Fraser Raleigh is a Senior Parliamentary Researcher to a Conservative MP.
This week’s verdict that 96 Liverpool fans who lost their lives at Hillsborough were unlawfully killed was not the revelation of a truth but the vindication of one that has long been known.
It is one that politicians could have helped expedite, but too few were willing to do so.
The number 96 is indelibly inked on Liverpool. It is stitched into the shirt of the players and fans who wear it and is woven through the fabric of the city. It should have been a number associated with remembrance and grief. Instead, because of the absence of justice to soothe that grief, it was forced to become a cry of anger as well as one of sorrow. It is a colossal number of people to die in a place where they were owed a duty of care by the state.
The number 27 is colossal, too. 27 years since the 96 were unlawfully killed, during which the memories of those who died, those who survived, and those who were scarred were sullied and their families put through misery. When justice was not only left undelivered to people who pleaded for it, but when the powerful told them they had already had it.
Politicians failed those powerless families. They were not responsible for the deaths of the 96, but they abdicated their own duty of care to their families as citizens in the aftermath. They failed because they put their undiluted trust in institutions and not in the people those institutions were supposed to serve.
It is a failure that should stop every Conservative in their tracks. Our instinct is to believe that the institutions do serve us and that they are on our side. And they do and they are. But in the aftermath of Hillsborough, too many conservatives allowed their judgement to be clouded by their prejudices and their inherent trust in the authorities.
As Neil Atkinson wrote yesterday in The New Statesman, ‘Hillsborough isn’t about football’. This is what too many people – including politicians – with no interest have never understood; why they have shrugged their shoulders or tried to brush it off by falling back on what they think they know about football fans or Liverpudlians.
In doing so, they inadvertently helped stifle the truth for 27 years. Not because they instigated a cover-up or knew the truth and refused to let it out, but because they didn’t want to hear it in the first place, because it wasn’t ‘our’ sort of people saying it, and because it was ‘our’ institutions they were rightly pointing the finger at. There was a simpler, more toxic narrative to be found. The ‘tanked up yobs’ who tried to ‘force their way into the ground’ as Bernard Ingham, still impervious to the truth, wrote in December ’96. That number again. Those false accusations again.
‘Plebgate’ and in particular the subsequent behaviour of the Police Federation is often cited as the watershed moment for the Conservative Party establishment in its loss of innocence about the capacity of some – emphatically not all – police officers to distort or even obscure the truth. But what Andrew Mitchell discovered following his run in at the gates of Downing Street had been known for two decades by Liverpool fans at the exit gate of the Leppings Lane end of Hillsborough Stadium. In Downing Street, the police refused to open a gate. In Sheffield they did. Then they lied and said the fans had forced it open when doing so caused a deadly crush.
Paul Goodman re-iterated on this site yesterday that the relationship between the city of Liverpool and the Conservative Party is not a happy one. It does not start and end with Hillsborough. For reasons we all know, a calcified layer of mutual wariness and misunderstanding has been built up that shows no sign of being broken through politically. Liverpool is perhaps the one English city the party could never even contemplate taking its conference to. But politics cannot – must not – only serve those who like us.
There is credit to be had for politics. Theresa May and Dominic Grieve as Home Secretary and Attorney General in government and Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram outside it deserve particular praise. David Cameron’s genuine and honourable apology four years ago on behalf of the Government and the country for “the double injustice that has been left uncorrected for so long” was him at his Prime Ministerial best. There is no doubt – especially after yesterday’s verdict – that politicians on all sides now firmly get it. But it took too long for that to happen.
Importantly, all those in Parliament who helped the fight for justice would be the first to say that the main credit is due not to them but to the families. The confirmation in 2016 that their children, siblings and spouses were unlawfully killed, not the victims of accidental death as they were told in 1991, is the starkest proof of what can happen when individuals brought together by circumstance into a collective can achieve over the intransigent state.
Politicians should have been firmly on their side in that struggle far sooner than they were. In dragging their heels or shrugging their shoulders they allowed too many years without justice to go by.
It must never happen again.