Hillsborough: Is Thatcher Guilty? And If So, What Of?
October 21, 2012
by Martin Odoni
The people of Merseyside, indeed the people of much of the northern half of Britain, have many a good reason to despise Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative Government of the 1980’s. As Prime Minister, she effectively dismantled precisely those industries that many in the north most depended on for their livelihoods, while at the same time making most of the state ‘safety nets’, such as Unemployment Benefit, that they would be forced to turn to once their main sources of work were taken from them, harder to obtain.
Liverpool was still, even as late as the 1960’s, one of the most important ports in the United Kingdom. By the end of the 1980’s, it saw less meaningful activity as a port than the likes of Grimsby or Hartlepool, and while Margaret Thatcher’s Government is not exclusively responsible for that decline, it made sure there was no attempt at a recovery. So walk along Liverpool’s mighty docklands today, and you will doubtless be impressed at what is a great monument to the city’s prominent past, and if it’s a nice day, you will probably be amazed by how many tourists you have to wade through as they take in what was once one of the great lynchpins of the British Empire. But in terms of the activities that a dockland is primarily supposed to be there for, well, you’ll find Liverpool is pretty much dead-to-the-world. You may see the odd passenger ferry scuttling back and forth across the mighty river, with the strains of Gerry & The Pacemakers’ classic hit Ferry ‘Cross The Mersey playing (probably loop-playing ad infinitum) over its tannoy, but anything to do with, say, ships hauling goods in and out of the country, or cargo vessels loading up from or unloading onto the jetties? Forget it. (Before any Thatcherites want to offer their ha’penny’s-worth to the discussion, yes, I am well aware that sea-ports had largely been superseded by air freight by the 1980’s, but that hardly justifies killing off an entire city’s whole purpose-of-being.)
Any attempt that Liverpudlians made through the 1980’s to resist the onset of what the Conservative Party called ‘progress’ was met with contempt and, on more than one occasion, substantial force. The opposition to forcibly changing the Merseyside way of life and culture was invariably portrayed in Government and media as stereotype layabouts throwing tantrums whenever their ‘privileges’ were taken away. When the enormous damage of ‘economic restructuring’ (as Tories are so euphemistically fond of calling their enormous industrial dismantling campaign of the early-1980’s) led to mass unemployment, huge inner city decay, serious poverty and deprivation, and significant – by British standards at least – unrest around Liverpool, the whole city was dismissively painted as a hive of violent Marxist rebels and Soviet Union sympathisers who somehow deserved all the hardship that was piled on them.
The fact that Liverpool’s economy was reformed with some success, and a relative economic recovery was achieved during the 1990’s can be pointed to in Thatcher’s defence, but only by the characteristic Tory attitude that ends justify means, and so success entails justification. The dreadful pains the city’s population went through to get there – and the cruel, unfair condemnation they routinely experienced from the rest of the country whenever they dared object to it – cannot and should not be ignored just because a light was eventually found at the end of the particularly dark and hazardous tunnel they were pushed through against their will. While the rest of the country lurched between repeated economic recessions at either end of the 1980’s – soothed only by the brief, very narrowly-beneficial ‘Yuppiedom’ boom of the decade’s middle years – Liverpool was one of the cities that were left behind, locked in what seemed an unending economic depression.
As I say, there is no reason on Earth for Liverpudlians to feel anything towards Margaret Thatcher but bitterness and hatred.
In this context, it is hardly surprising that, given the Hillsborough Disaster of 1989 occurred during Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister, and the long-running suspicions of an Establishment cover-up of its real causes (suspicions that, with the September 12th release of the Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel, have now proven correct beyond any credible doubt), many on Merseyside have long accused her of being caught up in the legalised foul play. It was, let us not forget, Liverpool Football Club whose supporters were the victims of the Disaster’s horrors. It was also, let us again not forget, the campaign of the South Yorkshire Police to shift blame from themselves onto the supporters that was composed in large part of a vile smear campaign – a smear campaign that depended heavily on propagating the exact same stereotypes about the people of Liverpool that the Conservative Government had itself used to justify its own mistreatment of the city over the previous ten years.
I am perfectly willing to hold up my hand at this point and admit that I myself have for long years believed, or at least very strongly suspected, that Thatcher was closely involved in the cover-up. I was fairly sure that she was at least aware of it, and that even if it turned out that she didn’t actually co-operate with it, she must have turned the proverbial Nelson’s eye to it.
With the Hillsborough Independent Panel last month releasing its long-awaited and damning Report into the causes of the Disaster, and the behaviour of various official bodies in its aftermath, it seemed likely that we should have our best-ever chance of finding out once and for all the true extent of Government involvement in the South Yorkshire Police’s skulduggery. Now for sure, what it had to say about the South Yorkshire Police, the West Midlands Police, Sheffield Wednesday Football Club, the Football Association, the Crown Prosecution Service, the Coroner’s Office, Sheffield City Council, the media, and others besides, was frequently scathing. But what did it have to say about the Government itself on the issue of Hillsborough?
Answer? Well, um, to be honest, not a great deal. Quite simply, in over four hundred and fifty thousand pages of evidence, all scrupulously and exhaustively analysed in substantial detail, they found very little worth pointing to that might suggest Government complicity. Indeed, there are probably only two instances that even hint at Thatcher trying to help the Police cover their own backs.
Back in March, there was a minor leak to the BBC – see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-17382896 – of a document uncovered by the Independent Panel. It intimated that Thatcher might have been unduly influenced early on by a completely uninformed and irresponsible conjecture by the then-Chief Constable of Merseyside Police, Kenneth Oxford, that drunkenness and ticketlessness played a key role in the Disaster (subsequently debunked by Lord Justice Taylor when he published his August 1989 Interim Report). Analysing the reference, it is clear that it was a speculative, ignorant and prejudiced statement by a man who snobbishly viewed the people he policed to be an irksome burden, and Thatcher should hardly have given it the time of day.
On publishing their Report, the Panel announced that they had also found interesting references to when the Prime Minister was briefed on the findings of the Taylor Interim Report. She was informed that Taylor had been ‘infuriated’ when questioning senior officers in the South Yorkshire Police during his Inquiry by their ‘defensive(ness) and evasive(ness)’. Perhaps most tellingly, the briefing went on to describe the ‘defensive and at times close-to-deceitful’ behaviour of South Yorkshire Police officers as being ‘depressingly familiar’. The briefing also requested that the then-Home Secretary, Douglas Hurd, should announce the Taylor Report’s findings to the House Of Commons by welcoming its ‘broad thrust’. Thatcher’s response, according to the recorded documentation, was to demand a change of emphasis; “What do we mean by ‘welcoming the broad thrust of the report’? The broad thrust is devastating criticism of the police. Is that for us to welcome?” (See sections 2.6.122 through to 2.6.135 of the Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel.)
Now, some supporters of the Hillsborough Justice Campaign, and of the Hillsborough Families’ Support Group, have gone as far as to interpret this as a ‘smoking gun’, a frank admission that she did not want the South Yorkshire Police (her historic rod-of-iron, violently and successfully deployed against striking miners across the north of England during the mid-1980’s) to be exposed to public ridicule and disgrace.
In fact, not only is this not nearly explicit enough to be safely-inferred, the reference rather suggests to me that, much as it pains my lifelong Socialist leanings to admit it, Margaret Thatcher is probably not guilty of collusion, at least of active collusion, in the cover-up of the causes of the Hillsborough Disaster. Ideologically, it would have been very satisfying for me to be able to say that she was in on it all along. But I realise that for me to do so, I would be guilty of thinking with my heart and not with my head.
First things first, let’s get this reference into a fuller context by quoting a later sentence. “Surely we welcome the thoroughness of the report and its recommendations.” It’s a dirty trick often used in ideological discussion to try and ‘cherry-pick’ part of a quote that suits the desired viewpoint, and to edit out the parts of the quote that don’t conform to the viewpoint nearly so well. In this case, it is quite implicit from the later sentence that what Thatcher was saying was that it would be foolish for the Government to announce that it actually welcomed the discovery that the South Yorkshire Police were habitually deceitful and irresponsible, and were perfectly willing to behave corruptly in order to avoid carrying the can for their own foul-ups. The inadvertent suggestion of the briefing was that Hurd should in effect imply that the Government warmly approved of Police corruption, and Thatcher was therefore asking for the emphasis of the statement to be shifted to applauding Taylor’s diligence instead.
Secondly though, and this I think is just as telling, the exchanges in this briefing do not sound at all like those that would flow naturally from conspirators discussing fellow conspirators. To describe deceitfulness as ‘depressingly familiar’ would be quite incongruous when knowingly and actively assisting in that same deceit. This discussion of the Taylor Interim Report is very much couched in terms of authorities viewing events from the outside looking in, not of conspirators on the inside cynically dressing things up for external consumption.
Thirdly though, and most importantly, these two instances are about the only indicators that the Independent Panel could find that seem to offer any possible hint of Government complicity. And they are simply not strong enough, not by half. They are very weak, and can perfectly reasonably – probably more reasonably – be interpreted as Government officials and legislators following correct procedure and fulfilling their duties in the aftermath of a major peacetime disaster. If there really were Government collusion in the South Yorkshire Police’s dirty tricks, given that the Independent Panel had access to nearly half a million documents, surely they would have found far stronger indicators than these?
Some will argue, “Yeah, but the Government probably destroyed that evidence years ago!” Which was of course a serious worry right from the outset, when the Panel was set up. But no, if you think about it, that is still not plausible; if there were a plan to destroy such documentation as proved a cover-up, how did so many such documents survive to be assessed by the Panel? Why were such documents as proved the Police were up-to-no-good not destroyed as well, especially given that the whole point of the cover-up in the first place was to protect the Police’s reputation, not the Government’s? Would it not have been far easier to be indiscriminate and destroy all documentation that showed a cover-up by both Whitehall and the Police, rather than picking out the evidence against Whitehall? Indeed, many documents that would have shown Government collusion would not have been in Whitehall’s direct possession, and so would have been far more difficult to obtain and destroy. For instance, if the South Yorkshire Police were getting Government help, some of their own documentation should at least mention aspects of it. Realistically, at least some documents hinting at Government collusion would have gotten through. And yet, they are not there.
As I say, my heart would have taken a grim satisfaction if Thatcher had been implicated, but she has not been. The evidence is simply not where it would be were she truly guilty. It is frankly a little bizarre that many of the HJC/HFSG supporters on the Internet have tried to say that the Report has damned her for her role in a conspiracy, when even the Independent Panel themselves, when publishing their Report, stated quite firmly that they could find no such evidence.
This is not to say that Thatcher is completely innocent of all wrongdoing over the Disaster. The fact that she was warned so early on of the South Yorkshire Police’s deceitfulness means that she should have been suspicious straight away, and taken action to make sure that there was no Police interference in the investigations by the Crown Prosecution Service or the Coroner’s Inquests that followed. Instead, both she and her successor, John Major, very clearly chose to stand a long way back and just let the Legal Establishment follow its usual course of closing ranks and looking after its own. Meanwhile, Thatcher’s Press Secretary, Bernard Ingham, is shown to have been quite inconsistent in his stance on the Disaster, initially stating that it was “not the result of obvious hooliganism” – so suggesting he has known all along that the Police were to blame, and raising very suspicious questions about why his stance later turned so aggressively, inaccurately, and stubbornly against the Liverpool supporters. (See sections 2.6.24 and 2.6.25 of the Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel.) But again, what does that prove, except that, as a rule, politicians are not big on consistency? Did we really not already know that?
Thatcher and Major are shown by the Report to be guilty of negligence, which to me is quite bad enough, even if it’s not as ‘sexy’ or ‘Hollywood’ a crime as would have been actively conspiring to cover up what really happened. But measuring fact is not about how exciting the findings are, it is about what they objectively say. In this case, what they say is that they didn’t seem to be doing the sorts of things that an active conspirator would have done. And besides, if you really do need a dose of Hollywood in your understanding of the premature and cruel deaths of nearly a hundred people (sheesh, what does that say about you if you do?), well, surely the dirty deeds of the South Yorkshire Police are enough on their own for that. For not only is there no evidence of Government complicity in the cover-up, but you don’t really need such complicity to occur for the cover-up to be workable and to make sense. By application of Occam’s Razor, which (very roughly) asserts that the simplest explanation that fits the known facts is usually the best, it seems that Thatcher’s Government weren’t involved.
Supporters of the HJC/HFSG have rightly insisted for many years that accusations of poor behaviour by Liverpool fans causing the Disaster have never been accompanied by supporting evidence, and so should be dismissed. Correct, but accusations of Margaret Thatcher colluding in the cover-up have also turned up no evidence, despite analysis of nearly half-a-million related documents. We can’t have it both ways. Based on the information we have, she is not guilty of conspiracy.
I hate what Thatcher stands for no less for saying it, and as I say, she was still guilty of holding the telescope up to her eye patch. But the bottom line is, she simply didn’t cover up what caused the Disaster at Hillsborough. That’s one point of bitterness against her that Merseyside will have to abandon, I’m afraid. Frustrating, and especially difficult to concede after so many years of believing otherwise, but still, the accusation is unsustainable.
It’s only one point of bitterness that is ill-founded though, and as I pointed out at the beginning of this essay, Merseysiders still have plenty of other, perfectly-justified ones to be going on with.
More of my thoughts on Margaret Thatcher at; –