At the time, the police accused the Hillsborough victims and other Liverpool fans of causing the disaster through their own drunkenness and disorder, a narrative that the news media eagerly echoed. That made the event a flash point in the public debate over class, poverty and the responsibility of government to its citizens. And because those issues have remained central to British politics and life ever since, so has Hillsborough.
How Did Hillsborough Become a Political Flash Point?
Soccer, at least at the time, was associated with the poor and working class, and particularly with “yob” culture, British slang for unruly, dangerous, drunken louts, and a term often used to deride the poor.
In the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster, those stereotypes were convenient for the police, who took advantage of them to claim that the deaths were the fault of intoxicated Liverpool fans, not the officers in charge.
That version of events also played to a critical political argument in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, where the Conservative government argued that the poor ought to take more personal responsibility and be less dependent on government support. Hillsborough came to symbolize what the government portrayed as self-destructive behavior that needed to be curbed through cultural and behavioral change rather than state assistance.
When victims’ families insisted that the police were to blame, that was held up as evidence of a toxic culture of the poor shirking responsibility for the consequences of their actions.
That frame proved persistent over the years. In 2004, The Spectator, a right-leaning political magazine then edited by Boris Johnson, now the foreign secretary, published an editorial that accused Liverpool, which had fallen into rust-belt decline, of having “an excessive predilection for welfarism.” The editorial said there was “no excuse for Liverpool’s failure to acknowledge, even to this day, the part played in the disaster by drunken fans.”
Mr. Johnson eventually apologized for the column.
The debate over what happened at the stadium, charged by these larger social issues, has continued ever since. Each round has set off new demands from the victims’ families for an investigation that could clear the names of their loved ones, perpetuating the controversy.
Why Are Charges Being Brought Now?
The turning point in the case came in 2010, when, after extensive lobbying by victims’ families, the British government agreed to set up an independent commission to investigate the disaster. An earlier judicial inquiry had faulted the police for a lack of control but did not clear spectators of blame, leaving the families unsatisfied.
The new commission concluded there was no evidence that the victims were to blame for what happened. It also found that the police had not only failed to anticipate or contain the disaster, but also doctored witness statements and other evidence after the fact to hide their own culpability.
The political environment of 2012, when the report was released, was very different from 1989. David Cameron, the Conservative prime minister at the time, sought to present a more sympathetic Tory party, distinct from the sharp edges of the Thatcher years. He took the report as an opportunity to demonstrate sympathy and sorrow for Hillsborough, reading a speech in Parliament denouncing the “double injustice” that victims had experienced.
The report and political response to it, along with a later inquest, which declared that the victims had been “unlawfully” rather than accidentally killed, gave new energy to calls for criminal charges against the police officers involved in the disaster.
What Will Happen Next?
Five years later, the report’s findings have worked their way through the British justice system, culminating this week with the charges filed against seven individuals for their roles in the disaster.
David Duckenfield, the officer in charge of security at Hillsborough, has been charged with 95 counts of grossly negligent manslaughter. He admitted in testimony before the inquest that he had previously lied to investigators when he claimed that spectators had forced open a gate that allowed the deadly crush of people into the stadium. Others are charged with obstructing justice and violating safety rules.
These charges may be the beginning of the final chapter of the Hillsborough disaster. But for the families it will be cold comfort.
“The loss of all your children is devastating,” Trevor Hicks, whose two teenage daughters died in Hillsborough, told the inquest. “You lose everything: the present, the future and any purpose.”
Continue reading the main story