The 96 reasons the jokes about Liverpool are wearing thin

The abusive comments posted about the dead are shocking – but not as surprising as they should be



In Liverpool there have been two responses to the revelation that somebody has, for three years, been using government computers to post abuse on Wikipedia about the 96 people who died at Hillsborough in Britain's worst single sporting disaster.

Some heard the news open-mouthed, unable to conceive that anyone would mock the dead in this way. The club legend "You'll Never Walk Alone" had been pitilessly altered to read "You'll Never Walk Again". And worse. But for others the news, though shocking, came as no surprise. Over the past 25 years they have grown used to the contempt.

There is something about Liverpudlians which raises the ire, or at least the irritation, of certain people. Disdainful stereotypes litter our cultural history. In the 1980s there were the feckless benefit cheats of the Carla Lane sitcom Bread. In the 1990s came Harry Enfield's permed, perpetually plastered, pugilistic Scousers. A decade on came a pair of thieving scallies in Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. And in between there flowed a constant tide of cheap gags asking what you call a Liverpudlian in a suit.

You will find none of this on the website of the Hillsborough inquest now taking place in Warrington, 25 years after the flawed original coroner's court hearing. There, in page after page of profoundly moving personal testimony, you will hear about a different kind of Liverpudlian.

There is the woman who has not married because her dead father cannot walk her down the aisle. The lost boy who sat on his blind neighbour's garden wall describing the plants to her. The wife who let her husband put off signing the contract for their new house so he could go to the fatal match. The dad who cherishes the coffee table that was the last thing he made with his son. The couple who never found out about the surprise 25th wedding anniversary party that had been planned by their family. The boy whose dying word was "Mum".

A litany of love, everyday and yet extraordinary, is being recited before the coroner.

In the face of that what could explain such animus against the victims that a series of sickening revisions could be made to the online encyclopedia from Whitehall's computer network? The words "Blame Liverpool fans" were added. "This is Anfield", the phrase that appears above the players' tunnel at the club's ground, was altered to read "This is a S***hole". Other changes are best not repeated. They were made using the government's secure intranet from the Office of the Solicitor General, the Treasury and the Department for Culture.

Perhaps they will prove to be the work of one rogue civil servant. But they are representative of a subterranean stratum which extrudes itself in the public consciousness from time to time – in the comic stereotypes, in the calumny of The Sun headlines about Liverpool fans at Hillsborough urinating on the dead or in prejudices of mainstream politicians such as Boris Johnson, who in 2004 infamously accused the city of being "hooked on grief" and "wallowing in its victim status".

Liverpool has had its concentration of tragedy, as names such as Bulger, Alder Hey, Heysel and Hillsborough convey. But there is a deeper psycho-sociology to the place, once the second city of Empire.

Over the past century the population of what was Britain's greatest port has dropped from a million to just half of that. Its economic decline did not sap Liverpool's pride. But the city's Us-and-Them identity subtly migrated to a more oppositional Them vs Us. It brought with it dependency, though without deference, and a truculence and entitlement epitomised in the fiasco of the city's Militant council in the 1980s. But it also nurtured the quick, funny, ironic sense of chippy self-deprecation evident in generations of caustic comedians from Ken Dodd to Jimmy Tarbuck to John Bishop. It was wit as weapon.

Yet mythology sometimes ceases to bear any relationship to reality. For all the typecasting about criminality and poverty Liverpool is statistically one of the safest cities in which to live. London, Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester and Sheffield all have more burglaries and car crimes per person. Violent attacks are twice as common in London. And Liverpool's economy is beginning to recover from its long post-war decline, creating jobs at double the national average for the past three decades.

Something singular survives, though, in that Scouse spirit. What strikes me on frequent visits to Liverpool is that it is the place in England where old forms of communality and solidarity have best endured. Nowhere has that been more evident in recent weeks than in the support that the city's other football club, Everton, gave to its greatest rival at the 25th anniversary memorial of the Hillsborough tragedy.

Two clubs, one community – from which, five years ago, a single voice was lifted when a man called Roy Dixon heckled Government minister Andy Burnham with the single word "justice". The cry was taken up by the crowd, by the city and rippled out from there to the wider world. In response the Government set up the Independent Hillsborough Panel, chaired with fierce objectivity by the then Bishop of Liverpool James Jones. It clinically exposed a massive establishment cover-up and asked profound questions about our country and the way it is run.

The powerful footballing resurgence, against the odds, of Liverpool FC this year is a symbol of something reborn in the city. How fitting it would be – even an Everton fan such as Andy Burnham has conceded – if Liverpool were to win the Premier League in this of all years.

Paul Vallely is visiting professor of public ethics at University of Chester

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