Leading Article: Why the callers got the right man

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The Independent Online
Seventy-seven thousand self-selecting telephone callers do not necessarily constitute a reliable test of the nation's mood. Some of those who - in the four hours available - called the BBC Radio 4 Today programme's poll for Personality of the Year may have been solicited to do so by political parties, may have followed the old Ulster precept of "vote early, vote often", or may have got the number for Tony Blair mixed up with that for the Queen Mother - it is easily done.

Nevertheless, their choice of the London headmaster Philip Lawrence - who was murdered while attempting to break up a fight outside his school - is of great interest. Of course, he had just been in the news - but so had the Princess of Wales (fourth). True, he had been killed, and there is always a sympathy vote - but this was also the case with Yitzhak Rabin (third). Something more than the obvious was going on.

Mr Lawrence was a victim of a phenomenon that fills many of us with great anxiety and fear. That a group of young boys in pursuit of a trivial feud were prepared to use deadly violence against an innocent man exemplifies the culture of arbitrary lawlessness that seems to have seized sections of our youth. The murder highlighted other stories of gangs roaming school premises looking for victims, of the widespread possession and easy availability of the types of blades that never grace a kitchen, and of authority held in complete contempt by teenagers. Finally, it suggested what can be the fate of those citizens who "have a go", whose conscience does not allow them to pass by. So the vote for Mr Lawrence may reflect our pessimism in the face of disintegration and brutishness.

There is a more hopeful interpretation available. Mr Lawrence could probably have fashioned a successful teaching career anywhere in the profession. Educated at a public school himself, he would have risen in the private sector, teaching bright, confident children from privileged homes. But that was not what he wanted. The challenge for him - as it is for us - was how to educate the children from the inner city and the sink estates. He did it by exercising imagination in his teaching methods, by demanding high standards from his pupils and by constructing a safe environment for them to learn in.

Mr Lawrence was a citizen activist, a man who understood that individuals have to take action for a community to prosper. He is, therefore, an appropriate and a wise choice as the man of 1995.