Public order issues

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.

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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.

Policing Acid House Parties in 1989: What the new Thatcher Government papers reveal

The latest round of papers from the Prime Minister’s Office have been released, relating to the final years of Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1989-90. While files on several topics have been opened, this post will look at the file dedicated the policing of ‘acid house parties’ (also known as raves) in 1989.

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As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the phenomenon of acid house swept across the UK in the mid-to-late 1980s and while a number of clubs, such as the Hacienda in Manchester and Shoom in London, attracted large crowds for their club nights, raves exploded into open areas that were typical venues – warehouses, fields and other places left vacant by Thatcherism. For a number of reasons, including the noise generated by these parties and the use of drugs, these raves started to draw the ire of the police and of the authorities. One briefing note stated that the ‘main problem with acid house parties is the nuisance caused by the noise’ and curiously, stressed ‘[d]rugs are not the main issue’.[1] In a letter to the Leader of the House of Commons, Sir Geoffrey Howe, the new Home Secretary David Waddington wrote that there was also a concern that ‘criminal elements [were] becoming involved’.[2] This concern, ‘coupled with the need to reassure the public that the existing law can be made effective’, Waddington argued, required a new approach.[3] He also noted that 223 parties had been held in London and the South East in 1989, with 96 stopped by the police and another 95 prevented from going ahead.[4]

And so, after a localised and haphazard response by local councils and the police, in late 1989, the Thatcher government proposed a co-ordinated and nationwide effort to clamp down on these ‘illegal’ parties. The aforementioned briefing note outlined that there were four ways to combat these parties:

  1. Under the licensing law that governs public entertainment;
  2. Under Section 14 of the Public Order Act 1986;
  3. Under the common law powers available to the police to prevent public disturbances;
  4. Under the Control of Pollution Act 1974.[5]

The note stated that all indoor events were subject to licensing laws (particularly the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982), irrespective of venue, and that in some cases, outdoor events were also subject to licensing laws, depending on the local authorities. However the largest problem for regulating raves through this mechanism, operated by the local councils, was that ‘most organisers of acid house parties are flouting the law by not applying for a licence’.[6] A report produced by the Association of District Councils explained the authorities had tried to prosecute party organisers under the 1982 Act in the past, but there were many ‘practical difficulties’ with the legislation.[7] This report suggested that a ‘national code of standard conditions’ be drawn up, similar to the code of practice for music events that had previously been established by the Greater London Council.[8] Interestingly the same document also mentioned that it might be pertinent to take into account the recent report by Lord Justice Taylor into the Hillsborough Disaster.[9]

All involved in this discussion felt that one of the key reasons that the organisers did not seek to obtain licenses for their events was that the penalty was far too low – a £2000 fine and/or up to 3 months in prison. In his letter to Howe, Waddington wrote that the penalties were ‘so relatively light that the organisers of these very profitable acid house parties can afford to ignore the law’.[10] Waddington proposed fines be raised to £20,000 and a possibility of up to 6 months imprisonment, commenting that the Association of Chief Police Officers supported these stricter penalties.[11]

One of the problems facing the authorities was that because these raves could be held in any kind of space, trying to police them was difficult. As mentioned above, indoor events were subject to licensing laws, but outdoor events weren’t always covered. For the police, indoor gatherings were not specifically within their remit, but outside assemblies were, under the Public Order Act 1986. An extension of the Public Order Act to include indoor assemblies was considered ‘contentious’[12] and at this stage, looked like legislative overkill (although similar legislation was eventually passed in 1994 to combat outdoor raves with the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act).

In a letter from Home Office official Peter Storr to Margaret Thatcher’s Personal Secretary Andrew Turnbull, he noted that the police were ‘generally relying on their common law powers to prevent a breach of peace’ and that in the past, the police had ‘been able to persuade organisers to pack up voluntarily’.[13] Furthermore, they had ‘on occasion seized sound equipment on the grounds of preventing a breach of the peace’.[14] The aforementioned briefing note acknowledged:

Strictly speaking the police have no power to intervene to stop a party purely on grounds of noise. But if they receive complaints about the noise, they can intervene using common law powers.[15]

However it was argued that the police were often reluctant to intervene in this way, due to the following two reasons:

  1. mainly to the sheer numbers involved in some of the parties – the risk would be too great;
  2. slight nervousness about relying on common law powers alone – this leaves them open to challenge.[16]

It was believed that what was required were greater police powers ‘to act in flagrant cases’ immediately and at the time of night when these parties were occurring. Turnbull wrote to Carolyn Sinclair in the Home Office saying, ‘It will not be sufficient to give local authorities extra powers if they are not around at 3am to enforce [licensing laws]’.[17] The Association of District Councils also called for the police to be given greater powers ‘to seize and remove and apparatus or equipment’ being used by party organisers.[18]

While the primary problem with acid house parties was identified as the public nuisance caused by the excessive noise generated by these parties, the legislation dealing with noise pollution, the Control of Pollution Act 1974 was deemed ‘inadequate to deal with these parties’.[19] It was noted that noise nuisance was a civil offence and the legislation was aimed at factories and other industrial sites, rather than outdoor events. Thus ‘remedy through the courts [was] slow’.[20] The Department of Environment pushed to make noise nuisance a criminal offence,[21] but Turnbull advised the Home Office that Thatcher was ‘doubtful whether greater use of the Control of Pollution Act would be effective as the need was for action at short notice outside working hours.’[22]

Alongside greater penalties under the licensing laws and more explicit powers to allow the police to break ‘illegal’ raves, one of the key proposals made by the Home Office and other agencies was to establish powers to seize profits from party organisers. Powers to seize the proceeds of crime already existed under schedule 4 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 (with a minimum of £10,000 to be confiscated after conviction), and Waddington suggested to Howe that this legislation could be easily amended to incorporate the organisation of these parties into the legislation.[23] On this point, the Home Office’s briefing note stated:

What is needed is a way of hitting at the profit made by the organisers. This should discourage the craze.[24]

It was hoped that these increased penalties and powers of confiscation, as well as more pre-emptive action between the police and local councils, would prevent acid house parties from occurring. The Home Office noted:

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.[25]

Incidentally, this was the argument made by Tony Wilson in the final days of the Hacienda – that the police were willing to police Manchester United and Manchester City games, but unwilling to do the same at the famous nightclub to ensure people’s safety.

The following year the Thatcher government passed the Entertainments (Increased Penalties) Act, which increased the penalties for organising an ‘illegal’ party to £20,000 and/or 6 months in prison. As the debate in Hansard shows, these measures were supported by both major parties in the House of Commons. The Criminal Justice Act 1988 was also amended to allow the seizure of profits made by party organisers.

However this did not end the phenomenon of the illegal rave and the Major government introduced the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 to deal specifically with raves, which included the seizure of equipment used to put on events deemed illegal. This Act was opposed by many and led to a grassroots resistance by partygoers and activists. But this was a far way off in 1989. We will have to wait a few more years for the internal government records relating to this.

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

[2] Letter from David Waddington to Geoffrey Howe, 2 November, 1989, PREM 19/2724, NA.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] ‘Acid House Parties’, p. 1.

[6] ‘Acid House Parties’, p. 2.

[7] Association of District Councils, ‘Response to a Request for Information Concerning Acid House Parties’, 9 November, 1989, PREM 19/2724, NA.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Letter from Waddington to Howe.

[11] Ibid.

[12] ‘Acid House Parties’, p. 2.

[13] Letter from Peter Storr to Andrew Turnbull, 4 October, 1989, PREM 19/2724, NA.

[14] Ibid.

[15] ‘Acid House Parties’, p. 3.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Note from Andrew Turnbull to Carolyn Sinclair, 4 October, 1989, PREM 19/2724, NA.

[18] Association of District Councils, ‘Response to a Request for Information Concerning Acid House Parties’, p. 5.

[19] Ibid., p. 1.

[20] ‘Acid House Parties’, p. 4.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Letter from Andrew Turnbull to Peter Storr, 16 October, 1989, PREM 19/2724, NA.

[23] Letter from Waddington to Howe.

[24] ‘Acid House Parties’, p. 4.

[25] ‘Acid House Parties’, p. 5.

Orgreave is not merely history, but an important historical incident that needs to be fully investigated

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To Guardian journalist Simon Jenkins, just over thirty years ago is too far into the past for an inquiry into the events at Orgreave in June 1984, when the police reacted violently to striking workers in South Yorkshire and led to the arrest of 95 miners, as well as a number of people injured. Jenkins argues that “we know” what happened at Orgreave on that day, and that it should be left in the past – even though no one in a position of authority has been held accountable for excessive force used by the police against the striking miners. Anyway ‘[t]here were no deaths at Orgreave’, he says, so an inquiry, like those held into Bloody Sunday or Hillsborough, is unnecessary. But this assumes that the only reason to have an inquiry into police actions is when there is a death involved – isn’t the likelihood of excessive force being used by the police en masse enough of an issue to warrant further investigation?

Jenkins is right in that government inquiries often don’t led to any significant reform or ‘lessons learned’. Even the stand out inquiries of Lord Scarman into the Brixton Riots of 1981 and the 1999 Macpherson Inquiry into the Investigation into the Death of Stephen Lawrence have been criticised for their limited impact upon the policing of ethnic minority communities in the UK (especially in the wake of the 2011 riots). But most inquiries held are short term affairs, announced by the government of the day to placate public opinion and often to appear to be ‘doing something’. A swathe of criminological and public policy scholarship has proposed that public inquiries are foremost exercises in the management of public opinion, rather than missions to find the ‘truth’ behind an incident or to determine accountability. Between the Scarman Inquiry into the Events at Red Lion Square in 1974 and the Macpherson Inquiry in 1998-99, there have been numerous inquiries into the actions of the police (and other government agencies) that have resulted in disorder, injuries and even death. Besides the Scarman Report in 1981 and the Macpherson Report almost 20 years later, most inquiries have left little mark on police practice. There are a number of incidents involving the death of people involved in interactions with the police, such as that of Blair Peach in 1979 and Ian Tomlinson in 2009, where there has been a coronial inquest, but no wider inquiry, even though people have demanded it.

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But an inquiry into Orgreave is likely to be much more far-reaching than those held immediately after the fact, similar to the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday or the Hillsborough Independent Panel. These inquiries were held after the initial inquiries, the Widgery Report into Bloody Sunday in 1972 and Taylor Report into Hillsborough in 1989-90, were seen to be deficient by subsequent governments. Both of these inquiries were held over years, rather than weeks or months, and had legislation specifically introduced to open many documents that had previously been classified. In the end, these inquiries identified those who should be (or should have been) held accountable for these tragic events and delivered some form of justice to the relatives of the victims. Jenkins suggests that these were merely costly exercises in legal navel-gazing and that the cost of both inquiries could have been better spent on been given to the relatives of the victims and/or to their communities. However what had driven those pushing for the events at both Bloody Sunday and Hillsborough to be re-examined was not compensation, but for those responsible to identified and where possible, held accountable in some way.

This is the purpose of a proposed inquiry into the events at Orgreave on 18 June 1984. Opposite to Jenkins’ argument, we don’t know the full story of what happened on that day. We have footage, we have witness testimony and the paperwork of those who were dragged through the courts, but we don’t have the police side of the story (or at least the full story). Despite thirty years since the event passing, no documents relating to Orgreave have been made open by the National Archives at Kew and the police have refused several previous FOI requests. Like the documents examined by the Hillsborough Independent Panel, all police and government papers relating to the events at Orgreave should be released to an inquiry and at the completion of said inquiry, these documents (with the necessary redactions) should be digitised and made available for public viewing.

Jenkins says there should be a statute of limitations on inquiries into the past, writing ‘History is for historians’. He seems to be proposing that there is a clear line between contemporary politics and ‘the past’, but it is not so clear-cut. Thirty years ago is not that long ago and there are still people who were involved in police actions on that day in 1984 who could be held accountable in some manner. There are still people affected the actions of the police who are looking for some kind of ‘justice’ and official acknowledgment of what occurred, particularly how much was planned and how far the authorities went in the aftermath to absolve themselves of any blame.

Jenkins equates a possible inquiry with Tony Blair’s apologies for the slave trade and the Irish Famine, but this is false. The ‘Battle of Orgreave’ happened within the lifetimes for many of us, not 150-200 years ago. Orgreave is not merely history, but an important historical incident that needs to be fully investigated. Let’s hope that enough pressure is put upon Amber Rudd (or her successor) to reverse the decision for an inquiry not to be held.

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Photos by John Sturrock, originally from Socialist Worker.

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Policing club culture in the UK and the neoliberal city

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This week, famous London club Fabric was permanently closed down after its liquor license was taken revoked, allegedly after police raised concerns for the safety of clubgoers following the deaths of two people this year inside the club. Others have suggested that the Islington Council sought the closure of the club because it was too costly for the police to continue their harm minimisation operations within the club.

Fabric is not the only club to go close down in recent years, as costs for running clubs in the inner city become more and more expensive. Despite the GFC of 2007-08 and almost a decade of austerity in Britain, the rents for venues in London and other cities across the UK have continued to rise. No reports that I have seen so far have suggested that Fabric faced this particular problem and while many have alleged that the real reason for the closure was a desire by the Council for the venue to be turned into luxury flats or office space, the Council did not own the property and would not have made a direct financial gain from this conversion. The counter-argument to this is that in the neoliberal city, the nighttime economy that Fabric was part of was not as desired as that brought by increasing gentrification of London’s inner city boroughs.

A number have likened this to the closure of the Hacienda in 1997 and its eventual transformation into luxury flats in the early 2000s. The Hacienda had its license revoked in June 1997 after the death of a clubgoer earlier in the year, alleged organised criminals working inside the club and the refusal of the Greater Manchester Police to co-operate with the club’s management to conduct operations that would have kept the club open, citing that it was too costly. Before his death, Tony Wilson argued that the Greater Manchester Police conducted large scale operations every weekend to police football crowds, but were unwilling to do so to protect the club’s patrons. But while the Hacienda was eventually sold to developers, the neoliberalisation and gentrification of Manchester’s landscape did not arrive with the closure of the club – it lay dormant for 18 months and work to convert the building only began a few years later. This coincided with the ‘reimagining’ of Manchester’s city centre after a large section of it was destroyed by an IRA bomb in June 1996.

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Adorned on the luxury flats that now occupy the space of the former club on Whitworth Street.

Club culture in the UK had emerged at the periphery of the neoliberal revolution and as I have argued elsewhere, sought to flourish in the spaces that Thatcherism had made vacant, but had not yet occupied. With this brought the attention of the police and the government and under the pretence of a ‘war on drugs’, club culture in the UK became heavily policed and moved into ‘manageable’ spaces, such as clubs like Fabric. But in the ongoing battle between the desires of the neoliberal and nighttime economies, those pushing for further gentrification of the inner city have won out and even these highly policed and contained venues are no longer desirable.

Since the closure of the Hacienda nearly twenty years ago, clubs like Fabric have attempted to work more closely with the police and there has been a shift towards harm minimisation inside these clubs. But while police practices may have changed, the pressures of austerity have discouraged this. So in the end, we may argue that club culture has ended up in the same wasteland after 20 years of trying to ‘regulate’ it and attempts to make it work within the boundaries of ‘the system’.

 

New edited book on 2011 UK riots: ‘Reading the Riot Act’

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In 2013, the Journal for Cultural Research published a special issue dedicated to the UK riots of 2011, edited by Rupa Huq. This featured an article by myself on looking at the 2011 riots through the lens of 1981. Routledge has now published this special issue as an edited collection, available here in hardback. Alongside my article/chapter, the collection also features contributions by John Hutnyk, Gargi Bhattacharyya and Caroline Rooney (amongst others). Order it now for your university or institutional library!

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.

New article in Journal of Australian Studies: Policing Protest in the Australian Capital Territory

Canberra Times on the first use of the Public Order Act

Just a quick post to let you all know that the latest issue of Journal of Australian Studies features my long awaited article on policing protest in the ACT in the early 1970s. The full title of the paper is ‘Policing Protest in the Australian Capital Territory: The Introduction and Use of the Public Order Act 1971’. The abstract is below:

This article examines the reaction by the Australian Federal Government to the protest movements of the 1960s–1970s and their attempts to use public order legislation to thwart radical discontent in Australia. It argues that the Public Order (Protection of Persons and Property) Act 1971 was aimed at the threat of “violent” protests, particularly the tactic of the “sit-in”, and that to this end, the legislation was an overreaction to the actual threat posed by the protest movements at the time. It also shows that after a long gestation period, the Act was ill-equipped to deal with the changing nature of demonstrations in the 1970s, such as the problems caused by the erection of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. Thus, after an initial flurry of use in mid-1971, the law has been seldom used since.

You can find the article here. If you use academia.edu, you can access the article here.