September 22, 2014
by Martin Odoni
NB: Please be aware that this essay was written in September 2014, but could not be published while the rebooted Coroner’s Inquests into the Hillsborough Disaster were in progress, due to a Contempt-Of-Court ruling by the Attorney General.
The rebooted Inquests into the 1989 Hillsborough Disaster have so far featured a disproportionately large number of witnesses selected by the South Yorkshire Police. Predictably, most of these witnesses have provided anecdotes giving the impression of widescale drunkenness among Liverpool supporters in Sheffield on the day of the Disaster – it is precisely what the police lawyers had been promising in the pre-Inquest hearings – although very few of these anecdotes have really offered any evidential link between the supposed drunkenness and the genesis of the Disaster itself.
The supposed ‘issue’ of fans without tickets has also been mentioned repeatedly, in the apparent hope, it would seem, that by constantly mentioning it, the police lawyers will ‘program’ the jury into taking it as fact. I have already outlined in comprehensive detail elsewhere why we know it is not.
However, it is a matter of curiosity revisiting this story, as it has had some elaborate variants down the years. One version that reared its head on the day of the tragedy itself was that the crush outside the turnstiles, which led to the police opening Exit Gate C, was not mere happenstance. Instead, officers in the South Yorkshire Police claimed to have received word that, earlier that day, large numbers of Liverpool supporters were in the pubs of Sheffield, openly boasting of having no tickets, but also declaring that they would still get into the stadium to watch the FA Cup semi-final. All that was needed, so the rumour went, was for enough of them to arrive really late in the day to create serious congestion at the turnstiles, and the situation would become dangerous enough to force the police to open the Exit Gates and let everybody into the ground.
Interestingly, a retired officer who was present at the Disaster, Graham Duffy, has spoken at the rebooted Inquests, wherein he reiterated precisely that explanation for the turnstile crush. While testifying on September 15th 2014, Duffy’s own report, written up in the days after the Disaster, was read back to him. In it, he had written that it was his opinion that “a concerted effort was made [by fans at the back of the crowd] to cause a crush at the front of the crowd.” Duffy was then asked whether he stood by this statement, to which he replied that he did.
As is the case with so many of the victim-blaming explanations for the Disaster though, there are serious flaws in this. It neither conforms to the measurable facts, nor to simple plausibility.
Firstly, the weaknesses on the factual side. The biggest one is that, if large numbers of ticketless fans were trying to force the police to open the Exit Gates, then presumably once Gate C was opened, these ‘freeloaders’ would surely have gone into the ground alongside all the ticket-holders. It would have been the entire point of such a conspiracy, and would have caused the Leppings Lane terrace to go over its capacity.
The problem? As is well-recorded – including on this very blog – from comprehensive analysis of all available data by the Health & Safety Executive in the months following the tragedy, we know with some confidence that the ticket allocation for the terrace was not exceeded. Indeed, the likeliest number of people on the terrace during the crush inside the stadium was several hundred below the ticket allocation. So where did all these ticketless fans that were deliberately creating pressure on the turnstiles go? And how come nobody noticed them going there?
Furthermore, the notion that fans arrived ‘late’ is only arrived at by adopting a very arbitrary definition of what constitutes ‘arriving on time’. This, again, has been pointed out many times before. The print on the tickets themselves did in fact request an arrival time of 2:45pm, and analysis of the CCTV footage from the day shows that the great, great majority of the fans caught up in the turnstile crush had arrived by about 2:37pm, by which point the pressure build-up was already well under-way.
Given that 2:37pm was comfortably more than twenty minutes before kick-off, this does sound like a rather poorly-executed ‘conspiracy’ on the part of the ‘ticketless Liverpool supporters’. By arriving over twenty minutes early, they must surely have given the police ample time to sort things out. Would it not have been more effective, if they wanted to put the police in a completely powerless position, for the supposed ‘gatecrashers’ to arrive inside the last couple of minutes before kick-off? But clearly they did not, as the exit gate was opened to relieve the crush eight minutes before kick-off.
On that subject, it also needs to be pointed out that the first request by a police officer, Superintendent Roger Marshall, for permission to open an Exit Gate to relieve crowd pressure was made at 2:47pm, which shows that the situation at the turnstiles had become absolutely critical just moments after the cut-off time stipulated on the tickets. That sort of pressure build-up does not happen in just two minutes. It needs the crowd to have built up to enormous numbers in a confined space. There is no reason why the ‘freeloaders’ in this scenario would even have known that such a crowd build-up was going to occur, or that the stadium’s westernmost entry concourse would ‘just happen’ to have exactly the right lay-out to create such pressure.
And now, we move on to the implausibilities in the conspiracy theory. It is often the case when trying to debunk a conspiracy theory that the inherent logic flaws are all you really need to highlight, and the fact-checking can be mere icing on the cake. That certainly applies in this case.
Quite simply, the orchestration of this ‘deliberate crush’ seems super-human in its sophistication, especially given the technological limitations of the late-1980’s. For the pressure on the turnstiles to have been caused by the people at the back pushing people ahead of them, it would have to mean at least a few hundred of them taking part in it, and all starting at roughly the same time. A small handful of people doing it would have had very little knock-on effect of this type.
But to have hundreds of people carrying out a carefully co-ordinated manoeuvre of this type, they would need good communication so that they could time their arrival together, and to make sure they were pushing in union, to make it effective. But let us remember that this was 1989, when the mobile phone was still a giant, super-heavy metal-and-plastic brick with an aerial, very much the exclusive status symbol of the ‘Yuppiedom’ class. Hundreds of people co-ordinating a deliberate crush without mobile phones to keep in contact with one other sounds very dependent on pure chance to get through.
Another plausibility gap when talking about deliberate pushing is yet another mystery that I have raised before. Looking at CCTV footage from the turnstile crush, it is remarkable how the people who are supposedly ‘being pushed’ by those behind them never think to turn around and push them back. Instead, carrying Duffy’s logic to its fullest extent, they either just stand there and take it, or decide to get revenge by pushing the people in front of them.
If this widescale pushing were really happening, it is one of the wonders of the world that actual rioting never broke out.
Add to these anomalies the aforementioned point about the terrace not going over its capacity, and the conspiracy theory becomes, not just implausible, but preposterous. It is clear from the HSE’s aforementioned attendance figures that very few fans without tickets got into the stadium at all, probably no more than a few dozen. This detail of course leads on to yet another of those ‘killer’ questions; –
Are we therefore seriously expected to believe that a mob of hundreds of fans, most of whom clearly must have already had tickets, had conspired together to create massive pressure on the turnstiles, risking their own lives and limbs, in order to force the police to open the gates (and if that was their plan all along, why did any of them bother purchasing tickets for the game in the first place?)… all just so that a couple of dozen non-ticket-holders could get in without paying?
Once again, we have a victim-blaming theory that is not only at odds with the plain facts, but is also patently ridiculous when looked at purely on its own merits – such as it has any. The conspiracy theory, when put forward as a possible explanation for the Disaster*, is so silly that any police officer who suggests it should immediately be made to hand in his/her badge; no detective has any business being so cartoonishly irrational.
The problem with the theory is not just that the facts conclusively show that it did not happen. It is also that it simply would not happen in any circumstances, even in ones where the facts leave room for it.
I would therefore like to end on a bit of friendly careers advice; –
The Sherlock Holmes principle states that once we have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth. What we should never forget while applying this calculation though, is that some explanations can be both the impossible and the improbable. So if, after a quarter-of-a-century, you have still not eliminated an idea that manages to be both, please, please, pleeeeeeeease, for all our sakes, make sure that you are not, and never will be, a police officer.
* It is just about possible that some fans did plan to cause a crush, but only in far tinier numbers, and any attempt they made was not what caused Gate C to be opened, nor had anything to do with the crush at the turnstiles. Those events simply happened too early to have been affected by it, and by the time any such attempt might have been made, the Disaster on the terraces would already have been in progress for some while. Anybody arriving after about 2:52pm would have had nothing to do with the Disaster’s genesis, as all the causative events had happened by then.
September 21, 2014
by Martin Odoni
Friday morning was depressing.
I am not a Scot, nor in the factional sense am I a Scottish Nationalist, but I had very much hoped that there would be a Yes vote in this week’s Referendum on Scottish Independence. My reasons for this are largely because I have long concluded that Government of the United Kingdom is too-heavily centralised in Westminster and Whitehall. Major one-size-fits-all decisions that suit only London and the Home Counties are routinely made for the whole of Britain, even when they are quite plainly to the detriment of every other region. Government-from-distance is, almost by definition, Government-by-ignorance, for the legislators will be too far off to understand the immediate needs of the disparate areas of the country. The larger the country, the more different areas the Government will have to accommodate, increasing the disconnect of centralisation.
Therefore, I wanted Scotland to become answerable to Edinburgh rather than London, and hoped that after withdrawing from the UK, the Parliament at Holyrood would go on to devolve further powers to local councils across Scotland, so that each area becomes more directly-governed by people who are properly knowledgeable of it. I even dared hope that, after that, the Parliament at Westminster could follow suit and enact devolution of a similar type across England and Wales – an idea that has been given a great deal of lip-service over the last few days in the media and among politicians, though probably for cynical reasons (discussed below). This was all a bit overly dependent on hope, of course, requiring much too many people to behave in particular ways to be at all likely. But a vote of Yes would have been a start.
But the Scots said No. Not by a huge margin, but still fairly decisively, the majority of a high turn-out declared their intention to stay in the United Kingdom.
For myself, that does feel mildly infuriating. I lived in Scotland from the late-1980’s until the mid-1990’s, and one of the more unpleasant aspects of that, especially when I was in school, was sometimes finding myself the ‘English-verbal-punching-bag’ for locals who wanted someone to take their frustrations out on when they (often-correctly) perceived themselves to be victims of London-centric Government. With all those bad-tempered memories, it genuinely irritates me that when the opportunity arrived for the Scots to put a stop to all that, they said no.
Now Scotland is not a victim of ‘English colonialism’, as some Nationalists are prone to claiming for it. The Union between the two countries was fairly peaceful – there was no act of conquest, and most of the violence that followed the Act Of Union of 1707 was initiated by ‘Jacobites’ north of the border. Nor, despite what some Scots like to believe, was the Union the outcome of some dastardly, underhand English scheme to annexe-by-stealth. (The failure of the Darien Venture, a Scottish attempt to colonise Panama at the end of the 17th Century that ended up bankrupting Scotland’s economy, was not caused by English ‘sabotage’, but by appalling preparation and naive planning by the Scots themselves.)
But nonetheless, Scotland is a victim of being governed in the interests of a narrow elite largely contained in a different part of Britain. So, indeed, are Wales, Northern Ireland, and much of northern England. So I was genuinely hopeful for a Yes vote, and for the process of devolution to get under way.
I would not go so far as to say that I was shocked by the final result, or even mildly surprised by it. Unionism was clearly in the driver’s seat for most of the campaign, and there can be no serious doubt that most of the British media was on Better Together’s side throughout, so the odds were always in favour of a No vote. But that does not make what happened any less disappointing, or any less of a missed opportunity. A process of sorely-needed constitutional change all over Britain might – just might – have been set in motion if enough Scots had voted in favour, but the opportunity was spurned, and so the British constitution remains in its default position.
What is most maddening about that is that it is the second time a chance for constitutional change has been passed up during this current Parliament, and it leaves me doubtful as to when the next opportunity will be allowed to arrive; –
Back in 2011, there was another Referendum, this one across the whole of Britain, asking whether it was time for electoral reform. It offered the possibility of switching British General Elections from the current ‘First-Past-The-Post’ system to a (slightly) more proportional system called ‘The Alternative Vote’. It would have been an unsatisfactory alteration, and could be seen as no more than a stepping stone towards a substantial modernisation, but it would still have been a step in the right direction.
In the event, it was firmly rejected by the British public. The reasons why are probably not uniform, but the strong suspicion lingers that most people’s opposition to AV had little to do with the system itself, and much to do with who initiated the policy. Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, had formed the current Coalition Government with the Conservatives on the basis that it could open the door to electoral reform, but, as the price for having the Referendum, he ended up having to break a number of other Lib-Dem Manifesto pledges, some of them among his party’s core principles, by helping to drive a series of right-wing Conservative policies through Parliament. Among these were increases to tuition fees for students, savage welfare cuts, and changes to the National Health Service, dragging it in a privatised direction. A lot of people who had voted for the Lib-Dems, precisely because they had high hopes that Clegg would oppose such policies, were furious when they learned just how much he had compromised in order to join the Government, and saw a No vote in the AV referendum as a great way to punish him for it. Understandable perhaps, but it was an enormous act of self-harm by the British public – a short-termist act of revenge that sacrificed long-term advancement.
My despair is that these two Referenda, with their resonant echoes of rejection, can easily be misrepresented by pro-Establishment elements as evidence that reform is unwanted in Britain, to try and block future attempts to make significant changes. Already, the whole notion of Scottish Independence has been officially sidelined for at least “a generation”. And what chance is there of an electoral reform Bill getting anywhere, when even the most minor, most similar of all possible alternative systems i.e the Alternative Vote, was dismissed out-of-hand? The logic that will be presented to counter anything new at all will be that any more extreme change must be even more “objectionable” than the basic change that has already been rejected. Any time any constitutional change is proposed over the next twenty years, the rejection of electoral reform and the rejection of changing the UK’s structure will be pointed to as reasons not even to ask the question.
Yes, the possibility of regional devolution being introduced is now being spoken about a lot, and that is a welcome development. A panicky offer of extra powers being transferred to the Holyrood Parliament was put on the table by the Conservative Party at the eleventh hour before the Scottish Referendum, in hopes of increasing the No vote. There is also much talk about providing devolution in England, in the name of ‘fairness’, from which we are meant to infer that regional devolution in Scotland has to be mirrored elsewhere in the UK to keep matters even. This is probably true, and certainly desirable.
However, in practise there is every reason to doubt that anyone who could make such devolution happen would be willing to make it happen. Less than a day before the Referendum, Anglocentrics in the Conservative Party such as Claire Perry started speaking out against the pledge to widen Scottish powers. It is disgusting that they waited until so late in the process to try and start a debate on what had already been firmly promised, but we can be sure they will do more than debate. They will do all they can to obstruct as well. It is also hard to imagine any circumstances in which David Cameron and George Osborne will not employ the most cynical stalling tactics to delay devolution for as long as possible – perhaps by talking endlessly about it while delivering nothing, and hoping that eventually everyone will just get bored of the subject. Ed Miliband, the Labour Party leader, has been very quick to make light of the urgency of devolution. When the odious Nigel Farage, the UK Independence Party’s oily and deceitful leader, speaks out in favour of English devolution, he is plainly doing so for entirely anti-Scottish reasons – just to play up the persecution complex that privileged people so often suffer from when they think their privileges are under threat. In practise, were he ever in a position to influence national legislation, Farage would baulk at surrendering powers to regional and local authorities, no matter which side of the border they are on.
In fairness to them all, the reason why all of these people will be so reluctant to change anything is the same reason that the Scots voted No. It is because they are British. Yes, Scotland, you are truly as British as anyone in Britain.
Modern Britain has become a cynical nation of ‘talk-the-talkers’, with ‘walk-the-walkers’ in comparatively short supply. We might spend a ridiculous amount of our time moaning and grumbling about the direst inadequacies we see all around us, sneering at the obsolescences and inefficiencies that hamper the running of the country. But the moment we have a chance to address fundamental problems, we seem to get nervous and hesitant, and decide to veer away for fear of opening a far larger can-of-worms. Or we just ignore what is seriously wrong and prioritise petty retributions against small targets, just because it is easier.
Even when we genuinely endorse what we think of as a radical change, on close examination it usually turns out to be the same-old same-old, just with a new name. In the late-1970’s, for instance, political, economic and ethical thought in Britain (and the USA) became dominated by a supposedly new doctrine calling itself “neoliberalism”. This led the Conservative Government of Margaret Thatcher to scrap vast mechanisms of the state and to restore roughly the hierarchical status quo of pre-World-War-II Britain, bar its Empire, with the Capitalist class now restored to its former position of dominance. No one seemed to notice for some while that reverting to pre-War type could not possibly be called a ‘new’ approach. It was simply Conservatives doing what they had almost always done. The ‘radical change’ was entirely illusory.
The option this week was for the Scots to decide whether to remain pluralistically British, or to become unambiguously Scottish. The problem with being British is that it seems to be self-maintaining – a mindset of unchangingness that can be very difficult to break. Therefore, for the Scots to vote against being British, they had to stop being British – but in order to stop being British, they had to vote against it in the first place.
I know from much personal experience that, of all Britons, the ones who are most eager not to be are Scots. It’s just a shame for all of us who really want serious change in Britain that that eagerness always seems to dry up at precisely the moment it becomes possible.