March 6, 2017
by Martin Odoni
If, as seems inevitable after last month, Article 50 is activated in the next few weeks and the United Kingdom starts the process of withdrawal from the European Union, it is perhaps ironic that it should happen in a year ending in -17. For the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics was established 100 years ago this year, after a pair of Revolutions in the old Russian Empire, and was the world’s first Communist/Socialist country (at least in its objectives). It lasted through until 1991, when it collapsed in circumstances that should sound uncannily familiar to anyone closely studying what is happening to the UK right now.
There was a lot to be said against the Soviet Union down the decades. Despite its established aim of fairness and equality, the nation proved to be an oppressive, at times expansionist, dictatorship. It was one of the most dreadful regimes on Earth during Joseph Stalin’s era as General Secretary of the Communist Party. (Not officially the Head of State, but in practise whoever held the office of General Secretary was the man – it was always a man of course – in charge.) Stalin is estimated to have taken the lives of over twenty million people during his rule. Thanks principally to him, the very name ‘Soviet Union’ tends to cause lips to curl back in disapproval.
There is another side to this however. Although there was very little freedom in the USSR, it did take relatively good care of its population, by the standards of wider Russian history. Life had been utterly miserable for the vast, vast majority of ordinary people during the centuries of the old Russian Empire. While Stalin had shown no real concern for the well-being of the man-in-the-street – and considerable paranoid concern for his own physical safety – his successor from 1953, Nikita Kruschev, made a genuine-if-modest attempt to liberalise society, and the standard of living had improved a lot between the 1950s and the 1970s. Irina Lobatcheva, author of Russia in 1990’s, recalls,
In 1960s-1980s the Soviet society provided majority of Russians with a decent life, free of fear of unemployment, with plenty of opportunities for self-fulfillment and career advancement. Everyone had a right to a month long vacation which one could spend in recreation hotels, sanatoriums, or touring the USSR for a very affordable price. Medical care was free, as well as any education, numerous children clubs and summer camps; even day-care centres cost next to nothing. Simple life, overall confidence in the future, guaranteed pension. The ideological load had almost waned after the death of Stalin: the state security had little effect on our lives compared to its influence in 1930s-1950s, when harsh competition with the rest of the world demanded from the new socialist state extraordinary repressive measures.
NB: Apologies for the poor syntax and punctuation of the above excerpt. The published translation into English of Russia in 1990s was not compiled very well, and it has to be said that the book sometimes reads a little like the output of a website subjected to Google Translate. I considered making corrections but ultimately decided against it as it would be dishonest.
One can certainly question whether Stalin’s repressive measures were really as necessary as Lobatcheva implies, but her points about the standard of living in the USSR, at least compared with what preceded it and what succeeded it, are accurate and frequently overlooked in the West. Life may not have had much in the way of civil liberty in the Soviet Union, but it had been no freer or less brutal under the Tsars of the Russian Empire, and at least under the Communist Party, levels of starvation and destitution hugely declined for the first time in centuries.
Kruschev introduced a major stabilising influence on day-to-day life in 1961 when he imposed indefinite price controls on essential goods; the same number of rubles that could buy a loaf of bread in 1961 could still buy an equivalent loaf in 1986. This had an unfortunate effect in the wider economic picture, as the costs of manufacture were rising constantly, and to keep manufacturers and farmers funded, the Government was forced to keep printing more and more money, causing international inflation of the ruble.
After Kruschev was effectively overthrown by the Central Committee of the Communist Party in 1964, he was replaced by his Ukrainian deputy, Leonid Brezhnev, a comparative doctrinaire hardliner who lacked imagination or energy. Brezhnev had positioned himself to take over by blaming Kruschev’s policies for the country’s mounting economic difficulties. Once in office, Brezhnev spent the remaining eighteen years of his life in Government doing very little to change them. Meanwhile, he restored repressive powers to the state police force, the KGB (‘Chekhists’), that Kruschev had taken away from them, and restarted the Stalinist practise of imprisoning political and cultural dissidents.
In the 1980s the ailing Soviet economy began to break down. One key cause of this was intervention in a civil war in Afghanistan, between the communist Government in Kabul and Islamist guerrillas, beginning in 1979. It proved to be a calamitous ten-year mistake that ultimately took a terrible toll on Soviet resources without ever achieving a victory to which to point. The sluggish economy was crippled by the burden of trying to support a failing and unending war-effort. Necessary production capacity that should have been used for consumption goods was instead allocated to manufacturing military supplies. At home therefore, industries that had advanced over a century’s-worth between 1929 and 1945 were stagnating once again, and producing fewer and fewer goods, as the ongoing price-controls slowly transformed currency inflation into a production deficit.
To add to the terrible burdens on the Soviet economy, in 1986, the entire population of Pripyat in Ukraine had to be evacuated permanently as a result of reactor unit 4 at the local nuclear power station, Chernobyl, exploding, condemning the region to literally thousands of years ahead of inhospitable radiation poisoning. The phenomenal resources needed to prevent the spread of the radioactive fall-out, to rehouse over 30,000 people, and to adjust to the enormous loss to the electrical power supply on the Soviet Union’s western frontier, were perhaps a final tipping point.
Brezhnev was long dead by this time; he had died in 1982 at the age of 75, and had been replaced by a former KGB chief, Yuri Andropov. At 67 when coming to office, Andropov was another old man rather stuck in his ways. His main policy platform was a necessary but largely ineffectual campaign to end political corruption within the Communist Party. It did not help the stability or conviction of the Soviet economy that he died a little over a year after taking over. His successor, Konstantin Chernenko, was even older (72 years old) than Andropov, and was already in dire health when he became General Secretary in March 1984. He too died after just over a year in office.
In 1985, a young (by Soviet Union standards anyway) new General Secretary was elected, Mikhail Gorbachev, the first leader of the USSR to be born after the Revolutions of 1917. At 54, he was not such a hardline stick-in-the-mud as his predecessors, and while he remained a dedicated communist, he recognised the urgent need for reform. He embarked on two side-by-side programs of reforms. The first, going by the name of Perestroika, very roughly translating as ‘restructuring’, was a campaign to reform the economy, including loosening the state controls over industry and the markets. The second, going by the name of Glasnost, very roughly translating as ‘open-ness’ or ‘transparency’, was a campaign to reform the country politically.
Glasnost allowed far greater freedom of expression, making it easier for people to speak out about the hardships they were increasingly facing, and making it easier, in turn, for the Government to identify failings that needed correcting. But it also made it a lot easier for fundamentally different ideas about the way the country should be governed proliferate. (The USSR had, to this point, been a one-party state, but Gorbachev legalised the formation of political parties other than the communists.) One idea that became popular among pro-reform groups was that life in the West was much better than life in the USSR. TV and photo images began to appear in Russian media in the mid-to-late 1980s of the glossier side of life in the USA. Spectacular technology, colourful, glamorous ‘showbiz’ lifestyles.
Of course, there was no mention the uglier side of Western life, including the tendency not to take much care of the poorest, or the horrendous poverty and misery of, say, being black in Ronald Reagan’s America. Naturally, Western life looked superior when the focus was on the rich and privileged in the richest, most privileged country.
Therefore, growing numbers of Russian people around the turn of the 1990s, fed up of waiting hours in queues just to buy bread, began to get the idea that the way the USA operated was the way USSR should do things too. So the reformers began to push for, not a reformed communist economy, but a full-scale free market economy.
This was not what Gorbachev wanted. Despite his reforms, he remained a communist, and was deeply suspicious of what might happen if state controls of the economy were loosened to the degree found in the USA. But growing public unrest, and pressure from a reformer faction within the Communist Party itself, gradually dragged him into changing the market more severely than he had intended.
Gorbachev’s reform programs were not helped by the fact that he had no coherent plan in place, and he was largely improvising. That he recognised the need for reform had made him the best option for General Secretary, but that really just showed what a collection of dinosaurs the other options had been. Knowing something needed to change was a step up from his colleagues, but knowing how to do it was another matter. With no clear framework for reform, his every policy decision could lead to problems, and they frequently did.
Furthermore, the reformer faction had gained a figurehead in the shape of Boris Yeltsin, who was developing a popular reputation as an ‘anti-establishment’ figure after taking the unprecedented step late in 1987 of resigning from the Politburo. Gorbachev had responded to this by firing him from his secondary role as First Secretary of the Moscow Communist Party, while the Communist Party started smearing Yeltsin in the media. All of this just seemed to increase Yeltsin’s popularity, while motivating him to seek revenge on Gorbachev. Over the next several years, Yeltsin piled pressure on Gorbachev to increase the scope and pace of reforms.
In 1990, Gorbachev created new fundamental reforms to the political system. As part of a reorganisation that ended the permanent link between the Communist Party from the Executive branch of Government, a new office was established of ‘President of the USSR’, to which Gorbachev was elected in March. At a secondary level, the Russian Republic was given a Presidential office of its own. Yeltsin, to Gorbachev’s despair, was elected to the role in May. If Gorbachev was worried, conservative Marxists within the Communist Party were horrified. They had spent the last four years or so becoming increasingly alarmed by the amount of authority the party had surrendered due to the reform programs. Yeltsin, their ideological nemesis, was now in a position of real power within the largest federal Republic in the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev had appointed Gennadi Yenayev, Chairman of the nation’s Trade Unions Council, to become the Soviet Union’s first (and only, it would transpire) vice-President. He was a known conservative who opposed the reform programs. If Gorbachev expected gratitude from the hardliners for making such an appointment, he was soon to be disillusioned. For in the summer of 1991, Yenayev led a group of the hardliners in Moscow in a poorly-planned attempt to overthrow Gorbachev, and to restore pre-Perestroika communism.
The coup, or ‘Putsch’ as it was called, failed, due to its dependence on support from the military, which in the event refused to open fire on the civilian population of Russia. Opportunistically, Boris Yeltsin spotted the chance to shine by very publicly heading up civilian resistance to the coup. In one major moment of showmanship, he actually climbed onto a tank outside the Russian Parliament building and addressed a crowd of resisters from there.
In truth, opposition to the Putsch among the population was not nearly as large as the Western media likes to portray it; with growing political chaos, including the collapse of the so-called ‘Eastern Bloc’, and ever-worsening shortages of goods in the shops, Gorbachev’s popularity had rapidly eroded. So while there was a disapproving recognition that what the plotters were doing was anti-democratic, there was no great wish to defend the Soviet President. But still, the opposition proved just strong enough, and once it was clear that the military would not support Yenayev, the ‘Putsch’ quickly collapsed, and the conspirators surrendered.
In the weeks that followed, Yeltsin got enormous praise and adulation, both at home and in the West, for rescuing Gorbachev and for thwarting the hardliners. Seeing the opening to complete his revenge on Gorbachev, Yeltsin used the hype, in effect, to seize control.
Knowing that the coup had effectively severed his relationship with the Communist Party, Gorbachev felt compelled to resign as General Secretary. Yeltsin then shut down the party by ordering nationalisation of all its assets and suspending all of its activities inside Russian boundaries. At the same time, most of the different Republics of the Soviet Union began declaring independence, rendering the Soviet Presidency a powerless role. All its authority was devolved to the Heads of State of the individual Republics, including Russia itself. As Yeltsin was President of Russia, and Russia was the largest of the Soviet Republics, this made him more powerful than Gorbachev.
From there, Gorbachev had no option but to terminate the Soviet Union completely. On Christmas Day, 1991, he formally resigned the office of President of the Soviet Union, and the USSR had been formally dissolved.
The USA and its allies had always hated and feared communism, and so were delighted to see the USSR break up. The hope in the West was that, under Yeltsin, Russia would go further than Gorbachev had so far dared, and try to create a full free market economy. To this end, the USA despatched groups of right-wing economists to Moscow to advise Yeltsin on how to transition to full capitalism. Their advice was to remove state operations within the market entirely, including remove all price controls set by the Government. All businesses were to become completely privately run.
The problem was, the price controls that the Soviet Government had imposed since the early-60’s had kept people’s money safe. As mentioned before, the price of a loaf of bread in 1989 was the same as it had been in 1962. The price of all manufacturing goods had been subsidised by the Government, so prices in the shops did not have to go up. At the end of 1991, all these price controls were removed, and all state interference in the market was ended, including the subsidies for manufacturers. Manufacturers and retailers were now free to set their own prices for all of their goods.
Frankly, almost anyone could have predicted what was to happen next, yet somehow the very people who were supposed to be the experts were completely unprepared for it. The manufacturers of goods were no longer being subsidised by the Government, and no longer being regulated by the Government either. They were given freedom, therefore, to put prices up. So they put prices up. A long way up. And so the shops had to put their prices up as well to make an honest profit. It meant that the Russian currency, the ruble, became almost worthless within weeks. People’s life savings were used up in weeks as desperation led them to pay massively inflated prices for the most basic items.
Prices had quadrupled before the end of the first week, and they just kept ballooning up and up and up. This was partly due to the well-intentioned but ill-advised decision of Viktor Geraschenko, chairman of the Russian Central Bank, to try to offset the sudden price-jump by increasing the size of the money supply, which simply led the ruble to inflate even faster.
Within a year, Russia was in chaos. Vast numbers of people were struggling to afford food, it had become so expensive. Entire industries were teetering on the brink of shutdown as markets were unable to sell goods to a population whose income was no longer adequate to afford them. By August, industrial productivity across Russia had declined by worse than forty percent. Many people resorted to selling their most prized possessions just to get the extra money they needed to buy bread.
Tiny numbers of entrepreneurs who happened to be in the right place at the start of the 1990s were now able to hog all the consumption goods, and with the markets cornered, they could hold the population to ransom. Wealth was absorbed by these tiny handsful of people, while millions of others went hungry. The hoarders would eventually become known derisively as ‘The Oligarchs‘.
The privatisation of state assets led to the development of a voucher system so that the public could own shares in former public property. But because of the desperation of hunger, many people ended up desperately selling off their vouchers in exchange for the money they needed to buy food. The vouchers were almost invariably sold to the Oligarchs, cementing their grip and control over the new Russia.
While the Oligarchs counted their ever-growing stockpiles of money and assets, the state had become so weakened as the 1990s wore on that before long it was largely powerless even to enforce the law. Business in Russia had leapt from one extreme to the other. Gone were the days of excessive state-intervention, to be replaced with a kind of ‘frontier law’, rather like the Old West; if a businessman had trouble with a strong competitor on the market, the solution was literally to hire a bounty hunter and have the competitor blown away. It was almost possible to measure how successful a businessman in Russia was by the number of bodyguards he needed surrounding him.
The courts in Russia became largely useless. Officials within Government were open to bribery as they were desperate for money themselves, which meant that any Russian with a genuine grievance could not expect help from the law unless they were rich enough to buy a court’s time. And even then, if the defendant was richer, the case would almost certainly be dismissed. With most of the old ‘Soviet’ councils disbanded, every local state office was now basically operating as a front for the Russian Mafia, including the courts. Crime and disorder were everywhere. The majority of people across Russia were living in horrendous poverty, of a kind hard to imagine in the UK or the USA, and many had to turn to crime themselves just to avoid outright starvation.
While all this was going on, the political instability of the previous decade proved to be ongoing. Indeed, there was a near civil war between different branches of the Government. Yeltsin was still President, but the Russian Parliament (‘Supreme Soviet’), dominated by former members of the Communist Party (leaders were Aleksandr Rutskoi and Ruslan Khasbulatov), wanted him impeached over his handling of both the economy and the new constitution of the Russian Federation. In response, Yeltsin issued a controversial Presidential decree, Decree Number 1400, dissolving the Supreme Soviet. He did have the authority to do this under the constitution, but he was also compelled under the same laws to call a Presidential election to happen within three months of the dissolution, which he refused to do. Therefore, the Soviet refused to stand down. In October 1993, the two factions started firing at each other.
On 2nd October, tens of thousands of civilians gathered outside the Parliament building – the Russian ‘White House’ as it is known – to protest as Yeltsin’s military forces approached. After a lengthy stand-off, the military opened fire. A prolonged and convoluted skirmish across central Moscow continued through the 3rd and 4th of October, at the end of which, the official number of civilians killed was one hundred and forty-nine. The real death-toll, we will probably never know, but from eyewitness accounts, it seems likely to have been well in excess of a thousand. Thousands more were injured, thousands of others were arrested and/or tortured.
In the next few days, the Russian media tried to spin events as the military ‘heroically’ rescuing the country from ‘Marxist thugs’, ‘terrorists’, ‘bandits’ and ‘gangs of assassins’, all roused into armed insurrection by the Supreme Soviet. Yeltsin himself delivered a very cynical address on television while the insurgency was going on, calling the protesters ‘mercenary troops’. In reality, only a tiny proportion of ‘mercenaries’ were armed at all, and a great many of them were older generation Muscovites peacefully protesting against the effects of the Government’s ‘Shock Therapy’ economic reform program.
The whole bloody chapter demonstrated that Yeltsin was as capable of deceit, ruthlessness and authoritarianism as any Soviet leader or Tsar had been before him. The end of communism in Russia was not the end of brutality or oppression in Russia. Communism was clearly not in itself the reason for the decades of tyranny after all, and ending it was not bringing about the promised social liberty. Society was not freer; what oppressed people was now crime and poverty rather than harsh policing. Even the markets were not freer; markets had merely exchanged domination by the Soviets for domination by the Oligarchs
None of this was what people had expected at all when they had struggled for an end to the grip of communism two years earlier. Many were left wondering why on Earth they had sided with the reformers back in the early-1990s at all. For sure, times had often been hard under communism, but at least back then, more often than not, they had enough to eat, the money in their pockets was not completely useless, and crime and disorder were largely kept under control. Now the Russian people were living in a kind of purgatory. It was only a return to state authoritarianism under Vladimir Putin that brought an end to it.
The scary thing is – and I realise this may not seem obvious at first glance but stay with me – I see worrying parallels between what happened in Russia a quarter of a century ago, and what is starting in Britain now.
See the USSR and the European Union.
See the Russian reformers and the Leave EU campaigners.
See Mikhail Gorbachev and David Cameron.
See Boris Yeltsin and Nigel Farage.
I am quite serious about the parallels; –
The USSR was a stagnant, bureaucratic mess. The Union arguably was beneficial to its members, but at the same time, it did a lot of harm to them in certain ways. The EU is sometimes weighed down by its own bureaucracy. It is often stagnant because of the constant squabbles amongst its members. And while sharing a common market and many laws with the EU does its member-populations a lot of good, its treatment of some countries such as Greece shows it also does harm in a lot of ways.
The Soviet reformers promised the Russian people the moon around the turn-of-the-1990s. They promised far greater freedom, unlimited prosperity, happy lives-of-plenty for everybody. The Leave EU campaigners have promised the people of the UK the moon. They have promised far greater freedom, an end to bureaucratic inconvenience, more prosperity, less money taken from British pockets to go to Brussels; happy lives-of-plenty for everybody.
Mikhail Gorbachev was a Sovet leader who saw a need for reform, promised change for the better, an open, freer relationship between the peoples of the USSR, a revival of the economy and of industry. But once he was in power, he had no coherent plan in place to bring it all about, and so largely resorted to improvising, reacting, blundering, and making it up as he went along. His programs attempted to find a middle ground between all-out reform and staying-the-course, and the compromise fell flat. Ultimately, Gorbachev’s reforms were rejected by the Russian people, who chose all-out departure from communism. David Cameron was a British leader who was rather forced into trying to reform the UK’s relationship with the EU. He promised change for the better, an open, freer relationship between the British people and their neighbours on the continent, and negotiated amendments to the treaty with the European Union. His program attempted to find a middle ground between leaving the Union altogether and allowing the relationship to remain unchanged, and the compromise fell flat. His deal was rejected by the British people who chose all-out departure from the EU.
Boris Yeltsin was a popular, charismatic, ‘everyman’ figure in Soviet politics, with a reputation for being anti-establishment, and he demanded a major shift of the country towards the Right. A cynical showman wanting change entirely for the advancement of his own interests, he convinced substantial numbers of people to support him, and eventually led them to force a fundamental change of the country’s entire way of life. Nigel Farage is (sadly) a popular, charismatic, ‘everyman’ figure in British politics, with a reputation for being anti-establishment, and he demanded a major shift of the country towards the Right. A cynical showman wanting change entirely for the advancement of his own interests, he convinced substantial numbers of people to support him, and eventually led them to force a fundamental change of the country’s entire way of life.
Gorbachev had no coherent plan for reform before the death of the USSR, and neither did Yeltsin after it. The UK Independence Party had no coherent plan in place for what to do after leaving the EU, and it has become painfully clear in the months since the Referendum that the Conservative Party lack one either. Gorbachev and Yeltsin despised each other, despite having much common political ground. Cameron and Farage despise each other, despite both being right wingers.
Furthermore, if you look at the Oligarchs, and if you then picture what most of the key figures in the Leave campaign would like to become i.e. stinking-super-rich while the rest of the people are ground into abject poverty, and there is little distinction to be found. (There seems little doubt that Farage’s own wish when seeking to leave the EU has been to make it easier to exploit workers, and to get richer quicker.)
With the majority of Britons who expressed a preference voting to leave the EU, they have done to themselves what the Russians did when they fought to end communism. The British have cut their own lifeline, under the delusion that disconnecting it will make them ‘freer’.
But a baby does not become free and independent when the umbilical is cut. The baby requires a fully-working pair of lungs in order to breathe without the help of its mother, and even then will need the mother’s care for years and years to come. The UK, with its almost total butchery of key industries since the 1980s, has removed its own lungs, and, in the shape of its largely-parasitical Financial Services Industry, transplanted a couple of balloons in their place. It is only with the umbilical cord of Globalisation that such an industry can keep Britain breathing in and out. This is one of the reasons why leaving the EU, at least before we revive critical industries that Margaret Thatcher discarded, is foolish.
Now, I need to stress that what happened to Russia will not necessarily happen to Britain, but it is something that needs to be guarded against; many EU regulations that quarter-informed Britons endlessly moan about present an obstacle to ‘Oligarchism’ (for want of a better word), and these regulations are going to be repealed in the UK when ‘Brexit’ goes ahead. Perhaps the parallel that makes a British repetition of early-90s Russia likelier than it should be is that far too many Leave supporters assume, just like the Russian reformers before them, that the changeover will work simply by default. It will not. It can be made to work for the betterment of the country, but it must be made to work, it cannot be left simply to work itself. The process will be too easy for opportunists to subvert that way.
So too many are not guarding against a repetition of what happened in Russia, and there are some hawkish people out there who, for reasons of pure greed, actually want a repetition. They have been allowed to control much too much of the public discussion to this point, partly because, as I say, there is no plan in place for leading the country in an alternative direction. Just like there was no plan in place in the former Soviet Union.
Destitution, political chaos, economic turmoil, war, mass-deprivation. Yes, these can be avoided, but more of the UK population need to work to avoid them. At present, too many are either assuming that leaving the EU will solve everything by itself, or sulking about the referendum result and looking for ways to derail the process rather than to guide it to a satisfactory conclusion. How effective was Yenayev’s attempt to simply ‘undo’ all the changes in 1991, rather than to influence their outcome?
The reformers v the hardliners.
The Leavers v the Remainers.
As Mark Twain is (wrongly) credited as saying, “History never repeats itself but it rhymes.”
by Martin Odoni
Just thought I should draw attention to legal action I will (supposedly) be facing in the near future. Christopher Whittle, whom Hillsborough campaigners all know and love, stumbled onto this blog’s dissection of his (not-terribly-impressive) book, With Hope In Your Heart: A Hillsborough Survivor’s Story, The Denial Of Justice & A Personal Battle With PTSD this week, and appears to have lost his rag again. If you go to the page and scroll down to the comments section, you will see that Whittle left an angry message, reading as follows; –
Absolute disgrace, ODONI. What the hell do you know about Hillsborough? Your rabid character assassination and failure to grasp the true facts, and to disgracefully deny my own Hillsborough experiences, shows the world what you really are. Expect to be contracted[sic] by my solicitors.
(Once again, we see that the only debating tactic Whittle has is to put occasional words in needless capitals in the strange belief that it makes him seem intimidating and authoritative.)
It would be no exaggeration to say that I am petrified by the prospect of Whittle’s solicitors coming after me looking for damages; no exaggeration, that is, because it would be a flat-out lie. I am not worried at all.
Indeed, I would welcome an opportunity to put Whittle under cross-examination in a public forum, and a damages court would be as good as any. He might imagine that I would be the only one to come under examination, but any such case would require cross-examination of my assertions, which are themselves a cross-examination of Whittle’s own work. Therefore, to assess whether I really am guilty of ‘character assassination’, Whittle’s work will have to be checked during the process to establish whether I have distorted anything he wrote, and whether I am correct to accuse him of written anomalies. So all of the anomalies I and other campaigners have found in Whittle’s book and elsewhere would have to be aired and examined in court. And Whittle, if he is to stand any chance of winning the case, would have to come up with convincing answers for all of them.
Even if he could manage that, which I very much doubt, he still would not win, for three reasons; –
Firstly, the anomalies are in his work, and explaining them away after-the-fact does not change the reality that they were there at times of publication, nor the reality that it is his own failing and not mine that they were there. Enforcement of libel laws cannot be applied retroactively against criticisms made before a clarification.
Secondly, I made very clear in the article that neither I nor the other writers are saying that he was definitively not at Hillsborough, or that his accounts are intentionally untrue; we even offered up possible explanations for some of the flaws in his story. What we are saying is that he is a poor writer, in contradiction of his boasts, and his lack of eloquence or clarity on the page is the likeliest reason for the anomalies listed. (Either that or he really is lying; we cannot think of a third explanation.) Whether Whittle feels that is fair or not, we are merely expressing an informed, objective opinion, and backing it up with detailed examples and verifiable evidence, both of which are in short supply whenever he makes an accusation, as history has shown. It is not an indictable smear to make criticisms when they can be backed up with verfiable facts. If Whittle does not like it, I suggest he a) moves to a country where reasonable freedom-of-expression is not protected by law e.g Saudi Arabia or Communist China, and b) shows a lot more caution in future when throwing accusations of his own around.
Thirdly, Whittle has shown a remarkable, consistent capacity for attacking what other people write without even reading it. For him to develop a coherent case against me, he would have to sit down and read my essays and learn for the first time what I actually have to say, rather than take his usual approach of just making the assumptions that will help him avoid cognitive dissonance. I very much doubt he is willing to make that effort.
Whittle has no one to blame but himself. Had he not taken such abusive and high-handed public objection to an article I wrote back in 2012, using the fact that he ‘wrote a book’ as doubtful justification for censoring me, I would probably never have heard of With Hope In Your Heart, never felt compelled to obtain a copy of it, to read it, to find so many faults in it (as many others have found), or to write negative reviews of it. I also find it very rich when he complains about his character being ‘assassinated’, given his tendency to blow his top, and to insult, misrepresent and threaten people when they disagree with him. I have endured all of these at his hands over the last five years, and I am well aware that I am not the only one. Whittle’s behaviour has a whiff of Paul Nuttall’s ludicrous recent claims to being victim of a ‘smear campaign’, when he too is merely being confronted with the flaws in his own claims.
So if Whittle feels he has a right to take legal action against me, perhaps I should do the same to him over all the insults and fake quotations he has pinned on me in the past? I suspect my case would have a better chance of winning.
For now though, Whittle, if you are reading this, I am calling your bluff. Bring on your legal action. I am very confident your latest little threat is just hot air. You lack the backbone to follow it up, but even if you do go for it, you have no case against me.
Do your worst, Whittle.
February 15, 2017
by Martin Odoni
This blog has, to this point, treated the Hillsborough Disaster and the UK Independence Racket-… er, sorry, I mean the UK Independence Party, as two completely unrelated subjects. I suspect that they still are, in fact. But over the last few days there has been an unmissable furore over whether claims of the new leader of UKIP, Paul Nuttall, to have been in the stadium on the day of Hillsborough are true or not.
NOTE: I have chosen to link to the Skwawkbox blog, because I am getting a little fed-up of the Guardian getting all the credit for identifying the anomalies in Nuttall’s story when the SB blog got there way earlier.
I do not wish to spend too long speculating on whether Nuttall’s claims are true. I myself, despite long years studying the Disaster, was not there, and so I have no possible way of knowing for certain. Even so, I can say that I was skeptical for a long time about Nuttall’s claims, and events over the last week or so have only served to increase my doubts. (His latest attempt to explain away a proven falsity in his claims has been debunked with astonishing speed and ease.) I disagree with suggestions that Nuttall’s account of being at Hillsborough was actually contradictory, but even so I doubt he was there, for reasons I have little need to explain, as they are being discussed widely elsewhere.
So I want to discuss the response of some of Nuttall’s defenders, rather than his detractors. Particularly noticeable and crass was of course the intervention of UKIP’s chief funder (and, some would argue, real leader) Arron Banks, who tweeted last night that he was “sick to death of hearing about” Hillsborough.
For my own part, I have stated more than once in the past that I am sick of hearing people say that they are sick of hearing about Hillsborough. This is not least because there is something nauseatingly insufferable about anyone who imagines their personal boredom-threshold is more important than the grisly deaths of almost a hundred people. It says something about Banks’ self-centred arrogance – always in long supply – that he could put his wish for a change of subject before the fact that, even with the new Inquest verdict last year, there has still not been a single successful prosecution over the Disaster or the cover-up that followed.
Banks’ remarks are also startling vacuous at other points. He tweeted, “if a policemen opens a gate trying to help and makes a bad decision it’s an accident. As for a cover up it was the 80’s.”
Now, the first sentence is just stupid, because it is an implied strawman argument contradicted by the drearily obvious. Nobody is suggesting that the South Yorkshire Police were deliberately trying to get someone killed at Hillsborough. (At Orgreave, probably, but let us leave that on one side.) Everybody knows that the crush was unintentional. That does not satisfy the definition of an ‘Accident’ in a Coroner’s Court, I should mention. But even so, no one imagines that David Duckenfield was stood in the police control box next to the Leppings Lane end, tweaking his non-existent moustache and rubbing his hands together in evil glee, like a stereotype Bond-villain, as over three thousand people were crammed into a space suited for about seventeen-hundred. It is beyond stupid to imply that people are arguing Hillsborough was a deliberate attempt to take lives.
But if the first sentence is stupid, the second sentence is just meaningless. It was the 80’s, you say, Mr Banks? Well knock me down with a feather! Say, Arron, have you noticed? The year was called “1989”! Could that be connected with these “80’s” things you are talking about? There must be some link, right? EUREKA!
Sarcasm aside; again, we already know. Just saying, “It was the 80’s” does not explain anything, nor does it constitute a particularly clear reason for just shrugging the shoulders and dropping the whole subject.
Banks then tried to clarify his ‘point’ (for want of a better word), by adding, “It was the 80’s” [thank goodness he repeated that, there was a real danger we might not have figured out which decade 1989 was in without his repeated information] “I been[sic] at some matches that were squeezed beyond belief. This could have happened anywhere anytime.”
Sadly, this only intensifies the impression of crass stupidity. Again, Banks is saying nothing that has not been said countless times before, so he is enlightening nobody; it is perfectly true that almost all stadia in Britain and Ireland at the time were at least as unsafe and poorly policed as Hillsborough. But also, he in fact defeats his own argument in saying it. It is precisely because the Disaster at Hillsborough could have happened anywhere that the issues surrounding it remain relevant today. These issues are; –
- Prejudiced, heavy-handed policing against presumed hooligans.
- Complacency among football clubs and authorities, and again by the police, on matters of public safety.
- Corruption of public and private institutions who are more concerned with protecting their own reputations than with honesty or transparency.
These matters have never been brought properly into the light-of-day, never given adequate official scrutiny or in-depth reform, and quite probably are still not properly guarded against even today. Simply saying, “Oh it was the 80’s” is merely giving this culture-of-shabbiness a name, not explaining or resolving anything. Wrongdoing remains wrongdoing, no matter the decade in which it happened, and a failure to fulfil one’s responsibilities, compounded by a subsequent attempt to shift the blame for that failure onto the people who suffered because of it, is only more wrongdoing.
As for feeling “sick to death”, I can tell Banks this; I’m “sick-to-death” of Banks and his allies lying to us non-stop about how much better off we will all be once we are out of the European Union, but that has never stopped them.
Inevitably, far lower-profile ‘Kippers than Banks have been leaping with partisan fervour to Nuttall’s defence. I have seen UKIP supporters registering squealing objections all over social media. One theme that seems to be popular among ‘Kippers is the notion that the British Left is somehow ‘exploiting’ the way Nuttall has been caught red-handed.
I find this argument vomitous. For a start, how can condemning Nuttall’s dishonesty (this chapter is just part of a far wider pattern of, shall we say, ‘seriously embellished’ claims Nuttall has made for himself) be called ‘exploitative’? Surely it is Nuttall’s manipulation of the Hillsborough Disaster, in an apparent attempt to associate himself with one of the British public’s greatest ever victories over institutionalised injustice, that is exploitative? He is standing in the Stoke-On-Trent Central By-Election next week, and the people there need to know the sorts of confections he is capable of. They must consider whether it is safe to elect a man who would lie to the whole nation about something like this, and in order to deliberate on that, they need to know he has done it.
But equally, let us remember that this whiny objection is coming from supporters of UKIP! Which is to say, from the party and support-base that have spent most of the last five years or so constantly trying to score cheap and cruel political points against other parties over alleged widespread child abuse by politicians. That UKIP supporters get so outraged about child abuse, but never seem to remember the alleged victims after the desired political damage has been inflicted on opponents, should tell us all just how much they really care about those same victims. So how is that not exploitation of a far, far lower order than merely pointing out when someone is using the tragedies of others to gain publicity? In fact, Nuttall has been pulling the same trick by trying to tap into outrage over the police cover-up after Hillsborough. If he was not there – and on balance it seems ever more likely that he was not – then he is being exploitative in one of the ugliest ways I can imagine, and so if you want to say that giving him a public caning for it is also ‘exploitative’ (it is not), well, swings-and-roundabouts.
No, the exploitation is very much on one side. Whether Nuttall was at Hillsborough or not, it is clear he was little-affected by it, but still he tries to associate himself with the campaign for justice after remaining silent about it for well over twenty years. Nuttall did not have to use Hillsborough to gain publicity, he chose to. He has exploited, he has not been exploited. He deserves vilification, for, after all the horrendous agonies Hillsborough campaigners have been put through over the last twenty-eight years, they did not deserve to be used like this.
It was their battle, not his.
January 24, 2017
by Martin Odoni
[Downing Street. The Cabinet Office. Theresa May is present, sat at the table filling in some papers.]
CAPTION: The very near future of an alternative reality where Brexiteers got everything they wanted.
[There is a sharp knock on the door.]
MAY: Come in.
[The door opens. Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, walks in.]
HEYWOOD: Prime Minister…
MAY: Ah, Cabinet Secretary! Excellent. I have whims I require you to carry out.
HEYWOOD: Whims, Prime Minister?
MAY: Commands then.
HEYWOOD: That still sounds a little strong.
MAY: A strong country requires a strong Prime Minister, Jeremy. Now, here are my commands. I trust you are paying attention?
HEYWOOD: Of course, Prime Minister, that goes without saying.
MAY: I only wish it did. First on the agenda today, I want you to shut down the BBC.
HEYWOOD: [Startled.] I beg your pardon?
HEYWOOD: Prime Minister? Did you just… ask me to… shut down the British Broadcasting Corporation?
MAY: Ask you to…? Oh good heavens, Jeremy, no. What a concept! My my…
HEYWOOD: Oh thank goodness…
MAY: I ordered you to shut down the BBC. Next, I want…
HEYWOOD: I beg your pardon for interrupting, Prime Minister, but you do realise that you have no right to make such a demand. The BBC’s Charter is outside the elected Government’s power of control, and the requirement for a free press…
MAY: The requirement for a free press is a constitutional right, Jeremy. And I removed it from the constitution just now. Here you go.
[May holds up a form, which Heywood, looking pale, reaches out and accepts. He studies it briefly.]
HEYWOOD: Prime Minister… the constitution…
MAY: I just told you, I’ve changed it. The right to a free press has been dropped from the constitution, because I don’t like it. And that nasty Marr-person at the BBC nearly forced me to admit on live TV the other day that I knew even before the Trident vote last year about that nuclear weapons test that went bollocks-up. Could’ve been in real trouble if I’d blurted that out. So shut the BBC down. Oh, I’d like that done by 4pm, if you’d be so good?
HEYWOOD: But, Prime Minister, with all due respect you do not have the right…
MAY: I have every right, thank you. The Supreme Court says I do. And you can also shut down the Mirror, the Guardian, the Canary and the Independent. They’re all horrid to me. Now, next on the agenda, I want you to divert all tax revenues for the next year away from the Treasury and into my personal bank account.
HEYWOOD: [Appalled.] Prime Minister? You cannot be serious…!
MAY: You’re saying I cannot be serious? Who do you think you are? John McEnroe?
HEYWOOD: Well no, Prime Minister…
MAY: It could take a few days for the standing order to be set up, so you’d best hurry up and get on with it. There’s this wonderful new dress that’s all the rage in Milan, and I’d like to get one so I can look hot when I’m visiting that hunky Mr Drumpf fellow in a few days.
HEYWOOD: Tax revenues cannot simply be diverted into an individual’s bank account, Prime Minister! The control of taxation is the prerogative of Parliament…
MAY: Not anymore. I’ve made another change to the constitution.
[May presents another document to Heywood, who gives it a dumbfounded look.]
MAY: As you can see, the constitution now says that the Prime Minister may raise taxes in any amount and at any time at his or her own discretion. So see to it, will you? I expect the standing order to be up and running by a week on Friday. Next, Patrick Stewart said he disagrees with me about something again this morning. Arrest him and have him beheaded please.
HEYWOOD: Arrest him, Prime Minister?!? On what grounds?!
MAY: Arrest him on the grounds that I don’t like it when people say I’m wrong, and behead him on the grounds of Lambeth Palace. It’ll scare the Archbishop of Canterbury into keeping his mouth shut in future that way.
HEYWOOD: But, Prime Minister, we can’t behead anyone, executions are illegal in this country…
[May presents another sheet of paper to Heywood.]
MAY: No they aren’t, Jeremy. I’ve changed the law so I can execute anyone I feel like executing…
[May starts scribbling on another paper.]
MAY: While you were asking me, “On what grounds?”
HEYWOOD: Well then this law-change cannot have been ratified by Parliament.
MAY: It doesn’t have to be, Jeremy. There’s been an amendment to the constitution. Have you not seen it?
HEYWOOD: Which one is it this time, Prime Minister?
MAY: The one I’m just writing up now. As you’ll see in a moment, it says that the Prime Minister may introduce new laws at his or her own discretion without recourse to consultation with, or ratification by, any outside body.
HEYWOOD: But you cannot just change the constitution simply because you feel like it.
MAY: Yes I can, Cabinet Secretary. When I appealed to the Supreme Court that I should be allowed to activate Article 50 and withdraw Britain from the European Union without Parliament’s approval, the judges said, “Yes, that’s fine.” And as withdrawal from the EU is a constitutional change, and if it’s fine for me to do it without ratification, that means I am free to change the constitution in any way I see fit, whenever I see fit, without getting Parliament’s say-so. Got it?
[May starts filling in another paper.]
MAY: But me no buts, Heywood. Now. My husband’s golfing partner’s wife wants a child, but she’s past child-bearing age. But one of her cousins has just given birth. Therefore, I want you to arrange for the new baby to be kidnapped and handed over to my husband’s golfing partner’s wife, with immediate effect. If her cousin complains, just tell her the baby died of mumps or something.
HEYWOOD: [Mortified.] I can’t believe what I’m hearing! Kidnapping is against the Law.
MAY: Kidnapping by any individual below the office of the Prime Minister is against the Law, Cabinet Secretary. There’s been…
HEYWOOD: Oh let me guess, Prime Minister. There’s been a change to the Law?
MAY: Well actually no, not yet.
HEYWOOD: [Surprised.] Oh.
[May finishes filling in the paper.]
MAY: …But now there has. A Prime Minister, with this freshly-inked change to the Laws of Her Majesty’s United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, is no longer subject to kidnapping prohibitions. And as you will be carrying out this instruction on my behalf, in this particular instance you are exempt from them too.
HEYWOOD: I don’t want to be exempt from…
MAY: Baby! Kidnap! See to it. Now, people are campaigning outside of various major hospitals to Save The NHS. They look really scruffy with all those awful placards and things they carry around. Most unsightly. Have them all shot.
MAY: Yes, shot. With guns. No need to arrest them and put them in front of a wall facing firing squads, just send in the army and shoot-to-kill.
HEYWOOD: You can’t just command the British Army to butcher British citizens indiscriminately! It’s a violation of the Army’s duty to protect the people!
[May produces another sheet of paper and hands it to Heywood.]
MAY: I think you will find that as of oh-eight-hundred hours this morning, the army’s duty has been re-evaluated and re-defined as a duty to protect the Prime Minister. Exclusively.
HEYWOOD: And who re-defined it and how?
MAY: I did. By writing it down on that form. Now, penultimately on today’s agenda. I fancy that actor from EastEnders. Whassisname? The man with the stubble? Runs the pub.
HEYWOOD: Er, I am not totally au fait with soap operas, Prime Minister, but I imagine you mean Danny Dyer?
MAY: That’s the fellow. I want to sit on his face for a couple of days. I want him arrested, stripped naked, dipped in banana custard, and tied to my bed at Chequers. Make the arrangements.
HEYWOOD: You want what?!?
MAY: A bit of nookie, Cabinet Secretary. With Danny Dyer. Arrange it.
HEYWOOD: But, Prime Minister! With respect… what if he doesn’t want to… do… things… with you?
MAY: What do his wishes have to do with anything? I’m feeling horny, go and get him so I can dirty some bedding with him.
HEYWOOD: May I… clarify your instruction please, Prime Minister?
MAY: Oh if you must, Cabinet Secretary. Get on with it.
HEYWOOD: You want me to arrange for you to indulge in acts of a… carnal nature with another person, irrespective of whether it is with his consent or not?
[May starts writing out another form.]
MAY: I trust that won’t be a problem for you, Jeremy?
HEYWOOD: Prime Minister, if he does not consent, it would be rape. Both morally and legally, I would have a most profound problem with it!
MAY: Morally? As civil servants go, you have quite the taste for luxuries, Cabinet Secretary! As for legally, not a problem. You see, I’m just putting the last details on another constitutional change.
HEYWOOD: [Nauseous.] Oh really, Prime Minister? And what is this one?
MAY: A re-definition of citizenship of the United Kingdom. Under the terms of my new law, all people previously defined as ‘subjects of Her Majesty the Queen’, are now hereby re-classified as, ‘slaves, body and soul, in perpetual possession of the Prime Minister’.
MAY: And if, under the newly-amended constitution of the United Kingdom, I have ownership of the body of every British citizen, I can do whatever I damn well please to the body of anyone I choose, including Danny Dyer. [Almost drooling.] And, oh boy, I will! So, to the final issue on today’s agenda…
HEYWOOD: Prime Minister, I must apologise. But I cannot carry out any of your instructions.
MAY: I beg your pardon?
HEYWOOD: Forgive me, Prime Minister, but I find your instructions completely unethical. I abhor the very notion of what you demand, and I am completely perturbed as to the manner in which you have authorised your own self-indulgences.
MAY: [Menacing.] Are you… disagreeing with me, Cabinet Secretary?
HEYWOOD: Indeed I am! Proudly and without hesitation!
[May starts writing another paper.]
MAY: Very well, Jeremy. [Calls out.] Officers!
[The door opens. In step two policemen. May points at Heywood.]
MAY: That man is openly disagreeing with the Prime Minister. Arrest him.
POLICEMAN: Arrest him, ma’am? I can’t arrest him just for arguing with you.
MAY: Yes you can.
POLICEMAN: But there’s no law against disagreeing with…
MAY: Yes there is.
POLICEMAN: Which one?
[May hands the officer the paper she was filling in.]
MAY: This one, Constable, the one I’ve just finished writing. It amends the constitution so that any person found guilty of contradicting the Prime Minister can be summarily shot.
[The policeman studies the paper for a moment, shows it to his colleague who nods idly, then places his hand on Heywood’s shoulder.]
POLICEMAN: So you did, ma’am. Sir, I arrest you for crimes against the Prime Minister. I must inform you that anything you say will not be taken down, and will not be used against you in a court of law, as you won’t be getting a trial.
HEYWOOD: What! I have a right to a trial! Every accused is entitled to a fair trial!
MAY: We don’t have trials in Britain, Jeremy. Not anymore.
POLICEMAN: The Habeas Corpus Act was repealed by the Prime Minister yesterday, sir. As soon as she says you’re guilty, that’s it. I have to arrest you and throw the book at you.
MAY: And the courts are all being abolished as we have no use for them anymore. Not when I can simply decided who’s guilty and who isn’t. Gentlemen, march him out and shoot him.
HEYWOOD: But you can’t do this!
MAY: Why not? The Supreme Court has decided that I am allowed to control the constitution. When I control the constitution, I control everything. Anything in the constitution that bars me from doing something I wish to do, I can simply remove it whenever I feel like it. Against that, Cabinet Secretary, what can you do to stop me?
[The police march Heywood out and close the door behind them. After a moment, there is the sound of gunfire.]
MAY: What can you do to stop me?
CAPTION: Do you understand why the Supreme Court’s decision was right, yet?
December 14, 2016
by Martin Odoni
A few years back, Peter Marshall created a Panorama documentary for the BBC about the Hillsborough Disaster, of which I was mildly critical, as it did largely feel like a rather needless retread of familiar, very harrowing details. This week, he released a new documentary on ITV, Hillsborough: Smears, Survivors & The Search For Truth. This one was certainly a more constructive programme, as it focused on comparatively new research and investigations that have been carried out while the rebooted Inquests were in progress. Much of the material Marshall covered I personally was already aware of (because I peripherally observed some of the research), but most of the public are not, so this new programme felt far fresher than the one from 2013. The upshot of the programme therefore is that the Report of The Hillsborough Independent Panel, while remaining enormously significant, is now effectively ‘out-of-date’, as very few of the details Marshall discussed were examined by the Report – perhaps were not even noticed by the Panel – four years ago. So anyone who imagines that the HIP Report is the ultimate position of research into the Disaster is well behind the times.
Aspects of the new documentary I found refreshing were that there was less focus than usually happens on the South Yorkshire Police, more attention than usual was paid to the (too-often-overlooked) misconduct of the West Midlands Police, the much-neglected Hillsborough Justice Campaign was given more recognition than the Hillsborough Families Support Group for a change, and there was more of an ‘outlet’ for traumatised survivors of the Disaster and not only for the bereaved families.
The only detail I want to dwell on for now though is the interview with Ray Lewis. He was the referee for the 1989 FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough, and was famously the man who blew the whistle and ordered the players to clear the pitch six minutes into the game when fans spilled over from the overcrowded terrace.
Lewis reveals that he gave a verbal statement to Superintendent Barry Mason of the West Midlands Police after the Disaster. During the statement, he described the crowd outside the stadium on the day of the tragedy as ‘mixed’, by which he meant that he saw Liverpool and Nottingham Forest supporters mingling freely, peacefully and in good spirits.
A quarter of a century later, Lewis finally got to see the type-up of his words, and to his consternation, he found that the word mixed had been substituted with the word pissed. An investigator from the Independent Police Complaints Commission discussed the alteration with Lewis, and apparently concluded that it was probably just a typographical error.
Now, as a rule, I tend to subscribe to cock-up theory far more than conspiracy theory, but in this case, I reckon this is a classic IPCC excuse for being too lazy to investigate. To my mind, the odds on the change-of-words being an error are pretty remote.
For one thing, a typing error is usually just a spelling mistake, frequently just getting one letter wrong, by inadvertently hitting a key adjacent to the correct key. For instance, mixes would be a typo for mixed. Moxed would be a typo for mixed. Nixes would be a typo for mixed. But on a standard ‘QWERTY’ keyboard, the letter P is not adjacent to the letter M. Pissed also has more letters than mixed and is therefore a doubtful result of a typographical error
Secondly, if we assume instead that the typist misread what was on the page, it still does not look like they would objectively assume that pissed could be the word Lewis had used. The handwriting, as Lewis himself concedes, was very poor, but even so, from studying pictures of the handwritten document, it is still thoroughly clear that the word Mason wrote down begins with the letter M. Looking at the word in isolation, if I were pushed into saying what word I think it is, I would answer, “It probably says mined“; –
For sure, that would stop the sentence from making the slightest bit of sense, and the typist would have to come up with an alternative word, but it would be a ludicrous leap from there to assume it was pissed. As much as anything else, implying legless drunkenness runs somewhat contrary to the spirit of what Lewis had said earlier in the sentence about the crowd being in good humour.
But thirdly – and this is the clincher for me – is it not just a bit too much of a coincidence that the word the officer chose as a substitute ‘just happened’ to be slang for drunkenness? Of all the possible substitutes the typist could have chosen, and there must be dozens, (s)he ‘just happened’ to choose the one that emphasises the impression of drunk-and-disorderly behaviour, which ‘just happened’ to be the very impression that officers in both West Midlands and South Yorkshire had been trying so very hard to convey?
Not for the first time when discussing the Hillsborough Disaster, I find myself asking the question, “Do the British police really think the public are that stupid?”
November 17, 2016
by Martin Odoni
I am not keen on people making judgements of works they have not read, so this essay may seem somewhat hypocritical. But I am confident that a book I have not read will not be worth the bother of reading.
This week sees the publication of a book written by the controversial retired police officer, Sir Norman Bettison. If you are unaware of who Bettison is, you can read a couple of articles about him, here and here. His putative involvement in the legal cover-up of the causes of the Hillsborough Disaster have long established his name as one of the ‘Great Unmentionables’ on Merseyside, even though he has always denied playing any knowing role in it.
I have not yet decided whether I will read Hillsborough Untold: Aftermath Of A Disaster myself, but I am already fairly sure that I will be wasting time if I do. (Neil Wilby has written a very comprehensive analysis if you wish to have a fully-informed view of the book. I am not yet in a position to express agreement or otherwise with the analysis, but I can say that Mr Wilby sounds highly skeptical.) Mainly, my trouble is that Bettison’s discussions of the book so far have been on the maintained basis that he knew nothing about the cover-up, and that the book outlines what he was doing instead of co-operating with police malpractice. He has gone on record more than once as saying that he
“never altered a statement nor asked for one to be altered.“
As that is the angle from which the book appears to have been written, it establishes in itself that Hillsborough Untold is unlikely to be overburdened by factual accuracy. There has been strong evidence circulating among Hillsborough campaigners for several years that Bettison must not only have known that alteration-of-statements was happening, but also that he himself had solicited several instances of the practice.
During the preparations for the original Coroner’s Inquests, Bettison held meetings with a number of his fellow officers within the South Yorkshire Police to discuss their witness statements, and potentially to press them to change their content. Below is a screenshot of a memo, from the 24th of July 1990, giving notice of one such meeting; –
(If you have difficulty reading the handwriting, it reads as follows; –
“Interview [the] following officers and ask them to re-examine the transcript of their evidence to the Taylor Inquiry as the subject of police “monitoring” of the pens on West Terrace. Obtain further statement if they argue that wrong impression has been given in their original evidence.
1. Chief Insp. CREASER
2. Insp. CALVERT
3. Insp. DARLING
4. Insp. SEWELL”
‘Superintendent Bettison’ is named as the officer allocating the task, bottom-right of the memo.)
At the very least, this clearly indicates that Bettison was knowingly taking part in efforts to get officers to change their stories for one reason or another. In this light, Bettison’s claim to being completely ignorant of alteration processes seems implausible.
Bettison further wrote a faxed letter to Peter Metcalf of Hammonds Suddards Solicitors in 1990, listing off amendments he recommended be made to a statement submitted by former Chief Superintendent Robin Herold.
Item 2.a) is particularly suspicious, as Bettison recommends removal of reference to “any reliance on fortune”. The only reason for that instruction would be a desire to make the police operation at Hillsborough sound better-controlled than it really was.
In fairness, these instances were roughly a year after the Taylor Inquiry completed its work, and it was the statements submitted to Taylor that are the main controversy, so these items do not really establish Bettison’s involvement in the most notorious chapter. But nonetheless, they do show that his claim that he “never asked for [a statement] to be altered” is heavily overstating the case, while the chapter deserves notoriety of its own in any event.
That Bettison seems to have written the book from an angle of unknowing innocence does not therefore do the work’s credibility or appeal any favours. I do perhaps feel duty-bound to read Hillsborough Untold eventually, but I will do so without much urgency.
As I have been writing this, I have listened to Bettison discussing his book with Shelagh Fogarty on LBC Radio, and he has raised more questions than answers. One noticeable change-of-angle during the interview was that he has denied that there was a cover-up by the South Yorkshire Police at all. He points to the fact that the Taylor Interim Report had within four months debunked the claims of fan behaviour causing the Disaster. Therefore, he asks, why are people talking about a cover-up at all when the truth was already out?
There are a number of reasons why these remarks are silly. Firstly, just because Lord Justice Peter Taylor saw through police attempts to shift blame does not mean that the attempts were not made after all, or that the alteration of witness statements to remove criticism of the police operation had not been carried out. (He blames the solicitors for the alteration process. Not entirely wrong of him, but the police never offered any resistance to the idea at all.)
More importantly, an awful lot of the wider public did not cotton on to the real causes of the Disaster when the Taylor Report was published, hence wide numbers of people continued to believe the victim-blaming narrative for decades afterwards, with encouragement from media reporting myths fed to them by the police.
Still more important, however, is that the South Yorkshire Police bitterly rejected Taylor’s findings and, with the help of the West Midlands Police, spent the next several years using the Coroner’s Inquests as a platform from which to ‘un-write’ the Report. Considerable key evidence was hidden from the original Inquests, leading to the incorrect ‘Accidental Death’ verdict.
If that little lot does not constitute a cover-up in Bettison’s mind, I can only thank the stars he is no longer a Chief Constable.