Hillsborough: Was it Thatcher's fault?

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Thatcher: Did she create a culture of impunity in the police?
Thatcher: Did she create a culture of impunity in the police?

The fallout over yesterday's Hillsborough report has triggered a bitter row over how much of the blame can be pinned on the Thatcher government's attitude to the police.

Speaking on the Today programme this morning, former home secretary Jack Straw said Margaret Thatcher encouraged the South Yorkshire police to be a "partisan force" operating under a "culture of impunity".

Straw commented: "One other reflection I have about this is the state of the police generally in the late 1980s, and the fact that the Thatcher government, because they needed the police to be a partisan force, particularly for the miners’ strike and other industrial troubles, created a culture of impunity in the police service and they really were immune from outside influences.

"They thought they could rule the roost. And that is what we actually saw in South Yorkshire."


The Hillsborough Independent Panel found yesterday that police had manipulated witness reports to remove criticism of their handling of the tragedy and briefed press and politicians to paint the victims as the authors of their own demise.

The events took place just a few years after the miners' strike, when the police were used to attack striking miners and their families, sometimes even in their own homes during night raids.

The period is seen as the closest Britain came to a politicised police force in modern history, but senior Conservatives figures were quick to jump to Margaret Thatcher's defence today.

Lord Tebbit said Straw's comment was "very, very silly" while David Mellor, a Home Office minister in the 1980s, said the Labour MP was not being "perspicacious".

"When I was at the Home Office, we took through the Police and Criminal Evidence Act which remains on the statute book, unlike most of the frankly rather bungled criminal justice legislation that governments after including, Jack Straw’s, have taken through," he said.

"The act opened up what happened in the police station by insisting that it was all taped."

But Straw was supported by other Labour figures, especially those who had been active in the 1980s.

Dennis MacShane tweeted: "South Yorkshire police in 1989 were consumed by Thatcherite arrogance having smashed miners, steelworkers strikes and were contemptuous of workers."

Speaking on the BBC, Andy Burnham said: "I think it is a fair point. It was a culture in society. I don't think it is necessarily a poltical point.

"There was a culture in society in the 1980s, an 'us and them' culture where people seen as being troublemakers could just be treated as second class citizens - football supporters, people taking industrial action. That was very evident in the north of England when I grew up."

Boris Johnson, who was once forced to apologise to the City of Liverpool after a piece in the Spectator criticising its supposed victim mentality, again showed contrition today.

The London mayor said he was "very, very sorry" for suggesting  Liverpool fans were partly responsible for the tragedy.

The original editorial stated: "The deaths of more than 50 Liverpool football supporters at Hillsborough in 1989 was undeniably a greater tragedy than the single death, however horrible, of Mr Bigley; but that is no excuse for Liverpool's failure to acknowledge, even to this day, the part played in the disaster by drunken fans at the back of the crowd who mindlessly tried to fight their way into the ground that Saturday afternoon."

Among other MPs – particularly those who had spent years campaigning for yesterday's report – the reality of the findings was still sinking in.

Alison McGovern, Labour MP for Wirral South, wrote: "Everything still sinking in. I keep looking at the report and seeing new details. The truth - and harder to read even than I suspected."

Andy Burnham, who was praised by David Cameron and Ed Miliband for his campaign for justice for the Hillsborough families, wrote: "My main feeling this morning is that 'The Truth', now established, is much harder to take than I thought."

The chief constable of South Yorkshire yesterday apologised "profoundly" for the actions of the force.

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