Hillsborough scars will take a long time to heal

If you think our safety-conscious culture has gone too far - remember that 23 years ago dozens upon dozens of people were left to die because no one really cared

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The world has changed so much in the past 23 years that, today, when we read about the Hillsborough tragedy, we can scarcely believe it possible that people who wanted nothing more than to watch a football match could be treated in such an inhuman way.

These days, we hear a consistent refrain from citizens complaining about the tyranny of health and safety regulations or moaning about the overweening power of the nanny state. Well, recall the circumstances around Hillsborough in April 1989, and see what the alternative looks like: people treated like animals, lack of proper safety procedures, a callous disregard for human life from the authorities, followed by institutional collusion to prevent the true facts from emerging, and a campaign to smear the victims.

It is worth recounting the basic facts: 96 people – of whom half were less than 21 years old – lost their lives in the terrible crush on those terraces that day. Hillsborough changed football for ever, ushering modern all-seater stadiums where multimillionaire players could strut their stuff and middle-class spectators could find a decent Chablis.

But it changed more than just our national game. As the truth became clear about the institutional failures, there was a realisation that a fundamental responsibility of the state is to keep its citizens safe. The dignity and tenacity with which the families of the Hillsborough victims have prosecuted their fight for justice – leading to yesterday's release of hitherto classified documents – has done a huge amount to change a corporate mindset where the need to defend an authority position is balanced by an understanding of the rights of the individual.

You may well find the safety regulations in modern life excessive. You may think it's mad to stop children playing conkers unless they're wearing goggles. But it would be as well to pause, and think about where we have come from. It's only 23 years since dozens upon dozens of people were left to die in a football ground because no one really cared.

Liverpool has changed dramatically, too, a beneficiary of New Labour's largely successful policy to reinvigorate the great provincial cities of Britain. But it still carries the wounds of its past, none more deep than Hillsborough. So it must have been a source of dismay and anger to Liverpudlians when they heard Boris Johnson being cheered to the skies the other day.

The Mayor of London, now riding a wave of popularity, is remembered on Merseyside for what he said in 2004 about "Liverpool's failure to acknowledge, even to this day, the part played by drunken fans at the back of the crowd who mindlessly tried to fight their way into the ground".

Yes, the world has changed, but some scars will take a long time to heal.

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