A significant root cause of the police’s negligent handling of the Hillsborough disaster and the vile cover-up that ensued has yet to be identified: contempt!
In the 1980s the words ‘hooligan’ and ‘football fan’ were interchangeable. Of course violent cadres of thugs were active during those years. I still have a book, We are the Tottenham Boys, that chronicles in vivid detail the adventures, running battles, ambushes and sieges that they encountered home and away. But the police generalised from the hardcore element to tar all fans with the same brush. For me this was especially evident following Tottenham away matches when the police contemptuously dragooned us on marches and into inadequate ‘pens’ at grounds with arrogant disrespect and refusal to engage as ordinary people. This contempt fed into public and media attitudes, creating at best indifference towards football fans and the working class generally.
You can see something of the contempt of the police in the footage of the Liverpool fans converging on Hillsborough and being bossed by the police officers whose main concern was not to assist them into the ground but to make damn sure that they gave no trouble. Their faces tell it all. There was, I suppose, also a degree of contempt, alongside neglect, in the attitude of the football authorities who didn’t even bother to ensure that the stadium met safety standards.
But contempt was most toxic in the way the police conducted themselves in the aftermath of the tragedy, at the ground as well as in the mass re-writing exercise by senior officers of 116 of 164 junior officers’ statements; in the blood tests administered to the victims, many of them teenagers, to ascertain levels of alcohol; in the desperate search for criminal records among them; in the conduct of police interviews with survivors, which frequently began with questions about how much they had had to drink; and in the despicable lies about fans being drunkenly violent, pickpocketing the dead, urinating on police officers.
There was contempt too at The Sun, exposing the falsity of the newspaper’s pretence of being at one with the lads by its readiness to believe the worst of them. There was contempt too at the Spectator, more predictably perhaps, where Boris Johnson displayed a supercilious arrogance in an editorial that should have dispelled for ever his image as an essentially amiable, if able, buffoon.
At the time, there was a refusal at government level to acknowledge the importance of the Taylor inquiry’s findings, exonerating the fans and blaming the police. As the Guardian has pointed out, ministers were very much aware of the ‘defensive’ and perhaps deceitful conduct of the police, but Mrs Thatcher was concerned to protect her allies during the miners’ strike from ‘devastating criticism’. However, Labour governments after 1997 had the opportunity to respond to Liverpool’s campaign to investigate and reveal the truth, but failed to do so until Andy Burnham and Maria Eagle, two ministers from working class backgrounds brought about the panel’s rigorous inquiry. Why was this? Contempt, indifference or Labour’s habitual distrust of its ‘people’.
Andy Burham was asked on television news whether such a tragedy and the cover-up could ever occur again. He said no – and in one sense at least he was right. There is keener scrutiny of the police and authorities nowadays; there are lawyers like Phil Scraton, the principal author of the inquiry report, who relentlessly pursue official injustices; there is Freedom of Information and the Human Rights Act which promote transparency and human rights obligations and awareness.
At the same time, however, government and the authorities remain masters of a well-defended system. And more fundamentally, there remains a mix of contempt and indifference towards working class people throughout the political class, and, I suspect, a fear that listening and responding to what the people are saying might very well prove to be subversive. Contempt and indifference? Yes - how else could the coalition government implement the harsh cutbacks on benefits and public services for unemployed and disabled people while destroying jobs? Why else would ministers introduce punitive and arbitrary regimes for state beneficiaries if they actually saw them as equally worthy citizens of this country?
Police officers who have to deal with young trouble-makers and criminals still generalise from their experience to regard the rest of the working class population as feckless ‘chavs’ and spongers – I know, as I speak to them. It is attitudes of this kind that set the foundations of how governments treat those at the bottom of the pile, formulate policies and respond to their needs. And these attitudes are not changing.