Hillsborough: More On Thatcher–That Quote That Never Goes Away
October 28, 2012
by Martin Odoni
A few days ago I released an essay – see https://thegreatcritique.wordpress.com/2012/10/21/hillsborough-is-thatcher-guilty-and-if-so-what-of/ – explaining why I have concluded that Margaret Thatcher’s complicity in the cover-up of the causes of the Hillsborough Disaster is unlikely. Not fun for a committed leftie like me, but out there it is. Since that time, depressingly predictably, a number of online Hillsborough campaigners from the more extreme fringe (especially on Facebook pages) have taken rather short-tempered issue with my arguments. Now I saw plenty of indication during these exchanges that the individuals in question have not even read the essay properly before lashing out at it, but one issue that has (half-)legitimately been raised is that I seem to have overlooked an important item of evidence against Margaret Thatcher.
There is a frequent rumour that I have heard on and off going back for many years that, at some point during 1989 or 1990, Thatcher said something on the lines of, “I am determined that no Police officer shall ever be prosecuted for the Hillsborough Disaster.” This rather alarming quote is seen by many as the clinching evidence that Thatcher colluded in the cover-up by the South Yorkshire Police. There are three reasons – two of which overlap substantially – why I did not bother mentioning it in last week’s essay.
Firstly, the essay was chiefly a response to what implications, if any, the Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel, released on September 12th, might have for Thatcher’s would-be involvement. The Report has not made any apparent mention of the quotation at all (unless I missed it), so it was not really relevant.
Secondly, and very similar to the first point, there is in fact no clear indication from any quarter that the quotation is genuine. If it is not cited in the Report, which is an assessment of all state-held documentary evidence relating directly to the Hillsborough Disaster, then we have to assume until further notice that no evidence exists that she ever said it.
And thirdly, the quote is always so vague and so devoid of context whenever I hear it that it has to be viewed with great suspicion and doubt anyway. Although the meaning of it is always much the same, the quotation has taken so many different forms, and its origin has been so inconsistent, that it just is not credible without someone finding a firm source for it. It has taken the form I mentioned above, but I have also heard it in the following forms as well; –
“For so long as I am Prime Minister, the Police will not be blamed for Hillsborough.”
“I do not want to see any Policeman ever convicted for Hillsborough.”
“Not one Police officer will be imprisoned for the Hillsborough Disaster. Not if there is any way I can prevent it.”
Among others. As I say, the meaning is always more or less the same, but the actual word-content of the quotation varies so widely that it does rather invite the label, Urban myth.
It also does not help that the context in which it is invoked is often as vague and subject-to-change as its wording. Quite simply, when and where she is supposed to have said it, and whom she is supposed to have said it to, are as changeable as the weather. Sometimes she has said it in Cabinet to her Ministers in the New Year of 1990. At other times, it turns out she said it in secret briefings she held with representatives of the South Yorkshire Police around August the previous year. (Secret briefings? Well, how did we find out about them, or what was said in them, then?) Some people have her saying it to her Press Secretary on 16th April 1989, as she was touring the scene of the Disaster, which sounds the most likely time to me that she might have said it. Did she say it in all such circumstances perhaps? Well maybe, but it is strange if she was so frequently loose-lipped on the matter that there is no official record of her saying it at any time.
Furthermore, it needs to be acknowledged, however reluctantly, that even if we could get clear indications that the quotation is genuine, it does not necessarily prove that she colluded in the cover-up. To a large degree, it very much depends on when she might have said it. For instance, if we take the third of the scenarios suggested above – that she said it while touring the Hillsborough Stadium in the aftermath of the Disaster – it becomes a very flimsy piece of evidence indeed. At that point, not only Thatcher, but also most politicians, most of the media, and much of the country as a whole, had just taken it as read that the Liverpool supporters themselves were to blame for the tragedy. Given that the Chief Constable of the South Yorkshire Police, the ineffable Peter Wright, was giving her a running commentary as she surveyed the interior of the central pens, it seems highly likely that this false impression was being very firmly reinforced. Therefore it is quite plausible that she would have declared her intention to protect the police at that point, simply because she would not have realised at that early stage that the police had got anything wrong, or that protecting them would require a cover-up.
But this, let us not forget, was nearly four months before the release of Lord Justice Taylor’s Interim Report, which at the start of August that year turned everything on its head with the announcement that supporter-behaviour was not the cause of the Disaster; Police bungling and poor stadium design were at fault. So if Thatcher initially expressed a desire to see the Police exonerated when she had no way of knowing what had really caused the Disaster, once the Taylor Interim Report set her straight on that, it is entirely conceivable that she changed her mind about protecting the Police. (And if she really had planned to cover things up right from the outset, why did she not do anything to stitch up the Taylor Inquiry?)
The quotation could only be seen as real evidence therefore if she gave voice to it after the Report. As I say, many people put the words in her mouth a lot earlier.
The idea can never be dismissed outright of course, but until its provenance can be definitely pinned down – and even the Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel was unable to help with that – it is unreliable hearsay, nothing more.
I mentioned in the first paragraph above that I have had a few arguments this week with people who want to see Thatcher implicated in Hillsborough. One particularly unpleasant exchange occurred on a Facebook group calling itself “Bet I Can Find 1 Million Who Want Justice For The 96”. One of the moderators of that page, calling himself “Chris, Hillsborough survivor”, got very angry with me for linking to last week’s essay on the page, insisting that Thatcher was definitely guilty of collusion. When I challenged him for evidence, his response was to patronise me, to state that he is a survivor of the Disaster (really? With a username like that? Well, get away…), to point out that he has written a book about Hillsborough (what? He wrote a book, so I have to assume that makes him right about everything connected with the Disaster, including all the goings-on at 10 Downing Street?), and to instruct me that I should go learn something about it. At no stage did he answer my question. Not sure exactly where he got the idea from that I don’t know anything about a Disaster that I have studied in some detail for over twenty years, but never mind. He did point to the idea that Thatcher had said she wanted to make sure the Police were exonerated. I asked him again for evidence, and his response was to throw four-letter-word abuse at me, to delete my posts, and to ban me from the page. (Oh well, that’s Facebook admins for you.)
The exchanges carried on a bit further behind the scenes as I tried to appeal against the ban. I actually went too far with that, by suggesting his behaviour resembles that of the South Yorkshire Police. Now to be brutally honest, the comparison is valid i.e. he was guilty of deleting statements, of gagging people when they were stating inconvenient facts, of trying to force people to stay ‘on-message’, but still in hindsight, given what he apparently went through because of the South Yorkshire Police in 1989, the accusation is cruel, so I do apologise to him for going that far. (I doubt he will ever apologise in turn for the high-handedness, evasiveness or the foul personal abuse that he was guilty of, but I doubt I shall sleep any the worse without his words of contrition.)
One interesting development in this though is the final comment he posted before I decided that life is just too short and dropped the matter. He stuck by this claim about Thatcher, and tried to support it by stating that he was there when she said it.
To say that I am skeptical of this claim puts considerable strain on the modest definition of ‘skepticism’. It was an extraordinary remark that I suspect was the product of the desperate realisation that his arguments just were not going to cut it. The problems with it are obvious. One, why did he wait until that stage of the argument – we had been arguing for about four days by that point – to announce such a revelation, and not mention it when he first raised the matter? Two, yet again, there was no explanation of context e.g. where and when did she say it, whom was she talking to, what else did she say either side of it? Three, why in blazes would a professional politician be so stupid as to declare something like that in earshot of exactly the people she most needs to keep it secret from? Seriously, Chris, if you ever read this, please explain to me why the hell you would be present to hear a conversation like that? Were you a member of Cabinet or something? The only possible reason I can think of is that she visited the hospitals in Sheffield after surveying the Disaster-scene on April 16th, and if you were one of the injured, you might have overheard her talking to someone in her delegation while she was visiting the ward you were on. Even then, I still find the notion ridiculous that she would blurt out anything so hush-hush in front of the very people who would be most outraged by it. Thatcher was clearly mad, but she was not stupid, at least not when it came to maintaining her portfolio.
Also, this idea again falls foul of the point I made above about it being prior to the release of the Taylor Interim Report, and therefore not very firm evidence of complicity.
Until further notice therefore, I shall maintain my position of dismissing the claim as hearsay.
(If you wish to see a summary of the argument I had with “Chris, Hillsborough Survivor”, please go to https://thegreatcritique.wordpress.com/2013/01/16/hillsborough-whittles-claim/.)
I suspect that “Chris, Hillsborough survivor” is Christoper Whittle, author of With Hope In Your Heart, which was published earlier this year.
Now I have not read his book as yet, but while I have no doubt that it is a very legitimate and revealing account of what happened on the day of the tragedy itself, and what happened to him personally in the aftermath, I am far from convinced that it will offer any reliable or substantial insights on Margaret Thatcher’s role in events. I may revise that view after I have read it.
I have now obtained a copy of With Hope In Your Heart. Before I say anything further, I need to stress again that I am assuming here that “Chris, Hillsborough survivor” is Christoper Whittle, which he possibly isn’t (although the writing style appears sadly similar). Therefore, please do not take what I am about to write as definitive. However, if Mr. Whittle and “Chris, Hillsborough survivor” are one and the same, I can only conclude that his aforementioned claim about being there when Thatcher uttered her putative quote was, as I suspected, a lie.
Now, the book is not a very good work of authorship at all, littered with spelling mistakes, questionable word-selection, a tendency to thrash its way from subject to subject a little randomly, and a generally aggressive-defensive tone – understandable but detrimental. However, we have to allow for the fact that Whittle is not a professional writer, and that his aims in writing the book were not commercial or literary, but cathartic, so I will not dwell long on making criticisms of his writing style. (I feel compelled to point out one thing though; constantly trying to inform the readers that he’s ‘saying something funny’ by punctuating the relevant sentences with three exclamation marks is very, very annoying – the literary equivalent of playing a trombone whenever a clown falls over. The editor, if there was one, should have pointed this out to him. But there were plenty of other failings in the editing as well, too numerous to go into here.)
What I will confine myself to for now is what is relevant to this essay; what insight does the book offer on the subject of Thatcher’s possible role in the cover-up, and on whether she really did give voice to ‘that’ quote?
The answer is zero, as I had predicted previously (see the Post-Postscript from 3-11-2012). The only clear reference I can find to the Thatcher quote** is in Chapter 12: At The End Of The Storm There’s A Golden Sky. There, on page 142, Whittle writes, “We also know of her insistence that ‘no police officer should be prosecuted over Hillsborough.'” No explanation of where we ‘know’ it from follows, let alone any suggestion that he was there when she said it. As the book’s endnotes only point to titles of other books and websites, it is difficult to pin any precise source down for any particular assertion Whittle has made. (Yes, I know my own endnotes on this blog tend to be very vague like that as well, but then I am not criticising Whittle for it as such, at least not here. I am just pointing out the difficulty it gives me when trying to assess how accurate some of his assertions are when they come from outside his personal field of experience.) Either way, it is noticeable that he does not mention anywhere in the book having ever been in the same place at the same time as Margaret Thatcher. Not once. Why not? Especially if, as he claims, she announced in front of him something as explosive as a plan to fix the Hillsborough Inquiries in favour of the police? Where the book discusses Thatcher, its condemnation of her is unrestrained and vitriolic (as indeed is mine whenever I discuss her), and yet Whittle did not think that personally witnessing a foul declaration as major as this was worth a mention? But it suddenly was worth discussing during an argument on a very minor Facebook page?
Whittle goes on to write of the research by the Hillsborough Independent Panel (their report had not yet been released at the time the book was published), “If the documents that the Government are trying to withhold* do get released into the public domain, then I am sure we will see the true, murky picture of (Thatcher’s) role in the cover-ups”. This again seems very much at odds with his claim to having, in effect, first-hand knowledge of Thatcher’s activities. If he had heard her, in person, declaring her role in the cover-up, why would Whittle subsequently need documentation to learn what her role was?
Quite simply, there is no indication whatever within the book that Whittle was privy to any behind-closed-doors activity within Government with regards to Hillsborough. (Or indeed with regards to anything else.) Given the general tone and tendency of his work, we can be confident that if he had ever had such access, he would have given us all of the gorey details, probably conveyed in the most damning terms. It would have been the perfect ammunition to support his position. This is why – and again I must stress that I am saying this under the assumption that Whittle is “Chris, Hillsborough survivor” – I can only conclude that “Chris'” claim to have been present when Thatcher announced she would protect the police from convictions was just a flat-out lie, brought on by desperation when he was unable to find an effective counter-argument.
All of which leads me to ask a very obvious question; if Whittle is really so sure that his entire position on every single aspect of Hillsborough, including Thatcher’s role in it, is correct, why in the world would he need to make such a thing up? Why would he need to lie about anything? Especially something so obviously suspect as this? Maybe the real reason is that deep down he is not as sure of his ground as he is making out, but has clung on to the belief for so long that it is too painful and humiliating to admit that he was wrong.
In any event, it is a sad reflection on the Hillsborough campaigners that some of them, so rightly angry at the way the Disaster victims were lied about, will themselves resort to lying in order to accuse those people they want to see implicated in the cover-up. For Whittle in particular, who makes a great deal in his book about being a devoted Roman Catholic, this is an egregious breach of the Ninth Commandment. By claiming he heard Thatcher saying something that he plainly was not there to hear, he is guilty – quite literally – of bearing false witness. Thus the comparison with the behaviour of the South Yorkshire Police is harder than ever to resist.
Sorry, everyone, the notorious Thatcher quotation remains doubtfully sourced, and so, as far as I am concerned, it also remains unreliable hearsay until further notice. This is not bias; I will re-state now, I am a lifelong socialist, a staunch anti-Thatcherite who has always hated everything Margaret Thatcher ever stood for. But the reasons I have for that position are based on events in the real world. If her definite real world deeds are good enough reasons to oppose her and her legacy – and they are – why do some people need to spread baseless rumours as well?
Any truth that requires a lie to prop it up may not be the truth after all.
* It does seem a little odd of Whittle to write that the Government were trying to withhold the documents at a time when the Government had long since handed over all known documentation to the Hillsborough Independent Panel. Although The Daily Star has published articles suggesting that thousands more documents never reached the Panel, we already know why, and it had nothing to do with central Government; firstly, the private insurers at Royal Sun Alliance refused to co-operate with the Panel and withheld information. Secondly, documents relating to the current Metropolitan Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe seem to have gone astray. Hogan-Howe was, at the time of the Disaster, only an Inspector in the South Yorkshire Police, and therefore was substantially lower in rank – and thus of less use to anyone in Whitehall or Downing Street wanting to interfere in the Inquiry processes – than many officers whose deeds have already been fully exposed by the Hillsborough Independent Panel. Therefore, the chances of documents about Hogan-Howe’s role in Hillsborough having any juicy details to impart on would-be interference by central Government seem remote at best. (See http://www.dailystar.co.uk/news/view/285652/New-Hillsborough-inquiry-hold-up/ and http://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/views/our-view/2012/09/14/hillsborough-families-let-down-by-rsa-100252-31831713/.) Yes, it is entirely possible that the missing documents about Hogan-Howe have been destroyed as part of the cover-up. But the likeliest conspiratorial reason for doing that would be to protect Hogan-Howe himself, rather than people outside the police force altogether. If Hogan-Howe took part in the smear campaign against the Liverpool supporters, or helped in any way with changing statements, that would make his current position in the Met untenable. That on its own would be enough of a motive for hiding files about him. He wouldn’t need to have anybody else to protect for such an action to be credible.
Yet again, I have to ask why some people need to add in outside agencies to make sense of the post-Hillsborough cover-up, when the story as it stands already adds up. As a rule, trying to imagine broadened conspiracies in this way only makes a scandal sound needlessly complicated, likely to have leaked out far earlier than it did, and, by extension, less plausible.
** Small correction. I’ve re-checked and I did find another reference to the quotation, on page 66, in Chapter 6: Miscarriages Of Justice. Whittle rants, “Margaret Thatcher had got [sic] her way. After all, she had stated, following the disaster, ‘I do not want any policeman prosecuted over Hillsborough.'” Once again, Whittle offers absolutely no explanation for how we ‘know’ this, where the information comes from, or when the words were uttered, let alone states that he was there when she said it.
It is also worth noting that, once again, the wording of the quotation has changed, even within the text of the same book, underlining my point in the essay-proper about why it is so difficult to take it seriously.
POST-POST-POST-POSTSCRIPT 13-1-2013 (Yep, sorry, I’m afraid there’s still even more…)
I had a glance at the FB group “Bet I Can Find 1 Million Who Want Justice For The 96” again this morning, and found the following passage written on 18th December 2012 by ‘Chris, Hillsborough Survivor’ ;-
“Thatcher destroyed many peoples lives with her laissez faire, ultra right wing ideology, her police state, the richer getting richer, the poor getting poor, the destruction of society, 4 million people thrown on the scrapheap, “I’m alright Jack, sod the rest’ philosophy, the greed is good culture. Her war with the Miners, her police bully boys on huge overtime bonus whilst miners families had to survive on meagre strike pay. And of course, her murky role with Hillsborough. A truly evil woman. JFT96 YNWA (Chris, Hillsborough Survivor)”
Parts of this poorly-articulated passage are almost word-for-word the same as the passage written about Thatcher on page 142 of With Hope In Your Heart, and others. Therefore, I now take it as beyond doubt that ‘Chris, Hillsborough Survivor’ and Christopher Whittle are indeed the same person. And while I agree wholeheartedly with most of his views on Margaret Thatcher – see https://thegreatcritique.wordpress.com/2013/04/17/how-thatcher-embodied-the-conservative-lie/ if you wish to read some of my own thoughts – his stubborn persistence in trying to implicate her in the Hillsborough cover-up shows him to be a hypocrite. After all, he wrote in his book, “If the documents that the Government are trying to withhold do get released into the public domain, then I am sure we will see the true, murky picture of her role in the cover-ups”. So, if they had shown such a role, we can see from this declaration that he would not have paused for the slightest instant to question it. However, when the documents were duly released, they showed no such role, they did not conform to his prejudices on this issue at all. So he simply rejects that conclusion.
The problem is that he can only take such a stance honestly by rejecting the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s Report in its entirety. But of course he cannot do that, for if he were to do so, he would suddenly bring the entire cover-up by the South Yorkshire Police into question, and quite rightly he does not want anyone to start questioning that. So Whittle is effectively saying that the Report is accurate only so far as it supports what he has already decided. He said, in effect, “The documents will tell us what her role was in the cover-up, you wait and see!” We waited, we saw, the documents told us that there is no sign of her having any role at all, and Whittle then says, “Well, she’s guilty anyway!”
That is what makes him a hypocrite – the cover-up is conclusively proven by the Independent Panel’s Report. We cannot point to the Report as evidence of that, unless we accept that the Report is reliable, which means we have to accept all of the Panel’s conclusions, including the ones that exonerate people we do not wish to see exonerated. Whittle is not free to pick-and-choose which parts of the Report we are to regard as reliable, nor is he free to stake his certainty on forthcoming evidence, only to reject that evidence when it does not contain what he was banking on. It is the equivalent of placing a bet to win on the horse that then finishes eighth, and then demanding the bookmaker pay you the winnings anyway.
There are indications on that discussion thread – a very tasteless thread glorying in the prospect of Margaret Thatcher’s apparently imminent death – that another user was banned from the group for arguing against anti-Thatcher hate speech. Banning dissenting voices appears to be a rife activity on that page; there is a very intolerant, domineering quality in its administrators, of which Whittle is one, that is unpleasant to the point of rabid. They actively encourage visceral, blood-and-guts hate speech against Margaret Thatcher (not that she deserves any better, I just don’t find it agreeable, enjoyable, constructive or laudable in any way), and indeed they join in with it. At the same time, they find people merely raising a reasonable doubt against their more extreme accusations to be completely intolerable and shameful.
While I have nothing but sympathy for the bitterness and hurt they feel over Hillsborough and what followed, the behaviour it has led them into is still inexcusable, and ultimately very damaging and self-destructive. For instance, now that Whittle has shown how his hatred and anger have turned him into a shameless liar, it becomes very difficult to take any future claim he chooses to make on the subject of Hillsborough seriously at all. Some day in the next couple of years, as the Coroner’s Inquests are re-done, that may come back to haunt him.
It is an ancient maxim that people will always turn into what they hate the most. The likes of Christopher Whittle, alas, appear to be the living embodiment.
Other articles about Hillsborough; –