The Lawrence Report: The Sketch - Contrition in the playground

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The Independent Online
I DON'T know whether Doreen and Neville Lawrence have visited the House of Commons before but, even if not, they will scarcely need telling that their experience yesterday was not typical. Most members of the public do not sit on the floor of the chamber for one thing, but in the gallery. Most visitors will not find that virtually every speech begins with an encomium to their personal qualities of dignity and determination. Most visitors, above all, do not find that they are central figures in what amounts to a national ritual of confession and contrition. As speaker after speaker enjoined the House to read, study and inwardly digest the conclusions of the Lawrence report, they sat at the back of the chamber more like judges than honoured guests, authority vested in them by bereavement. The guilty verdict they presided over was not the one they had originally sought, but had now expanded to encompass a whole police force, if not a whole society. It was, said the Prime Minister, "a very important moment in the life of our own country".

Which isn't to say that Parliament didn't sink below the occasion from time to time. Prime Minister's Questions began with uncharacteristic unanimity from both party leaders but it very quickly returned to business as normal, indeed to a kind of distillation of its proverbial infantilism. William Hague rose to renew his attack on the Government's new policy - sorry, gear change - on the single currency. The Prime Minister hadn't answered the question on Tuesday, he began, but would the Government make the pound shadow the euro? "I certainly did answer it yesterday," replied Tony Blair, "I said no." Oh no you didn't, said Mr Hague, knocked a little off balance by having one of his questions answered so quickly. "Oh yes he did!" chanted Labour MPs. Later Mr Blair reinforced the playground atmosphere after Mr Hague had asked him to comment on The Sun's telephone poll about joining the single currency: "A more interesting poll would be how many backbenchers want to keep him as leader," Mr Blair smirked at the boisterous gang behind him. This was a wordier version of the classic "nobody likes you" gambit, which can always be drawn upon when argument fails.

But when the House moved on to Jack Straw's statement on the Lawrence report everyone was back on best behaviour. This was entirely as it should be, but there is no use pretending that it was exciting. Mr Straw read from his script with grave solemnity, and members on both sides obediently seconded the proper sentiments. Then Sir Norman Fowler got up to say much the same things all over again, his speech only distinguished from that of his counterpart by slight adjustments of emphasis - a little more stress on the essentially decent nature of the police force, a little less stress on our collective personal responsibility. Members sat through the respectful redundancies patiently, fully aware that this was a ceremony of consensus, not of considered disagreement.

It was only after Bernie Grant had risen to remind the House that all these pieties had been uttered before, after the Scarman report 18 years ago and to warn, rather ominously, that this was "a last chance", that any sense of recalcitrance intruded into proceedings. As though jolted by this contribution Mr Straw ventured on to philosophical ground - it used to be thought that the police force should be colour blind, he said, but now everyone realised that it wasn't about treating all people the same, but about treating people equally while recognising their diversity. In as much as it is comprehensible, that remark seems to me open to question, but yesterday was not the day it was going to get it. One can only hope a genuine debate will follow.