Hooliganism

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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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.