And the Government's intervention also allowed a free hit for the Conservatives, with Sir Norman Fowler (he is, by the way, shadow Home Secretary) popping up on all outlets to champion freedom and to accuse Labour of control- freakery. Much less noticed will have been Sir Norman's own musings on the true topic of the week, the contents of the Macpherson report itself; or at least, what we know of them.
It is a fair bet that Sir William's phrase concerning the Metropolitan Police, that it suffers from and is corrupted by a "pernicious and institutionalised racism", will become part of contemporary history. Like other monsters that have haunted our recent past - anti-Semitism, violent homophobia and football hooliganism spring to mind - the image of an innately prejudiced, Alabama-style police force was supposed to have been long expunged by exposure to the new tolerance.
Acutely sensitive to the problems, a new generation of enlightened chief constables had got stuck in and instituted a programme of training, awareness seminars, black recruitment and discipline. And none had done more than Sir Paul Condon, Commissioner of the Met.
And then, in 1993, along came the Lawrence case. On weaker ground when talking about the case itself (since it had, after all, happened on his Party's manor, so to speak) Sir Norman Fowler moved from outright condemnation mode to downright incomprehensible mode.
What, he was asked, did he think of the charge of institutionalised racism? Ah, he replied, if this meant that Macpherson was saying that "every single police officer was racist", then that needed to be looked at. After all the Met was "one of the good institutions, not one of the bad". Sir Paul Condon, he felt, should stay, as his departure would send out a "very bad message".
If nothing else, this pathetic sequence of answers should remind us that it took Jack Straw (for all his authoritarian tendencies), only a few weeks to do what the Tories couldn't manage in four years, and to set up an inquiry in the first place. This is hardly surprising, for Sir Norman's combination of complacency and obfuscation mirrors the shortcomings exposed in what we have seen so far of the Macpherson report.
Now, Sir William is not God. The report and its conclusions are not infallible. Like jurors, we should treat what we read to our own critical processes, viewing it in the light of our own experience. But it seems to me that the Macpherson report has latched on to a central problem, which most of us in the Met area know about, but which the Commissioner seemingly cannot comprehend. This is that his police force, whatever its resolutions, consistently treats black people as being inherently more criminal than white people.
This underlying prior judgement, made by many of the individuals in an institution, is what constitutes institutional racism, not, as Sir Paul appears to believe, ingrained discrimination on the part of its managers. It is a racism that can exist even when the canteen culture of "coons", "nignogs" and "jungle-bunnies" has long been driven underground. And, lamentably, it is a racism that Sir Paul, his senior colleagues, and many of us who ought to know better, have given comfort to.
In recent years the Met has had to account for the fact that its officers stop and search a disproportionate number of young black men. Almost invariably Sir Paul and others have fallen back on the "unpalatable truth" argument. In certain areas with high crime rates there happen to be large black populations suffering high rates of unemployment, and it is inevitable that operations in these areas will lead to a distortion of the figures.
But the alternative would be, it is suggested, to allow misguided political correctness to take over and to begin to stop and search white pensioners simply to balance the books. In other words, young black men get stopped a lot because young black men commit a whole lot of crime. Waddya want us to do?
Even passionate liberals have lazily bought into some of this argument. But just as most of us have some experience of crime, so also many of us have black friends and acquaintances who have been the victims of such prior judgements. To be a young black man in possession of a fast car is, in the eyes of the passing copper, to be a young black man in possession of something else. And this makes Condonian sense, because the young black man is more likely to be unemployed and thus to be paying for his ostentatious display of wealth by nefarious means.
But it is precisely this kind of calculation that contributed to the Lawrence case, and that constitutes the pernicious racism to which Macpherson refers. And it is the fact that Sir Paul cannot see it that means that he must go. Sir William is right when he argues that "there must be an unequivocal acceptance of the problems of institutionalised racism and its nature before it can be addressed". The truth appears to be that when the police looked at Stephen Lawrence they could not see Stephen, but a young black man.
They are not, of course, alone. This sin of prior judgement - the assumption that you can know something important about somebody from appearance and impressions - is widespread. Ask asylum-seekers. When picking the mote out of the eye of the Met, we have some beams of our own to deal with. But Condon's inability to "get it" means that he cannot credibly lead the process of dismantling these assumptions.
Macpherson hints at the need for Condon to go, but does not recommend it. Of his other leaked recommendations, some seem to be pure common sense, some are worrying (such as the suggestion, possibly garbled, that private displays of racism be subject to prosecution) and others, such as the ability to retry a case after an acquittal, will require a great deal of argument. The most important relate to the pressing need to make the police complaints and disciplinary procedure more open and effective.
However there is one last warning to be added. It wasn't a policeman who stabbed Stephen Lawrence, and it isn't Sir Paul Condon's fault that the young man died. Listening to the exculpatory garbage from the mothers of those accused of the murder was chilling. We still have a long way to go before our worst demons are exorcised.Reuse content