Why Britain Is Consumed With the 28-Year-Old Hillsborough Stadium Disaster

At the time, the police accused the Hillsborough victims and other Liverpool fans of causing the disaster through their own drunkenness and disorder, a narrative that the news media eagerly echoed. That made the event a flash point in the public debate over class, poverty and the responsibility of government to its citizens. And because those issues have remained central to British politics and life ever since, so has Hillsborough.

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Injured fans on the field at Hillsborough Stadium in 1989.

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Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

How Did Hillsborough Become a Political Flash Point?

Soccer, at least at the time, was associated with the poor and working class, and particularly with “yob” culture, British slang for unruly, dangerous, drunken louts, and a term often used to deride the poor.

In the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster, those stereotypes were convenient for the police, who took advantage of them to claim that the deaths were the fault of intoxicated Liverpool fans, not the officers in charge.

That version of events also played to a critical political argument in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, where the Conservative government argued that the poor ought to take more personal responsibility and be less dependent on government support. Hillsborough came to symbolize what the government portrayed as self-destructive behavior that needed to be curbed through cultural and behavioral change rather than state assistance.

When victims’ families insisted that the police were to blame, that was held up as evidence of a toxic culture of the poor shirking responsibility for the consequences of their actions.

That frame proved persistent over the years. In 2004, The Spectator, a right-leaning political magazine then edited by Boris Johnson, now the foreign secretary, published an editorial that accused Liverpool, which had fallen into rust-belt decline, of having “an excessive predilection for welfarism.” The editorial said there was “no excuse for Liverpool’s failure to acknowledge, even to this day, the part played in the disaster by drunken fans.”

Mr. Johnson eventually apologized for the column.

The debate over what happened at the stadium, charged by these larger social issues, has continued ever since. Each round has set off new demands from the victims’ families for an investigation…

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