Joyce McMillan: 27 years on the poor are still demonised

Liverpool and Everton Academy players lay flowers during the Hillsborough vigil earlier this week. Picture: Getty Images
Liverpool and Everton Academy players lay flowers during the Hillsborough vigil earlier this week. Picture: Getty Images
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ALMOST three decades after the Hillsborough tragedy, the forces that allowed there to be such a successful cover-up remain in place, writes Joyce McMillan

The doomed bourbon monarchs of France, so they say, never learned anything and never forgot anything; and I’m beginning to feel that the same applies to the British Conservative Party, whose politicians persist in looking back with pride and yearning to what they see as the glory days of the 1980s, and to reliving them through conflicts like the current junior doctors’ dispute. They passionately believe that back then, they were on the march, under Margaret Thatcher’s leadership, towards a “better” Britain - one in which freedom would ring, ordinary citizens would buy shares in once-lumbering nationalised industries, and all would be efficiency and equality of opportunity, as old collective institutions and communities that restricted individual freedom were brought to their knees, privatised, or simply destroyed.

What they cannot afford to acknowledge, though, is exactly how much their crusade against the postwar British state cost, in terms of the social cohesion of British society. For as Margaret Thatcher made clear in so many words, her political project required nothing less than the framing of millions of ordinary British citizens as “the enemy within”; from trade unionists to peace campaigners and public sector workers in general, they were not only to be defeated, but to be stigmatised as lazy, unpatriotic, mindlessly resistant to change, and thoroughly deserving - like the dinosaurs to whom they were often compared - of the social and economic extinction that awaited them. Small wonder that those years led to Scotland and Wales increasingly defining themselves as different countries, which wanted to pursue a less socially divisive path; small wonder, too, that they were years of despair across large parts of the industrial north of England.

And it was of this unlovely period in British history that we were reminded this week, as the final inquest verdicts emerged in the case of the 96 Liverpool football supporters who died at Hillsborough in Sheffield, just 27 years ago this month. Of the incident itself, it would be crazy to argue that there was any political intention behind it; it was a matter of negligence, weak safety legislation, and one or two catastrophic misjudgments on the day, in a general climate of police and public hostility towards massed football fans, after a decade of match-related disorder.

Of the cover-up and smear campaign that followed, though – well, even people who never subscribed to the complacent “friendly British bobby” stereotype, and who noted the police use of similar tactics during the miners’ strike of 1984-85, have been shocked and saddened by the extent of the vicious, organised duplicity shown by South Yorkshire police, as they set out – with the help of elements of the press who were engaged not in journalism, but in mere propaganda for the Thatcher government’s world-view – to smear the dead fans and their families as yobs and criminals, to stigmatise the entire city of Liverpool as a nest of self-pitying losers, and, above all, to conceal the extent of their own fault. In the House of Commons on Wednesday, the Home Secretary Theresa May said that those involved might eventually face charges including gross negligence, manslaughter, misconduct in public office, perverting the course of justice, and perjury; she should be warned that if no individuals are ever convicted, at least of the last two charges, then she and her successors will rightly have no peace from the families of the 96, who will not stop campaigning now, until they see justice.

What is frightening about the Hillsborough case, though, is the fact that that while so much has changed over almost three decades – particularly in terms of safety at football grounds – the psychological and social forces that enabled that hugely successful cover-up remain firmly in place, and in many ways are even stronger than they were in 1989. Liverpool may have picked itself up by its bootstraps, and undergone some of the gentrifying process associated with self-reinvention as a cultural centre; but the impulse to demonise the poor and benefit claimants has grown ever stronger. It wasn’t the 1980s, but the decade just past, that gave us vicious cultural phenomena like Benefit Street; it has been within the past two years that some politicians and elements of the media have sought to legitimise the most unconscionable cruelty towards refugees fleeing war by stigmatising them, likewise, as criminals and chancers. And meanwhile, the dangerous fundamentalist belief that the market always does the right thing in allocating wealth to those who are intelligent, diligent and morally superior, and in inflicting poverty only on the lazy and stupid, rolls clean on through a global crash that should have discredited it for ever, to remain the dominant belief-system of the day.

So let us not, whatever else we do, comfort ourselves with the belief that the demonisation of ordinary and vulnerable British citizens that happened after Hillsborough could not happen now. In fact, it happens every day, in ways that are less obviously catastrophic and more fragmented, but that still have the effect of destroying people’s lives while the rest of us stand by, read a few misleading headlines, and conclude that they must have deserved it. For in the end, we either found our politics on the idea of love and solidarity, and on a vision of humanity coming together to protect the weak and to solve common problems, or we found it on an idea of competition and cash, which permits the trampling and “othering” of the weak, and unbridled deference to the wealthy, whatever the content of their characters. You’ll Never Walk Alone says the Merseyside anthem, in an unforgettable expression of the powerful collective spirit that gave such strength to the Hillsborough families, in their long shared fight for justice. Yet still, we send our children out into a world where the creed of materialistic individualism holds political and economic sway, for all its blatant failures; and where the cruelty implicit in that creed is visible everywhere, not perhaps with the high-profile savagery that characterised the Hillsborough cover-up, but in the casual dismissal of the lives, hopes, livelihoods and dignity of human beings who never made enough money to matter, in the land where cash is king.