Football

Policing football crowds and the aftermath of Hillsborough: What the new Thatcher papers reveal, pt 2

In my previous post looking at the policing of acid house parties in the late Thatcher period, I noted that the Home Office complained:

No amount of statutory power will make it feasible for police forces to take on crowds of thousands on a regular basis. We cannot have another drain on police resources equivalent to policing football matches.[1]

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In the same tranche of documents released by the National Archives at the end of last year was a Prime Minister’s Office file dedicated to the policing of football hooligans and the Hillsborough disaster of April 1989. The file is primarily concerned with the Football Spectators Bill that was first debated in Hansard in January 1989. This Bill was wide-ranging and had been in development for three years, responding to the recommendations of the Popplewell Inquiry, which investigated the Bradford City fire and the riot at Birmingham’s St Andrews ground in May 1985. As well as proposing new criminal offences related to hooliganism, the extension of exclusion orders for convicted ‘hooligan’s from football grounds under the Public Order Act 1986 and electronic tagging for particular offenders, the Bill included a membership scheme, which meant that only registered members could attend matches and tickets for away fans to be highly restricted.

While this Bill was still in development, the Hillsborough disaster occurred and the Bill was temporarily shelved, although as the Hillsborough Independent Panel has shown, the Prime Minister and some of her colleagues wanted to press ahead with pushing the Bill through parliament, despite the need for an investigation into the disaster.[2]

Justice Taylor was assigned to investigate what happened that day, but only a month after the disaster, sections of the Thatcher government were commenting that ‘there was considerable disagreement over the cause of the disaster’.[3] For the government, the reason for the disaster was hooliganism and unruly crowd behaviour. The riots at St Andrews and Luton Town and the Heysel disaster in 1985, as well as clashes between Scottish and English fans in May 1989, had convinced the government that the number one problem at football grounds concerning public order was hooliganism. The Environment Secretary Nicholas Ridley complained:

On May 13, less than a month after Hillsborough, there was a serious pitch invasion at Crystal Palace which resulted in 26 arrests. 16 people were injured, two of them with stab wounds. Serious incidents took place all over the country that weekend with more than 300 people being arrested, inside and outside grounds… The existing powers under the Public Order Act have clearly not stamped out the problem.[4]

Speaking at the Football Writers’ Association Dinner in May 1989, the Sports Minister Colin Moynihan spoke dismissively of ‘supporters having to be herded into grounds and protected every match day for their own safety by 5,000 or more police.’[5] The Minister lamented that the police could only ‘contain the problem’ and ‘could be far better deployed in the local communities and towns upholding law and order.’[6]

Another document reiterated this point, stating:

In spite of the efforts of the Government and the football authorities, over 5,000 police officers are still needed every Saturday to contain the problem, to protect the true supporters and those living near football grounds.[7]

The file shows that the government felt that it had to take action, and that the football authorities could not be relied upon to ensure public order at football grounds. At his after dinner speech to the Football Writers’ Association, Moynihan announced:

The Government is not going to allow hooligans to run the show if the football authorities cannot do it themselves.[8]

Although they believed that the final report of the Taylor Inquiry was ‘flawed’,[9] Home Secretary David Waddington wrote to Margaret Thatcher in January 1990 that they should take advantage of the report’s condemnation of the Football League. Waddington noted that the report:

places the responsibility for complacency about safety, for decline in the conditions of grounds, and for poor facilities for spectators firmly at the door of the football industry. It suggests in effect that if you treat people like animals, they will behave that way.[10]

Even though one could say that the Thatcher government held similar perceptions about football crowds in the 1980s, the government tried to portray itself as ‘cleaning up’ English football and taking responsibility after the ineffective management of the football authorities. Moynihan wrote to the editor of The Times, in response to an editorial in the newspaper, outlining the actions of the government to combat hooliganism, especially as the press highlighted fears about English fans at the World Cup being held in Italy during the summer. Defending the government’s record, Moynihan wrote:

This is a record of action not apathy but the Government cannot cure all of football’s problems for it. The essential message of Lord Justice Taylor’s Report is that football must at last face up to its own responsibilities.[11]

The final report of the Taylor Report warned against the implementation of the membership scheme set out in the Football Supporters Bill (and pushed for by the Association of Chief Police Officers), concluding:

I therefore have grave doubts whether the scheme will achieve its object of eliminating hooligans from inside the ground. I have even stronger doubts as to whether it will achieve its further object of ending football hooliganism outside grounds. Indeed, I do not think it will. I feat that, in the short term at least, it may actually increase trouble outside grounds.[12]

With the release of this report, the government decided to drop the push for implementation of the membership scheme, but the Football Supporters Bill was finally passed in November 1989. The Act, in practice, focused much more criminal sanctions against suspected, as well as convicted, ‘hooligans’, and ensuring that football grounds were considered ‘safe’ for top flight matches. For the Thatcher government in the wake of Hillsborough, the focus was on crowd control and dealing with unruly elements of football crowds. The actions of the police, at this point in time, were never questioned by the government.

Hillsborough

An archival photograph of the Disaster from the records of the SYP.

[1] ‘Acid House Parties’, 12 October, 1989, p. 5, PREM 19/2724, National Archives (London).

[2] Hillsborough Independent Panel, Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel (London: HMSO 2012) pp. 201-203.

[3] Letter from Andrew Turnbull to Roger Bright, 9 May, 1989, PREM 19/3027, NA.

[4] Letter from Nicholas Ridley, 22 June, 1989, PREM 19/3027, NA.

[5] ‘Draft Speech for Football Writers’ Association Dinner’, 18 May, 1989, p. 5, PREM 19/3027, NA.

[6] Ibid.

[7] ‘Football Spectators Bill: Bull Points’, n.d., PREM 19/3027, NA.

[8] ‘Draft Speech for Football Writers’ Association Dinner’, p. 8.

[9] Letter from Andrew Turnbull to Colin Walters, 23 January, 1990, PREM 19/3027, NA.

[10] Letter from Andrew Turnbull to Margaret Thatcher, 22 January, 1990, PREM 19/3027, NA.

[11] Letter from Colin Moynihan to Charles Wilson, 1 March, 1990, PREM 19/3027, NA.

[12] Lord Justice Taylor, The Hillsborough Stadium Disaster – 15 April, 1989 (London: HMSO, 1990) pp. 168-169.

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Historians and the online archive of the Hillsborough Independent Panel

An archival photograph of the Disaster from the records of the SYP.

An archival photograph of the Disaster from the records of the South Yorkshire Police. (Ref PR8)

Last week, the jury from the Hillsborough Inquest found that the 96 victims of the Hillsborough Disaster on 15 April, 1989 had been unlawfully killed. This new inquest, established by the Attorney General in December 2012, relied heavily on the uncovering of over 450,000 documents by the Hillsborough Independent Panel, itself established in January 2010 by the Home Office. Part of the function of the Independent Panel was to examine these previously closed documents and create an online archive of this material in an attempt to create a transparent and publicly available record of the disaster.

Published online in late 2012, and now at the end of the most recent inquest, a question that may arise is what purpose does the online archive serve now and how do historians engage with it? The archive is an important resource for historians and the following blog post looks at how this archive can be used by historians.

UNPRECEDENTED ACCESS

The archive offers the historian unprecedented access to documents from the late Thatcher period, albeit around a limited and tragic episode in the history of contemporary Britain. The National Archives at Kew are currently working on transferring documents under the old 30 year rule to the new 20 year rule. As of February 2016, government documents, primarily Cabinet and Prime Minister’s Office, records have been released for the years 1986 to 1988. At this rate of disclosure, we would still be waiting for the relevant documents from the Thatcher government until 2017-18.

However it is not only documents from the Thatcher government that have been disclosed. Many records come from the Sheffield City Council (SCC) and South Yorkshire County Council (SYCC), which are not necessarily bound to the same disclosure schedule as the national government and its agencies. Often contemporary historians have to rely on government records created at the national level as more local records have been kept and released in a much more haphazard manner. The documents disclosed by the SCC and the SYCC for the Independent Panel provide a more comprehensive picture of how the disaster and its aftermath was mismanaged at both the local and national level, and presenting an alternative to the top down view that the archival records usually create.

As well as the records of the Thatcher government, the SCC and the SYCC, the archive also contains many documents disclosed by other agencies, such as the South Yorkshire Police, the South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service, the Yorkshire Ambulance Service and the South Yorkshire Coroner. These records are usually much harder for historians to access, but are invaluable in providing a more ‘holistic’ view of how government agencies and services operate with each other, particularly in a time of crisis. However at the same time, historians should remember not to view the structure of these agencies as ‘monolithic’ and all having a similar agenda. In our reading of these records, we are reminded that these agencies have a number of competing (and sometimes contradictory) interests and often worked in spite of each other.

CONNECTIONS TO THE WIDER HISTORY OF THATCHERITE BRITAIN

The Hillsborough Disaster was a tragic event in the final year and a half of the Thatcher government and brings together several different aspects of the history of the period. Most obviously it is the culmination of the uneasy relationship between the police and football crowds that had existed throughout the 1980s. In 1985, the Popplewell Inquiry was set up to investigate a fire at Bradford City’s Valley Parade stadium that killed 56 people and a ‘riot’ at St Andrews in Birmingham on the same day. The Inquiry’s questions about crowd control seemed to go unheeded and similar disregard by the police led to the deaths of 96 people only four years later.

It also fits into a wider history of the changing nature of the police in the 1980s, in particular the policing of public order. In the 1970s, public order policing in the UK underwent significant changes, influenced by the events in Northern Ireland. This led to a paramilitarisation of the police in the UK, particularly the use of the Special Patrol Group (SPG) to police unruly crowds, such as demonstrations and picket lines. By the early 1980s, the policing techniques used to maintain public order had alienated so many that riots broke out across the country in 1981 (and again in 1985). On one hand, these riots led to supposedly greater police accountability with Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, but also marked a precursor to other episodes of police brutality, such as the policing of the miners’ strike in 1984-85 (such as that seen at the Battle of Orgreave in 1984, which also involved the South Yorkshire Police) . In 1986, the Public Order Act was revised and gave the police greater powers, which were then employed throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s. For example, one could make links between the policing of demonstrations against the Poll Tax in 1989-90 and the policing of football crowds during the same period.

The Hillsborough Disaster also highlights a wider demonization of the working class in Britain during the Thatcher period. The unionised and industrialised working class were identified in the late 1970s as sites of resistance to Thatcher’s neoliberal agenda and during the following decade, the institutions and structures of the organised working class – the trade unions and the industrial workplace in particular – were dismantled by the Conservatives. For the Tories, the working class was something to fear and to be controlled by the authorities. This attitude can be seen in how the crowds at Hillsborough were treated, and how they were portrayed by the government and sections of the media in its aftermath.

From this, this demonization of the working class further highlights the insidious relationship between the Thatcher government, the police and the Murdoch press in the 1980s and early 1990s. The infamous ‘The Truth’ headline in The Sun a few days after the disaster demonstrates the collective interest in demonising the victims of the tragedy as drunken, unruly and criminal. The archive shows that these baseless claims were continually used by members of the government, the police and Murdoch press journalists to reinforce their prejudices up until the most recent inquiry.

On the matter of inquiries, the archive also has a wealth of material submitted to the original Taylor Inquiry in 1989-90 and fits into a wider history of the role on public inquiries in the Thatcher era. Between 1981 with the Scarman Inquiry and the Taylor Inquiry in 1989-90, there were numerous inquiries into the behaviour of the police and their handling of public order situations. Although these inquiries did have some impact, such as the introduction of the PaCE Act in 1984, the fact that these inquiries continued to be held show that the police were slow to change their ways and the same problems reoccurred time and time again under the Thatcher government.

THE GAP BETWEEN THE ARCHIVAL RECORD AND ‘WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED’

Although the Hillsborough Independent Panel has collated all these primary documents, the archival record cannot definitively tell us ‘what actually happened’. One of the challenges that historians face when dealing with government documents, as well as archival materials in general, is the ‘gap’ between the archival record and ‘what actually happened’ – what Ann Laura Stoler has referred to as ‘silences’ in the archival record. This is something that is particularly relevant in conducting research into public inquiries and has been noted as a point of contention in the previous investigations into the Hillsborough Disaster, where accusations have been made that information provided by various agencies was manipulated or distorted. Historians of the recent past must rely on the documentary evidence and where possible, compare the written record with other sources, such as audio-visual material and oral testimony, but still acknowledge that we cannot fully uncover ‘what actually happened’ and highlight this when required.

DEALING WITH SENSITIVE INFORMATION

As the terms of reference for the Hillsborough Independent Panel state, ‘[t]he Hillsborough disaster was a personal tragedy for hundreds of people’ and this needs to be taken into consideration when conducting research into the archival materials disclosed. While a lot of the personal information has been redacted, sensitive information about particular individuals, including victims and employees of certain government and public agencies, such as the police, the ambulance service and the local civil service, is still accessible through these disclosed documents. Any kind of information along these lines should be handled sensitively and with due care. The website of the Panel reminds those conducting research using the archive that while deeply sensitive material has been redacted, some of the content available is still distressing.

Keeping these issues in mind, the online archive created by the Hillsborough Independent Panel is a valuable resource for historians of contemporary Britain and the Thatcherite era. Although limited in its historical scope, centred around a single tragic event, the archival documents provide great insight into a variety of historical narratives that extrapolate out from the Hillsborough Disaster.

Did the Thatcher Government downplay fascist infiltration of football ‘hooligan’ scene?

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After the collapse of the National Front at the 1979 general election and its split into three competing factions, amongst the football ‘hooligans’ was one of the few in-roads that far right activists made during the 1980s. Both the Official National Front (the ‘Political Soldier’ group under the leadership of Nick Griffin) and the more overtly Nazi British Movement targeted young football supporters and those linked to certain ‘firms’. Many of those who were targeted by the NF/BM were already in the midst of a subculture that involved occasional violence and this made recruitment into organised fascist activism more easy. Shortly before it dissolved in 1981-82, the Anti-Nazi League warned about the presence of the BM on the football terraces:

At many football grounds, particularly in the London area, youngsters giving Nazi salutes have adapted BM slogans to their football chants – ‘Adolf Hitler, we’ll support you evermore’ and ‘There’s only one Adolf Hitler’.

The ANL quoted a former BM member who stated:

The BM and the NF approach groups of skinheads and the smoothies and the guys who just look mean, and say to them ‘Do you want a good ruck? If so come to a march on Sunday.’ I’ve seen them do this on the terraces at Spurs, West Ham, Millwall, Orient, Watford and Chelsea.’

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In the recently released documents from the Prime Minister’s Office for 1985-86 by the National Archives, there were several files relating the policing of football crowds and of ‘hooliganism’ in the wake of the Heysel disaster in Belgium, the Bradford City fire and the riot at St Andrews (Birmingham City’s stadium). These files offer a great insight into how the British government, particularly the Home Office, and the various police forces around the country viewed football crowds as a ‘problem’ and the various ways it sought to deal with them (of course, this offers background to how the authorities mishandled the Hillsborough disaster four years later).

Most of the files deal with the issues of crowd control and public order, but in the discussion of ‘hooliganism’, there seems to be little discussion of how the far right had infiltrated the various supporters’ groups and how this might’ve added to the violence witnessed around the country in the mid-1980s. The Interim Report of the Poppleweill Inquiry (set up to investigate the Bradford City fire and the Birmingham City riot) acknowledged that research into fascist recruitment of football ‘hooligans’ had reported this as a significant phenomenon:

Sociological research on the activities of the politically far right at football matches suggests that many young fans who espouse racist views, or who join in racist chants, have little real idea of the politics of groups like the National Front and the British Movement.

Although Justice Popplewell admitted, ‘I shall need to inquire more deeply in due course into this aspect’.

But despite Popplewell stating that ‘[t]here were found on the Birmingham ground a number of leaflets belonging to the National Front’, the report quoted a local Chief Superintendent who was investigating the riot, who denied the presence of the far right:

During the season just concluded, I have not detected any political lobbying adjacent to the ground on match days. I have not detected political activists recruiting or provoking problems.

In speaking notes drafted by the Home Office for the impeding release of the Popplewell Inquiry report, the government seemed to be hedging their bets on whether the far right were a problem at football grounds. In answering the question ‘what is being done to deal with extreme right wing organisations such as the National Front which instigate football violence’, the speaking notes said:

It is difficult to measure the effect which the presence of political extremists has on the level of crowd violence, but we do not rule out the possibility that this is a contributing factor. Anyone with evidence that political extremists are inciting or organising violence at football matches should draw it to the attention of the police.

Included in the file are examples of the fascist literature from the Young National Front’s paper Bulldog, which featured a regular column ‘On the Football Front’. Although prone to exaggeration, one issue claimed that Bulldog was being sold ‘by the hundred outside football grounds’ (including St Andrews). Another issue of Bulldog claimed that a YNF organiser had been involved in a ‘football race riot’ in Birmingham.

These copies of Bulldog had been supplied by Ted Croker, who was the head of the Football Association at the time. In a reply letter to Croker, a government representative seems to downplay these papers as evidence of the far right’s infiltration of the football ‘hooligan’ scene. Neil Macfarlane from the Department of the Environment wrote:

You will realise, of course, that if anything is to be done to deal with specific instances of violence being initiated or encouraged by National Front members, the police will require firm evidence; the Home Secretary has asked that anybody who has such evidence should make it available to the police. Without such evidence, it is very difficult to take any action, however horrible we feel this overt racism to be.

While the authorities were concerned about football ‘hooliganism’ and violence during the 1980s, the emphasis was on crowd control, rather than tackling political extremism (particularly far right/fascist). This is very similar to how the authorities policed clashes between fascists and anti-fascists in the 1970s and 1980s. The police were often willing to downplay fascist violence until it became impossible to ignore. The policing of football crowds and demonstrations were revamped shortly after this with the Public Order Act 1986, but as the events at Hillsborough in April 1989 showed, public order policing strategies were still framed around suspicion of crowds and little concern for those caught up in them.