Hillsborough and the end of history

April 16, 2017 at 10:01 am (Civil liberties, class, Daily Mail, history, Murdoch, Robin Carmody, sport, tragedy)

Above: Anfield in the days following April 15, 1989 –  scarves left at the ground and draped on the Kop goal. Photo: Dave Sinclair.

By Robin Carmody

So here we have it, the first anniversary when there has not been an official memorial service at Anfield itself, and the first after some kind of victory, some kind of vindication, some kind of recognition that the years of struggle were not worthless, not fought in vain?

A few things spring to mind:

Douglas Hurd – who, had he been Prime Minister, certainly would have tried not to let Murdoch ride roughshod over the PSB tradition, however hard that would probably have become after a certain point – should be given some credit for his (squashed) insistence as Home Secretary, coming directly from the social conscience of his One Nation Tory tradition, that the government should embrace and endorse the wholeheartedly, unashamedly and unambiguously anti-police conclusions of Taylor’s interim report. Had Thatcher not stood in his way, a generation of lies could never have become institutionalised.

Might gridiron football be more widely played and followed in 2017 England than association football had it not happened? I’m not sure it’s entirely ASB (for “Alien Space Bats”, the term used in alternative history circles to refer to something wholly unbelievable and impossible in any remotely conceivable circumstances); as a child at the time I had just fallen for football in a big way, but I was a romantic looking outside my own time, my previous sporting passion had been horse racing, and I was obsessed with repeats of Look, Stranger and Follyfoot, Plenty of my He-Man and Thundercats-preferring contemporaries on the Thames Estuary did love the NFL on Channel 4, for all that it didn’t exist to me. And if that Polish shot had been slightly lower … no Blair, no Britpop, no Cameron and no Coldplay, and Florence Welch and Laura Marling ballerinas? It is well within the realms of possibility.

Let no-one pretend that the ancien regime of English football was remotely ideal, or in any way representative, or in any way democratic, or in any true sense “the people’s game”. It was no such thing. It was, in essence, a different kind of bad, a different kind of unrepresentative, undemocratic elitism. It represents the same story as many aspects of English life and capitalism, which went straight from small-time feudalism to billionaire plutocracy with scarcely any intervening period of being any good (compare, for example, the first incarnation of radio stations such as 2CR with the current Heart network, or the towns those stations tend to serve when virtually all foreign influence was shut out of them to the same towns monopolised by national or global brands; as bad as each other, just in wholly different ways). The 96 did not die for Murdoch and the Glazers. But they did not die for aldermen either.

Rather, they died for what we never had before and would have had to have wholly different politics in the decade leading up to Hillsborough to have after, that is to say the elusive dream of genuinely democratic control of “the people’s game” – which it never has truly been in any of its incarnations – actually by the people. There was, even in the context of Thatcherism, a decent chance of this happening after Hillsborough, because the plutocrats at that point saw the game as beneath them, “a slum game for slum people” to quote one particular Murdoch rag. Maybe if Gazza’s tears hadn’t happened, and the game hadn’t had a sudden boost in terms of bourgeois and broader social appeal, it could have done, because they still wouldn’t have cared and democratic ownership could have been the way out of what was very clearly the final straw, the last knock which had rendered the old edifices wholly unsustainable, for the old quasi-feudal structure of club ownership. Michael Knighton may have been trying to wake the sleeping giant in the sleeping giant of an industrial city which was being given new pop-cultural life, but there were other, better ideas which, again, were in no sense ASB or out of reach. One of the most melancholy pages in The Times’ digital archive – the first, only in some highly selective senses and from some equally selective perspectives the best (at any point in the paper’s history), but still the most widely available – is from September 1989, with much talk about fan power and fan involvement as the way ahead – the only way ahead – for football in the 1990s. But on the same page, we have the paper’s owner, at that stage talking only about his hopes to buy cricket rights. At that point, football was still for prole scum as far as he was concerned – that Sun front page showed how much he cared about the people who had given him a British foothold and made him rich in the first place – and so there was still hope for the rest of us. But then …

Let us look back rather sadly on the situation described in David Stubbs’ book 1996 and the End of History, where there was vague hope – hope, as we now know, built on grains of sand and seats of clay – that the decay of both English football and British politics, both of which could arguably be traced to the same week in June 1970 (c.f. the “permanent Butskellism” counterfactual in the Nick Hancock & Chris England book published in that era, far removed from the better-known quasi-fascist dystopia with the same starting point), could be reversed through a closely interrelated purpose. Let us reflect with deep melancholy – especially if we’re my age, even if we were always one step out of everything – on the fact that the first huge wave of mainland European influence on English football at that moment was seen as a means of shoring up our position in the EU, and quite possibly the euro itself, for good.

Let no-one pretend that Brexit can be progressive for English football, for the reasons given above. The old isolation was every bit as bad, in a different way, as the present situation. Let no-one attempt to bring it back, while (in common with Brexit as a whole) leaving the true exploiters untouched.

And let us recall again these words of Keith Waterhouse, arguably his single best column after his Faustian pact with the Harmsworths (the results of which have left much of his best work in limbo among young liberal types in the UK who would otherwise respect and admire it, and I’m working on the assumption that most readers of this blog who were adult by 1989 would not have seen it unless they glanced at Tory relatives’ newspapers, relatively mild and restrained in tone compared to now though the Mail still was); let us praise and celebrate the fact that fans are now, as he rightly believed they always should have been, treated as people and not as prole scum and cattle, let us acknowledge the gains he called for which have been won, but let us mourn the fact that they were not deeper and more profound in other, harder to reach under the present economic system, senses. Let us, in particular, acknowledge its progressive status compared to much else which appeared in that part of the press, by no means just The Sun. And let us keep it in our minds, as proof that a great humanitarian – for all his latterday moans about “Brussels bureaucracy” and the like – never quite (see his sheer joy at Obama’s election, in his last year of life, for proof of this) lost the qualities which had once, in less divided times, made him so revered.

Thanks, of course, are due to the Gale Group for digitising the Mail (particularly valuable if you want to see the “middle class fightback” of the 1970s, stealing Labour’s tactics against it, in action, in a paper which had been seen, like that class itself, as in an inexorable decline) and to the British Library for allowing me to print it. The microfilms would still have been there, but for the generation coming through now, who need to know how they got where they are and how they might want to get out of it, they are acquiring the status of papyrus. Those with access to UK Press Online are urged to track down his post-Heysel column from 3rd June 1985, still in the Daily Mirror at that point, which reveals many of the fractures which had emerged on the Left; while he ends with vicious, fervent condemnation of unemployment, the poverty trap and Thatcherism, many of the things he identifies as elements of social decay were now supported and seen as non-negotiable forces to be championed by the post-68 Left in England (although, very importantly, not in Scotland) and they give some idea of how he would, effectively, call their bluff a year later. But coming out on the other side, here it is (and please don’t be offended by the use of “soccer”, the dominant form in most newspapers until comparatively recently and, while always more common among the middle class in the UK, reflecting its origins within private schools and universities, definitely not a US-originated term as many now think):

After Black Saturday

Keith Waterhouse

Daily Mail, Monday 17th April 1989

IF I SUGGEST that some good may come out of the deadly shambles that was Hillsborough, I am not thinking of such safety improvements as may be triggered off, or not, by those oft-repeated shibboleths, “Lessons must be learned”, “It must never happen again” and “these are all issues which have to be very closely examined”.

Similar resolutions were made after Heysel and Bradford but what must never happen again has happened again – with the supposed safety improvements being a factor in the cause of the disaster.

To most observers on the touchline of this tragedy it seems blazingly obvious that football is a spectator sport in the control of fools. In the fullness of time the inquiries and inquests will doubtless couch this verdict in more seemly language. And there will be recommendations effectively suggesting that the fools might, with the benefit of hindsight, acquire a somewhat higher IQ.

But the good that may come out of the disaster will not arise out of the implementation of belated recommendations. Good is not implemented. It implements itself. It did so at that abandoned FA Cup semi-final.

Like many other by now shame-faced listeners, I would guess, my first reaction to the initial newsflash on the radio was a sigh of, “Oh God, here we go, here we go, Liverpool again!” By the end of a long grim day I had regained a good deal of the respect for Liverpool in particular and soccer fans in general that had seeped away over the violence-besplattered years.

Mismanagement, not misbehaviour, was to blame for Hillsborough. That much was quickly apparent. But more than that: we saw the fans in a new light – and it was the light of respect.

We saw Liverpool supporters resourcefully acting as stretcher bearers for their stricken mates, quickly organising themselves into makeshift St John Ambulance teams and using advertisement placards to convey the injured. They didn’t learn that kind of initiative on their YOP schemes.

We saw the taunts die on the lips of Nottingham Forest fans as they realised this was no mere riot. As the dead were carried off they accorded their rivals the decency of silence.

We saw Everton fans returning home jubilant from their semi-final triumph over Norwich, only to be shocked and subdued by the news and to put away their scarves and rosettes as a gesture of respect.

We saw stunned Liverpool survivors who had lost friends or relatives returning to the ground clutching posies of flowers which they hung reverentially on the spiked railings.

THIS was the eye-opener. They looked like soccer louts and they dressed like soccer louts and doubtless in less sombre circumstances there were those among them who would have behaved like soccer louts, yet they returned carrying not bottles and beer cans but flowers.

The proposition that inside every soccer hooligan is a decent young man trying to get out may be too saccharine-sweet a pill for our present administration to swallow, and indeed it may be a wild overstatement. But Parliament, before leaping on Hillsborough as hell-sent support for the Football Spectators Bill, would do well to take pause and consider that these are human beings and not animals they are dealing with.

The sole function of soccer identity cards, it seems to me, is to degrade and humiliate the fans even further than they are degraded and humiliated already by being prodded and herded into cattle pens. Had ID cards been required at Saturday’s semi-final their only use, in the opinion of the Liverpool doctor who took upon himself the duty of declaring the victims dead, would have been to identify the bodies. Otherwise they could have led to a crush outside the ground as terrible and fatal as the one within it.

BUT I am not about to go into the ins and outs of identity cards, inadequate organisation, allocation of tickets, crowd control, cages, crush barriers, or the insensitivity of Football Association chairman Bert Millichip who, when asked whether the Cup Final would be cancelled, replied: “Life does have to go on”. Not for the dead Liverpool fans, it doesn’t.

No: I simply say that when these matters are weighed and considered, it must be in the realisation that all concerned with football safety, from the Government down, have gone badly wrong in regarding soccer fans as a species of sub-humans with a level of intelligence even lower than that of some soccer administrators.

Received opinion, or anyway the received opinion of those who spend most of their waking hours dreaming up new and ever more futile schemes for curbing soccer violence, is that if the fans behave like animals then they must expect to be treated like animals. Yet when they are treated so much like animals that their lives are put in peril and many of their lives are lost, then they behave not like animals but like responsible human beings. There is a valuable lesson there. Will anyone in authority learn from it?

At the risk of waxing sentimental I will stick my neck out and repeat myself. Inside every soccer lout there is a decent young man trying to get out. That is the good that may emerge from Hillsborough’s black Saturday.

1 Comment

  1. Mick said,

    The Left should beware of riding Hillsborough like a vehicle, though this one’s not actually hysterical. It does look particularly confected when you now get bizarre couplets of that and Brexit, to feed the minds of the stormtroopers.

    And to give Margaret Thatcher her due, it was very dangerous to let anything even inadvertently undermine the police by 1989. I think she saw flaws in that report anyway and the Left was by no means impotent in its quest for causing trouble. Too many riots and too many loony left councils undermining the police were a threat to the bobbies.

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