Law

Stephen Lawrence: why politicians can’t let go

It’s easier for politicians and senior police officers to focus on the sins of the past than confront the present.

Last week, the home secretary, Theresa May, announced that a public inquiry will be held into undercover policing. May’s move followed the publication of a report, conducted by leading barrister Mark Ellison, on the investigation into the murder of a black teenager, Stephen Lawrence, in south-east London in 1993. At the time, two men were charged with Lawrence’s killing, but the charges were later dropped due to insufficient evidence. Outraged by this decision, the Lawrence family brought a private prosecution in 1994 against five defendants, who were all acquitted. Eventually, thanks to the abolition of the ‘double jeopardy’ rule and ‘substantial new evidence’, two men – Gary Dobson and David Norris – were convicted of the murder in 2011.

A public inquiry, led by Sir William Macpherson, reported in 1999 on the investigation into the murder. Ellison’s new report sought to establish whether the Metropolitan Police had held back evidence of police corruption from the Macpherson Inquiry. It also considered evidence that the police had ‘infiltrated’ the Lawrence family during the inquiry in order to obtain evidence to ‘smear’ them.

The report has been widely seen as confirmation of the rotten heart of the UK’s police force. Theresa May said that ‘policing stands damaged’ following the report. Bernard Hogan-Howe, the current commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, said the report marked the lowest day of his career. Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said that ‘no one can underestimate the gravity of the institutional failing’ following Lawrence’s death. The new report is seen as yet another insult to add to the injury of the ‘Plebgate’ affair, where police officers are alleged to have fabricated evidence to embarrass government minister Andrew Mitchell. While polls suggest public trust in the police remains at an all-time high, official self-loathing seems to have gone through the roof.

In fact, 20 years on, the Lawrence case remains stubbornly at the centre of officialdom’s debate about race and policing. The commander of Scotland Yard’s anti-racism unit, Cressida Dick, used the tenth anniversary of the murder in 2003 to admit publicly that the Met remained ‘institutionally racist’. BBC News said in its resources on the case that it showed that ‘justice worked differently depending on the colour of your skin’. The fallout from the Lawrence case is often described as a turning point for policing, the wake-up call which propelled it from its racist past into its tolerant future.

Yet what these announcements show is that the Lawrence case has become a means of avoiding difficult questions. The endless handwringing over the Lawrence case has become a substitute for any genuine engagement with contemporary questions about race and the police. The Met and its political masters are happy to talk all day about the ‘racism’ which infected the police in the 1990s, yet they think little of announcing the ‘targeting’ of predominantly black areas like Brixton in the Met’s recent ‘Brixton Unite’ operation. A focus on the Met’s contemporary attitudes towards race and policing would be more worthwhile than endlessly repeating its confessions of past sins. 

The contents of the report could hardly come as much of a shock to anyone paying attention to the police. We don’t need a public inquiry to tell us that the Met, and other police forces around the country, use dubious undercover methods to spy on people. Earlier this year, it was revealed that Mark Kennedy, an undercover policeman who infiltrated environmental protest groups, became so involved in the criminality he was supposed to be investigating that the Court of Appeal quashed the convictions that arose from his investigation. There were calls from those fooled by Kennedy for an inquiry into undercover policing following the revelations in their case. The government refused that request, but has acted swiftly in relation to the allegations of past misconduct emanating out of the Lawrence case.

Although we do not know the precise terms of the new inquiry, it seems clear that any new judicial investigation will be forced to focus tightly on the activities of this now defunct unit, which was alleged to have employed an officer to infiltrate campaign groups around the Lawrence family. Any revelations about the practices of this unit are unlikely to be enlightening, given that it was disbanded some time ago. The findings are also unlikely to have any impact on contemporary undercover policing whatsoever.

But the practical outcome from any inquiry is not important. After all, anyone who knows anything about the investigation into the Lawrence case knows it was a colossal screw-up. Instead, it would be an opportunity for further breast-beating on the part of today’s political establishment, which seems content to exploit the case as an easy moral yardstick, a means through which the powers-that-be can express revulsion with the ‘racist’ practices of the past without having to engage with any serious questions about race and politics today.

The Lawrence case’s contemporary prominence should be understood by reference to the politicisation of the case at the time. Macpherson’s report, published following the initial public inquiry into police failings, represented an official statement of a new definition of ‘racism’, one which would become enormously influential on race policy. For Macpherson, racism was found in the ‘processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people’. Where, historically, racism had deep connections with institutional power and politics, Macpherson redefined racism in terms of individual behaviour and attitudes. The assumptions of the investigating officers following the attack – for example, that the stabbing had been the result of a fight rather than an unprovoked ambush – were described by Macpherson as evidence of the ‘systemic racism’ at the heart of the police.

So why call for a further public inquiry into what we already know about a case which is now 20 years old? The reason is that the Lawrence case has always been about more than the events of a single night in south-east London in 1993. It has become central to officialdom’s discussion and understanding of race. It marked a new official definition of racism, one which focused on individual attitudes and behaviours. Rather than showing the government’s commitment to tackling corruption, these announcements show that both the government and the police are more willing to make grand statements about the ‘gravity’ of past failings than they are to engage actively in the difficult political questions about race that persist today.

Luke Gittos is law editor at spiked, a solicitor practicing criminal law and convenor of the London Legal Salon.

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