ANYONE who truly believes class no longer matters in Britain should ponder Hillsborough and think again.
Class is the reason the conspirators got away with it, and got away with it for so long.
Rank incompetence killed 96 people at Sheffield Wednesday's ground in April 1989: that much has been clear for long enough. But those were not just any people. They were football fans, Liverpudlians, mostly young, and mainly working class. You could say what you liked about them.
You could say it, and law-abiding readers of sanctimonious newspapers were always liable to believe it. Hooligans in waiting? By definition. Crazed with drink? As always. Capable of robbing the dead or of urinating on heroes struggling to save lives? Scum like that are capable of anything.
The real scum were in uniform that April day, but they understood the assumptions and the prejudices well enough. British society runs on them. Who would ever trust the word of football-supporting yobs over an MP with a knighthood, or a distinguished chap with braid on his cap? With public trust comes licence, eternal and unchallenged, to abuse the public's trust. What are the mere public, after all?
Kelvin MacKenzie, The Sun editor who made a career out of the vindictive pursuit of the weak, didn't pause to doubt the story he wanted to hear. What MacKenzie thought he knew about Hillsborough was what he itched to believe. Amid the atrocity, someone had made a parable to suit his contempt. He could not imagine that a single allegation could possibly be false.
The buffoon Boris Johnson, left in charge of The Spectator, later brought his Old Etonian self-assurance to the affair, causing an editorial to be written that repeated the lies without a hint of qualification, far less scepticism. Johnson knew – simply knew – what that sort were like, with their prole habits and their whining prole victim culture. Behaviour that would have been beyond belief in Kensington was assumed to be the natural state of the feral underclass.
The conspirators understood all this. They understood, what with their power, their badges of rank and authority, that they ran little risk of being challenged. They understood the uses of deference, why it is held to be necessary and why, in Britain, it is promoted ceaselessly. That's also why, on these islands, even our cover-ups have cover-ups.
Many people are shocked, but they are shocked for different reasons. Some are appalled because those with a duty to protect the public and uphold the law failed miserably in the first task and ignored the second. Evidence of the failure was tampered with on a massive scale. The dead, unable to respond, were defamed. In effect, they were wrongfully convicted to protect reputations and careers. Honest people are shocked by that.
The less honest – you can spot them easily enough – are dismayed that the truth is out, finally. They worry that the public might begin to catch on. Perhaps the commonality will begin to notice that there is a pattern to these things. People might even start to realise that all the promised remedies bring no relief. How many years did it take for the facts of Bloody Sunday to emerge? When will the truth be told about the decision to join the Iraq war? How many conspiracies against the public interest – by bankers, politicians, cops, tabloids and tycoons – does it take?
Hillsborough was not an abstract matter. It did not involve money or political influence. The independent panel has made it plain, nevertheless, that those who staged the cover-up did so for a very simple reason: there was nothing to stop them. Few outside Liverpool put up an argument. No-one exercised oversight. Those with the power to exert control failed to do so, or joined the conspiracy, or saw no reason not to take distinguished public servants at their word.
More fool them. And more fool us as one fine British cover-up follows another like a series of chapter headings in the story of establishment life. Now, with each fragment of the truth of Hillsborough laid out in public, there is an old question in the air. What is to be done when liars infest the corridors of power?
Yet again jurists will ponder, lawyers will set to work, politicians will fulminate, and inquiries – still more inquiries – will creak into stately action. More weeks, months and years will slip away. Will that do? The answer to the Bloody Sunday question is this: the Saville Inquiry, the second of its kind, took a dozen years to answer the questions of the bereaved.
Some will probably say that a police force like South Yorkshire, or any force, should be subjected to greater independent scrutiny. A fine notion. So how do you achieve independence, exactly? To whom falls the task of selecting those who will do the job? That would be the people we select, meaning the politicians. Since when did they tolerate independent intervention in public life? Superannuated political hacks are even now competing to become England's police commissioners.
You could establish proper rights to freedom of information. Were we not promised those? Yet have they made the slightest difference for those who seek the truth about the Iraq debacle? Tony Blair now calls freedom of information legislation his biggest mistake. Why would that be?
In a free society, a free press – vigilant and unafraid – is supposed to scrutinise the public realm and speak truth to power. So the story goes. In Britain instead, one of the top jobs once went to Kelvin MacKenzie. In Britain, "scrutiny" meant phone hacking, the bread and circuses of celebrity culture, and corrupt relationships, some of the time, with the Metropolitan Police. The same press, it is true, has exposed the scandal of MPs' expenses, and much else besides, but Lord Leveson is unlikely to give points for that.
The fourth estate is liable to be shackled by an incoherent concept of privacy if it is not cowed or compromised by political allegiances. The power to get at the truth will not be eradicated, but it will be eroded before long. Besides, newspapers report on scandals; only rarely do they prevent them.
Could another Hillsborough cover-up be prevented? Probably not. We delegate power over our lives and thereby surrender it. That's the conundrum. The culture of secrecy is growing again in Britain, in any case, often enough by administrative fiat. It can only be countered through the expansion of democracy – properly accountable police forces would be a start – and by truly exemplary punishments for abuse.
"Democracy" can sound like a banal and sentimental notion in this context. It needn't be. The conspiracy against those dead Liverpool fans and their families was conceivable precisely because they were regarded as the lower orders, of no account, with no rights. They were denied democracy. Why must we tolerate that crime?
For 23 years, the conspirators got away with it because of class, and because class defines who has power in Britain and who has not. Challenge that, challenge those who say that change is somehow impossible, and you might avert another assault on our shared society. The dead deserve that much.
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