Far better to live in a nanny state than one where authorities behave like they did at Hillsborough

We have come a very long way as a nation since the 1989 disaster


While watching the poor, flooded residents of the Thames Valley being interviewed on the news in recent days, a rather uncharitable thought came into my head. Listening to their impassioned pleas for immediate and effective state aid, I wondered whether these are exactly the same people, from the truest, bluest constituencies, who you hear complaining bitterly about government interference in their lives. It's true the whole world over: we rail against an overweening government, or the nanny state, and yet... And yet. When something truly awful happens, who is it we turn to for help?

Similarly, what about those who bellyache about being inconvenienced by health and safety legislation? You know, the people who will tell you about the madness of banning yo-yos from school playgrounds, or about mums' coffee mornings where hot drinks were prohibited. Health and Safety gone mad, they'll say. They would do well to remember how it used to be, when the care of individuals was of very little interest to the authorities. And this week, we have good reason to recall that age with the news that one football club is bringing back standing enclosures, and others - including some Premier League clubs - are considering following their lead.

 It serves only to remind of us of the low water mark in the state's contract to protect the individual, that spring afternoon in 1989 when 96 Liverpool fans went to a football match and never came back. We should be very pleased that we have created a culture which makes it impossible for another Hillsborough to happen.

When the history of 20th Century Britain is studied in years to come, what happened that day at Hillsborough Stadium and its aftermath will surely be considered the most shameful episode in our nation's modern life and times. In Liverpool, the scars haven't healed, possibly never will do, and the wider society owe a debt of gratitude to those campaigners who have kept this issue alive.

Hillsborough changed a lot of things in our lives, and for our national game in particular. For one, all-seater stadiums were made compulsory in football's top leagues. Fans still like to stand at games - a bizarre ritual at most Premier League games is that the away fans stand, while the home fans sit down - and, from time to time, there is a call to re-introduce terracing to the grounds.

The benefit of standing on the terraces is that you can choose your neighbour (with seats, you have no choice, and you can spend 90 minutes effectively being chained to a lunatic), but that's about it. Bristol City announced this week that they are experimenting with a “safe standing” area, a system of rail-like barriers which works in Germany.

This comes at a time when football is becoming ever more corporate and distanced from its natural constituency, and many seek a return to the “good old days” of Bovril, dubbin and standing room only.  In the nostalgic haze, they may have failed to spot the stretchers taking the stricken Liverpool fans off to a makeshift mortuary. We don't want to go back to how things used to be, in oh so many ways.        

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