still somewhat in shock at yesterday’s outcome. The detail of the Panel’s findings will take some time to come to terms with. That SYP briefed a media partner - and the majority subsequently believed - that fans pick pocketed, urinated upon and had sex with the dead and dying quite simply stuns me. The extent and depravity of the lies is, at the moment, too hideous to thoroughly take on board. In the spirit of near perestroika that accompanied yesterday’s findings though, we live in hope that all those culpable - ALL of them, from top to bottom - will have their day of reckoning for the misery they‘ve wreaked.
Everybody knows now, for an absolute fact, what happened in the moments leading up to the match, and shortly after its kick-off. Everybody knows, now, why Liverpudlians couldn’t “get over it”; why we had to fight for the truth to come out.
For now, the events that transpired shortly after 12.30 yesterday are frozen in time - a huge moment in post-war British political history. For now, it’s a stream of words pouring out of a small stainless steel radio. But those words were delivered by the Prime Minister, and he was admitting that a monumental operational error; the policies and the political climate that allowed it to happen; and the reprehensible cover-up and committed campaign of smears, lies and accusations that followed have, at long last, been exposed for the cruel and shocking wholesale character assassination they always were. For the Tory leader to come clean about the injustices that lay at the core of his predecessors policies will be of cold comfort for those who felt the long arm of the law in Thatcher’s Britain. But for the families and survivors of Hillsborough it is, at least, cause for qualified optimism that there may be, at last, Justice for the 96.
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