Truth, Justice and the Football Fan’s Way
Some level of justice was finally delivered last week to the victims of the Hillsborough disaster; victims that included those who lost their lives at a football match 27 years ago and those who still grieve them. Much has been written about the events themselves on 15th April 1989, and the astonishing layers of cover up and smearing that went on afterwards, so there’s little point in repeating that detail when it’s been covered so well elsewhere.
It’s only in more recent years that I’ve consciously come round to being on the same side of the families who have fought for so long against the might of the establishment, even though I can see now that they were always on my side. This is down to one simple change in perspective – away from that of being a football supporter and towards that of simply being working class. I’m a Manchester United fan, and despite this issue being about people dying and social justice, for a long time I viewed it through the lens of football fandom, which will sound ridiculous to some, yet it is the way that many, many football fans view things that aren’t about football.
I’ve listened to quite a few fans, even recently, repeating the sentiments mobilised by the police, government and press about Liverpool fans turning up late, drunk and without tickets, saying that even if the police and ambulance service did make mistakes, they were just that – mistakes made in a stressful situation caused by the actions of the crowd. The argument goes something like; ‘what right have football fans got to act irresponsibly and expect that they will be looked after by public servants, and then complain when those taking responsibility can’t cope with the excesses of irresponsibility they’re faced with?’ You can see how such a view would be compelling, especially if you don’t feel any affinity with those doing the ‘complaining’.
The police and other emergency services are supposed to be there to look after the public, not just when the public is walking to church or reading a book in bed, but also when the public is gathering together with others to drink, dance, play games, watch sport, gather in crowds, climb mountains, go to festivals, run marathons, celebrate cultural identity and anything else our society deems to be within the law. Society has built up all manner of institutions to make these things possible for large numbers of people, so we can enjoy ourselves and most likely not die, and we’re usually charged money for this. Others make profits out of these events, and taxes are paid, some of which goes on things like safe infrastructure and public services like policing and other emergency services. That’s what people mean when they talk about a social contract, and in a capitalist society this means we pay for things, and while we might not like our culture and lives being commodified, the idea is that in return we get some kind of service and some kind of peace of mind. This doesn’t rule out mistakes, but what happened at Hillsborough went way beyond people making mistakes.
What happened is testament to the fact that while the political and state establishment were happy for the capitalist classes to continue making money from charging working class people to watch football, they were less keen on spending some of the money this sent into their budgets on providing a safe environment for it to happen. The government, the police and the press all demonstrated a barely disguised contempt for the working class, and at that time, their view of football fans from Liverpool epitomised all their class chauvinism. Within these organs of capitalist power, a culture was already in place to make the decision making of those working in key positions fall smoothly in line with the structured class-based economic rationale of the time.
The ‘guardians’ of the game didn’t think it worth bothering with ensuring the stadium was safe for all these working class people. The police, with a few honourable exceptions, didn’t need too much convincing to treat human beings like animals on that day, to presume fans’ actions were likely to have criminal intent, to not react as a human being upon seeing someone in distress or even dying. They also, again with some honourable exceptions, didn’t take too much convincing to cover up the truth about what had happened on the day, to pursue lines of investigation with the aim of besmirching the names and characters of those who died and their fellow fans.
The Sun and its editor Kelvin McKenzie didn’t take too much convincing to publish filthy lies, because it was more or less what they believed anyway about ‘those people’ and the source was respectable – the police and the government. Compare how easily the media took up and ran with such blatant lies, supposedly duped into it according to McKenzie, with how many times we now know the media and police establishment refused to follow up on ‘unfounded rumours’ about the predatory sexual behaviour of celebrities and politicians with close links to that same establishment. The working class victims of all these crimes had to fight tooth and nail to be believed, suffering all kinds of abuse and vilification along the way, while the perpetrators were allowed to grow old and in some cases die before the wheels of justice started rolling.
The prevailing political context of the 1980s can’t be ignored. These powerful institutions had already colluded at a high level in a war against the working class a few short years earlier during the Miners’ Strike, and when backs are scratched and laws bent, indiscretions overlooked and interests merged, it becomes easier for it to keep happening. The role of the South Yorkshire Police, and other forces, in that class war reaped a lot of gratitude among Thatcher’s government and their allies running the corporate press. The political context of the city of Liverpool is also relevant, given the struggle for control the Tories had waged with the city’s Militant leaders. All this added to the heady mix of class-based hostility within the establishment as they staked their positions before, during and after the tragedy.
Shamefully, but sadly not surprisingly, many football fans also didn’t take too much convincing to believe these lies. Unlike the perspective of McKenzie or most politicians however, football fans were not consciously viewing ‘those people’ through a class lens, but through the lens of football rivalry, based on a mixture of regional chauvinism and various football-related antagonisms. Let’s also not forget the tendency of many football fans to be suspicious of independently organised fan groups raising critical voices, putting their faith much more readily in the empty rhetoric and management speak of their class superiors running football so well. Fans don’t find it easy to look in too much critical detail at what they support, not when there’s an easier narrative to follow that keeps things as they were.
There have been great accounts in recent years of how some United fans have struggled to deal with the contradictions of rivalry and solidarity (here and here are two examples). The first of these mentions the author’s visit to Old Trafford on 15th April 1989 when United were playing Derby. I was there too, and have a clear memory of the tannoy announcement at half time. The announcer said the game had been stopped due to overcrowding, and also mentioned forged tickets. He’d picked that snippet up no doubt from commentators on TV or radio, who had been fed that angle by the police. That wasn’t a mistake, it was a blatant lie, and one instigated with the full knowledge that getting your side of things out first is often more important than whether it’s true or not.
I have to admit I bought into it too. I was 16 at the time and was ready to lap up any anti-scouse sentiment I could get hold of. I had next to no class consciousness then and for some years afterwards. The Poll Tax campaigns and riots washed over me, even though I complained about having to pay so much of it while on a YTS. While I still detest Liverpool the team, I know I’ve got more in common with the average Scouser than with a Tory who supports United. I know that my interests and those of my family and friends are better served by standing in solidarity with other working class people.
Between 1989 and now the truth has ebbed and, more latterly, flowed, but despite this some fans continue to seek out an explanation and interpretation that blames Liverpool supporters, or at least that absolves the police, press and government from blame in the face of what they see as unreasonable campaigning by fans and a city they can only view via stereotype. They have somehow come to think that the might of the capitalist state is being bullied, that if a group of gobby working class people, aided by a few biased journalists and local politicians scared of losing their seats, shout loud enough that they’ll get their way against the government, police and corporate press even if they don’t have a genuine case.
To be honest I’m surprised that they got the level of justice they have, given the forces they were up against. It seems that the current establishment couldn’t anymore resist the momentum of the campaign, and at some point came to realise they had better find a narrative that distanced themselves from either ‘the past’ or ‘isolated corruption’. There were key turning points that involved influential journalists and politicians deciding to represent the truth and their class backgrounds rather than establishment interests. That’s got to continue to prevent the current establishment from hypocritically distancing itself from it, to make more people understand that is still how power works when it’s looking after the interests of the few rather than the many. Andy Burnham’s now back at his day job of turning his party back towards the same Tory-lite corporate opportunism that saw two full-term Labour governments refuse to right the wrongs of Hillsborough.
The government, police and media are very capable of doing it all again. They did it recently with the London riots, and continue to do it with migrants, people on benefits and others that don’t have enough influential people speaking and campaigning for them. The disgrace of Hillsborough should wake all football fans, and all the working class, up to where they really stand, who they should stand next to and who they should stand against. Seeing non-football issues through a narrow, distorted lens of regional or national chauvinism might be easier because it more neatly dovetails with on-pitch rivalries, but surely football fans don’t have to be as stupid and one dimensional as Thatcher and her cronies liked to think we are, do we?