At the FA Cup Final last Saturday, Liverpool fans booed Prince William, the singing of Abide With Me and the National Anthem. The tabloid press were outraged, as was the Prime Minister. Liverpool’s manager, Jurgen Klopp, defended his fans, saying: ‘I know our people wouldn’t do it unless there’s a reason for it’.

Football has become a central stage of the culture war in Britain, but which side will win control of the beautiful game?

A City Wronged

I was lucky enough to visit Liverpool for the first time a few weeks ago for a Youth Policy Development Group meeting, in partnership with the Department for Culture Media and Sport and Shout Out UK. Before arriving, I doubted that I carried any preconceived ideas or prejudices against the city. Still, I have to admit that I found myself feeling surprised at the cleanliness and friendliness I encountered. Why? The answer, I fear, is down to years of (mainly) low-level discrimination against the city — from the media, politicians, and the establishment in general. The negative rhetoric is so prevalent and insidious that many don’t realise it still exists. But it does. Liverpool is, especially in the South, viewed as lawless, dingy and (most classist of all) ‘chavvy’. But the city I discovered was the opposite. It was bustling with culture, beautiful architecture and friendly people, all set against the backdrop of the sparkling Mersey Estuary.

Walking Through a Storm

Liverpool’s rich history as a city has been shaped by deep hardship and mistreatment. It was once the second city of the Empire and a Tory stronghold but has since become a symbol of anti-establishment sentiment and a Labour heartland. Many historians see the start of this realignment during the Irish Potato Famine of the mid-1800s. As Alan Weston of the Liverpool Echo writes, the famine:  ‘…. changed forever the face of Ireland and its close neighbour, Liverpool’.

As over a million starving Irish refugees arrived in the port city, Liverpudlians were faced with the horror and the misery of those affected by the British government’s laissez-faire attitude. The memories have been passed down to almost three-quarters of the city who have Irish ancestry. In more recent years, Liverpool has been given further cause to resent the establishment. During the 1980s, Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher introduced a policy of ‘managed decline’ in the city. Rather than deal with the cause of widespread protest — factors like poverty and unemployment — the government ignored it. Simon Parker, a senior lecturer at the University of York, refers to this as:

autotomy — the conscious abandonment of a damaged or diseased part of the body politic in order to preserve the healthy remainder’.

The government gave up on Liverpool. Industries were closed, jobs were lost, public services were cut and the people suffered. As Liverpool Walton MP Dan Carden describes:

‘I was born in the 80s, grew up in a family affected by unemployment and my early life was shaped by the poverty inflicted by 13 years of Tory attacks on our city’.

Justice for the 96

When it comes to football fans, in particular, one event explains Liverpool’s hatred for the British establishment more than any other: the Hillsborough disaster of 1989. Football’s darkest day. Ninety-six fatalities and 766 injuries resulted when fans were crushed at the Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield owing to police mismanagement. The catastrophe was followed by a shameful police cover-up, and frankly disgusting reporting by the media, particularly The Sun. The tabloid blamed Liverpool fans for their own deaths, making unsubstantiated claims that they attacked police, looted from bodies and urinated on the deceased. Since then, multiple enquiries have proven these to be lies and Liverpool has never forgiven the people behind them. The Sun is widely boycotted in the city, as is the Conservative Party which was seen as complicit in the cover-up.

Scouse, not English

This, I hope, goes some way towards explaining why Liverpool feels the way it does. As up-and-coming scouse comedian, Adam Rowe has said:

‘After things Margaret Thatcher did and particularly the cover up of the Hillsborough disaster there was a huge disassociation between Liverpool as a city and the state — and that has never really been healed’.

Those of us who are not from Liverpool can perhaps start to see why scousers don’t have any great love for the monarchy, the national anthem, or the values they symbolise. Liverpool fans have not been understood by society in general. The Daily Mail ran the headline: ‘Anger as Liverpool cup final fans boo William’ and quoted MPs who called the behaviour ‘shameful’. Former BBC Royal correspondent Michael Cole said, ‘booing is disrespectful’ and ‘free speech has its limits’. It seems that all the powers of the establishment have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre of booing from football. Except, of course, when fans booed the taking of the knee. Freedom of speech and expression are flexible values, after all.

BJ vs JK

One of the few people to defend Liverpool fans was the club’s hugely popular manager, Jurgen Klopp. When asked about the situation he said it was, ‘not something he enjoyed’ but that ‘It’s always best to ask the question — why does this happen? They wouldn’t do it without a reason’. Klopp’s empathy and the desire to understand sits in stark contrast to Boris Johnson’s response. The Prime Minister said it was never acceptable to boo the anthem, with a Number 10 spokesman saying it was a ‘great shame’ a ‘small minority’ of fans chose to boo the anthem at Wembley. This is the same Johnson who wrote an article in The Spectator which repeated lies about Hillsborough and argued that Liverpudlians:

‘see themselves whenever possible as victims, and resent their victim status; yet at the same time they wallow in it’.

Johnson has used the Cup Final as another way to stoke the culture war which serves him so well. The familiar Them vs Us scenario sees Johnson posing as the brave defender of the flag and Queen against a rabble of socialist extremists. This will play well to his base, but it won’t address the long-term discontent and disconnect felt by Liverpool fans and many other working-class people.

Double Standards

The heart of the matter is the hypocrisy. Many Tory MPs defend the concept of freedom of speech to the hilt — until, that is, free speech challenges their worldview. The same people who called the taking of the knee ‘gesture politics’ insist on being seen with the Union Jack whenever possible or painting slogans on buses.

The bottom line is that if fans have the right to boo the knee then they must have the right to boo the national anthem. The government has missed a moment which could have been a reason to address the poverty, powerlessness and desperation of millions of working-class people. Instead, they have used it as a further reason to demonise the city of Liverpool and stoke culture wars. And that’s all coming from a bitter Chelsea fan.

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