Britain in the 1980s was the scene of class war. Fortified by a neoliberal intellectual current that viewed trade unions and the public sector as fetters on economic growth, the Thatcher government used the arms of the state to defeat the trade unions and roll back the social democratic settlement.
The organised working class were feared and despised by the establishment of the day. The miners were described as “a bunch of hoodlums” and “the enemy within”. Meanwhile football, still at that time a sport for working class people, was the subject of a moral panic. As described in When Saturday Comes, the police viewed football fans as “a mass entity, fuelled by drink and a single-minded resolve to wreak havoc by destroying property and attacking one another with murderous intent”.
This contempt infected the investigation into the 1989 Hillsborough tragedy. A South Yorkshire police force that had been deployed by the Thatcher government to smash the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) would try, five years later, to cover up police incompetence on the night of the Hillsborough disaster and pin the blame on Liverpool fans. For 27 years the families of the 96 Hillsborough victims crashed up against a wall of lies propagated by senior police officers, national newspapers and senior politicians.
This big lie about Hillsborough – that supporters rather than institutions were to blame for the tragedy – was sustained for almost three decades until a second inquest was published in 2016. The second inquest found that 96 supporters were unlawfully killed due to grossly negligent failures by police and ambulance services to fulfil their duty of care. The behaviour of supporters, the jury said, played no part in the disaster.
“I felt that now that we’ve got those verdicts there has to be accountability,” said Jenni Hicks at the time, who lost her two teenage daughters at Hillsborough.
Yet we learned last week that there would be no legal accountability. As the last Hillsborough trial collapsed, a judge ruled that there was no legal case to answer for two former South Yorkshire police officers and the force’s former solicitor who were charged with perverting the course of justice. This was because the 2016 admissions of police wrongdoing had not occurred in a “court of law”.
Nowadays talk of class war or even class prejudice sounds archaic. Yet the old prejudices stubbornly endure. Jonathan Goldberg QC, who represented the solicitor for South Yorkshire Police, went on the BBC following the collapse of the trial to accuse Liverpool fans of causing a “riot” outside the ground at Hillsborough. The behaviour of fans, he added, was “perfectly appalling”.
Not a shred of evidence exists to support Goldberg’s comments: the 2016 Hillsborough inquiry was adamant about that. Yet like so much else from the rotten decade of the 1980s, the smears directed at Liverpool fans have been remarkably resilient. Even today they can occasionally be heard reverberating around the terraces: “The Sun was right, you’re murderers”, reportedly chanted by Manchester United supporters at Anfield last year. Another legacy of the 1980s was working class people pitted against other working class people.
I won’t delve too deeply into the details of the Hillsborough case. However the verdict does shine a light on the different standards of justice meted out to victims depending on their social class. Reacting to the verdict, the mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham touched on a similar point, writing that courtrooms must be a “level playing field”.
Equality before the law does not exist at present. Indeed, it is remarkable that the Hillsborough families were able to overturn the original 1991 verdict of “accidental death” at all. The odds were stacked against them: 43 Hillsborough families had to chip in £3,000 each to pay for a single barrister to represent them because there was no legal aid for bereaved people at inquests. Families who could not afford to pay were not represented. The bereaved families took on a state apparatus with deep pockets: they were up against “the highest-paid QCs in the land”, as Burnham writes.
A lack of equality under the law goes beyond the tragedy of Hillsborough. Market justice simply isn’t delivering for poorer Britons. The Law Society has warned that within five years there could be areas in England and Wales where people who have been arrested will not be able to access a duty solicitor. As a consequence they will not be able to use the free legal advice they’re entitled to.
Meanwhile, cuts to criminal justice funding are leading to huge court backlogs: as of January 2021 there were 54,000 unheard cases, with a further 457,000 cases in the magistrates’ courts. Many of these delays predate the pandemic and mean that court proceedings are often dragged out unnecessarily over many years. Phil Scraton, the lead author of the Hillsborough Independent Panel report which paved the way for the fresh inquests, pointed to the length of the Hillsborough proceedings as one of the factors contributing to the lack of institutional accountability: “justice delayed is justice denied… I think that is the real message of all of these cases that take so long to come to trial,” Scraton told the BBC.
We may not be living through the same moral panic about working class people that defined the 1980s. Indeed, a recent study found that pretending to be working class has become a way for the middle classes to “deflect” from their substantial privileges.
Yet the Tories emerged triumphant from the class war of the 1980s and we live under an economic system built on the assumptions of that era. As such, we remain a country where working class people are viewed as a problem first and victims second. Nowhere is this more true than the justice system.