Podium: Racism festering on my doorstep

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The Independent Culture
Paddy Ashdown

From a speech by the leader of the Liberal Democrats to the Commission for Racial Equality in London

THE HUMAN significance of the events surrounding Stephen Lawrence's death should not be lost amidst the inevitable political fallout and debate. The personal tragedy of a death in this way we can only imagine, and pray that we never have to experience it.

But when that tragedy is compounded by the failure of the responsible authorities to do all they could to bring the perpetrators to justice, then that adds immeasurably to the pain of the relatives and the concern of the wider public.

We should all be thinking of the Lawrence family this week.

The Macpherson inquiry provides a public confirmation of what they knew all along and have bravely fought to have exposed to public view. Without their determination, this investigation would never have been made. If, as must happen, public lessons are learnt from this tragic affair, then a public debt is paid that is owed to the Lawrence family.

In responding to the report, it is right that we look first at the police. The Met must put its house in order, and every other police force must take note of the findings and recommendations. The handling of the murder of Stephen Lawrence reflects very badly on many of the individual officers involved, and on procedures and attitudes as a whole.

But the often-used phrase "institutional racism", which usefully describes the mind-set of an organisation, must not be allowed to obscure the need for real and effective measures to tackle the sort of day-to-day failures that happened in this case. Of course we must tackle the prejudices, but we must also find ways of preventing the operational mistakes that led to the Lawrence tragedy being mishandled.

You cannot wait for the culture of an organisation to be changed. You have to establish better procedures to prevent a culture of prejudice.

But if we think that is going to be enough, it isn't. It would be easy for us to conclude that this is a problem exclusively for the police. That would be a great mistake. The fact is that racism exists in every part of our society. It crops up where you least expect it.

Someone once said that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. Constant vigilance is also the first weapon in the war against racism.

The Liberal Democrats admit second place to nobody in our attachment to the principles of equality. Yet I found racism, or at least pandering to racism, even in my own party.

I like to pride myself on being an MP who is closely in touch. But I found racism just 350 metres away from my own constituency office, where it had been festering for three-and-a-half years without my even knowing about it.

The owners of an Asian restaurant in my town were being subjected to systematic racist abuse and intimidation, and it has taken a great deal of work to set up an alliance against that racism, and to put out the message that this behaviour is unacceptable.

Stephen Lawrence died, at least in part, because as a society we have not been sufficiently vigilant against racism as an endemic part of our lives and of our communities. In this sense we all bear a responsibility for his death and for the suffering of other unknown and unreported cases. So, learning from Stephen Lawrence's death is not just a challenge for the police. It is a challenge for all of us.

Now, I don't believe Britain is any more racist than other comparable societies. In fact, I think Britain has been better at tackling racism than almost any other European country.

There is no excuse for racism. Nor, sadly, is there a simple prescription for ending it. The closest I can come is this: constant vigilance about the attitudes and practices of our institutions. And strong leadership.

The fight for racial equality in Britain today is not about so-called "political correctness". It is not an academic subject or something only for the old left. For a Liberal, it is about fighting for civil rights for all the citizens of this country: the right to be treated fairly in education or when looking for work; the right to live in whatever part of the country you choose; the right not to be made a scapegoat because you have sought asylum in this country; the right not to be stopped and searched every time you drive your car at night. And the right to be treated in the same way as anyone else when you become a victim of crime.

These are all areas where we are still patently failing in this country. They bear repetition, so starkly do they show how ethnic minority communities are disadvantaged in Britain today.

Unless leaders stake out strong positions, we can never win the battle to suppress racism. Where leadership fails, racism festers.