The Hillsborough Disaster
In treating such events as the Hillsborough disaster, a degree of circumspection is called for. Even the Labour Party has been reticent about scoring political points despite the fact that Dennis Howell can quite correctly claim to have warned of the danger of perimeter fencing ever since its introduction. It is equally valid to point out that forgetting or ignoring what happened on that Saturday is not an option for concerned, thinking humans.
Collecting the Cash
The tragedy (for in its inevitability it was a tragedy in the dramatic as well as the popular sense) has united far more than the people of one city as it involved Liverpool, the most successful British club of recent times. So among the dead and injured were workers from many parts of the country. Those still alive know where they stand in the list of priorities, as every line. of enquiry into the causes of the catastrophe shows that the comfort and safety of the ordinary spectator came plumb last. Among the fans there may be many who understand why comfort is low on the list of priorities; a rudimentary grasp of profit maximisation would tell them that providing high quality facilities for those who pay what they can afford, regardless of the facilities available, makes bad business sense. What many didn’t realise was that the same principle applies to safety. It may seem facile to point it out, but the fact that it is a commonplace should not detract from the relevance of the commercial priority of collecting the cash. The huge gates which were fatally opened at the thirteenth hour contrast starkly with the turnstiles which represent the most cost-effective way of making sure everyone coughs up.
Other priorities were less obvious: the allocation of tickets in open disregard of requirements was done not for the benefit of Nottingham Forest supporters but for that of the police, who did not want the bother of directing groups of people around the stadium. The perimeter fencing had emergency access not for desperate people to get out but primarily for the police and stewards to get in. The medical facilities were more suited to a studio theatre than a massive open-air stadium.
In this disaster, as at Bradford, the authorities are in the uncomfortable position of having no hooligans to blame. Although The Sun in its egregious fashion was pretty quick to make unsubstantiated and irrelevant accusations, the general observation was that crowd violence was not a factor. In fact the hooligan problem and the attempts to deal with it have always been red herrings as far as stadium facilities are concerned. Leaving aside the fact that most “football” violence occurs outside the ground, the idea that it is contained by creating conditions inimical to all but those who are handy in a ruck has always been more absurd than paradoxical. Similarly nobody has explained why they think people who are prepared to indulge in flagrant anti-social behaviour in full view of the police will baulk at using a forged, stolen or borrowed identity card if that scheme comes into operation.
As usual on these occasions the experts and leaders stand naked in their incompetence, highlighted in the aftermath by the contrast with the improvisation of ordinary people. As those in the stand were pulling desperate fellow spectators from the chaos of the terrace the police were driving others back into it. As the authorities were wondering why there weren’t enough stretchers the fans were commandeering the advertising hoardings. As the mourning of those who had every right to be very angry went ahead in a touchingly dignified manner, the press were publishing pictures of people in their death agony with scant concern for any offence which might be caused.
Never fear, though, the prima donnas were not slow to get in on the act and show their “concern”. Thatcher turned up in Sheffield on Sunday, which was probably a wise move because had she turned up in Liverpool one doubts even the formidable Merseyside Police could have guaranteed her safety. Charles and Di popped into the hospital for want of something better to do. Liverpool FC donated £100,000 immediately to the relief fund, that sum being approximately one twentieth of what it paid for the exclusive right to make a profit from the footballing skills of Ian Rush. And, of course, Religion PLC. was there: socialists do not doubt the sincerity of the priests’ sympathy, but it is plain that some explanation has to be given as to why the all-loving god let this happen to people who fill the collection plates.
Many socialists would argue that there is no place for competitive sport in a sane society. The present writer does not subscribe to that view, but it is clear that no sane society would in any imaginable circumstances put 50,000 people one by one through what amount to rat traps in order to verify their right to access to an area from which there is no escape in time of crisis, and all for the benefit of a tiny minority with whom they have next to nothing in common.
The late Bill Shankly is reputed to have said “Some people say I regard football as a matter of life and death. That’s nonsense—it’s far more important than that”. Shankly’s obsession with sport is legendary but we must now wonder if, had he witnessed the Hillsborough disaster, he would have rephrased that particular witticism.