Who does Doreen Lawrence think she is?
We all empathise with the mother of Stephen Lawrence. But we don’t have to respect her views on race, policing, Boris or anything else.
Doreen Lawrence, mother of Stephen Lawrence, the black teenager who was murdered by racists in London in 1993, hit the headlines at the weekend for slamming London mayoral candidate, Boris Johnson.
‘Those people that think he is a loveable rogue need to take a good look at themselves, and look at him’, she said of Johnson, the Tory MP and former editor of the Spectator who will stand against current London mayor Ken Livingstone next year. ‘I think once people read [Johnson’s] views, there is no way he is going to get the support of any people in the black community’, Lawrence continued.
Lawrence is referring in particular to some articles that Boris Johnson wrote in 1999 which were extremely critical of the report of the Macpherson Inquiry. That inquiry examined the police investigation of Stephen Lawrence’s murder; it concluded that the police in Britain were ‘institutionally racist’ and it also gave rise to a new and broad definition of ‘unwitting racism’.
As it happens, some of Johnson’s criticisms of Macpherson in 1999 were insightful. He argued that ‘what started as a sensible attempt to find justice for the family of Stephen Lawrence has given way to hysteria’. On the report’s deeply authoritarian proposal that there might be a change in the law so as to allow prosecution for racist language or behaviour ‘other than in a public place’, Johnson wrote: ‘Not even under the law of Ceausescu’s Romania could you be prosecuted for what you said in your own kitchen.’ Johnson was not alone in criticising Macpherson for effectively proposing the introduction of thought crimes into the British legal system.
Yet for Doreen Lawrence, Johnson’s criticisms of Macpherson mean that he ‘is not an appropriate person to run a multicultural city like London. Having someone like him as mayor would destroy the city’s unity. He is definitely not the right person to be even thinking to put his name forward.’ (1) Lawrence is effectively jealously guarding from public criticism the sanctity of a judge’s report into her family’s tragic experience.
Now, many people have an opinion on Boris the Tory clown prince, and Lawrence, like the rest of us, is free to put across her views however she wishes. But it’s worth asking why her views generate more column inches than the rest of ours. Why is Lawrence given a spread on the front page of the UK Guardian to denounce Johnson, and why does the capital’s political circus celebrate and disseminate her arguments? No one phones up my nan and asks her for an opinion on the latest foot-and-mouth outbreak; journalists don’t generally canvass taxi drivers on who Gordon Brown should select for his cabinet.
The key issue here is not Lawrence’s views themselves, which she is of course entitled to hold and to articulate. It is the invitation of those views and the use of them as part of broader political agendas which is most striking. What does this elevation of Lawrence as an unelected spokeswoman for black London – and a challenger to an elected MP who desires to become the mayor of London – reveal about the current state of democracy?
This is not the first time that comments made by Lawrence have stopped the political traffic. Last year she spoke at an inquiry on racism in Northern Ireland, and declared that ‘in Britain things have improved since the Macpherson report but there is still a long way to go’ (2). After the murder of the black teenager Anthony Walker in Liverpool two years ago, Lawrence visited the scene of the crime and spoke to the media. In 2004 she was given widespread coverage when she criticised the law-and-order proposals of then Conservative Party leader, Michael Howard (3). Because she has campaigned hard to bring her son’s killers to justice, and has been awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) for her efforts, Lawrence is viewed by many as ideally equipped to pontificate on race-related crimes, law-and-order policies and now, it seems, on London’s mayoral elections. I would argue that the opposite is the case: Lawrence’s intensely tragic experience means she is not the best person to make judgements on such matters.
There is no question that in losing their son in such vile and horrendous circumstances, and with justice still eluding them, the Lawrence family has been through a living nightmare. It is entirely understandable that Lawrence will be frustrated and enraged and will lash out at occurrences that echo her son’s tragic death. Yet it is precisely the fact that Lawrence is so emotionally connected to these issues that makes her a less than objective commentator on them. How does losing a son in a grim fashion automatically provide insights into the dynamics of racial politics or the best solutions for tackling race-related crime? In truth, it doesn’t.
Indeed, it is striking that Lawrence’s attempt to derail Boris Johnson’s mayoral election bid was based on emotional grandstanding rather than political argument. The Guardian report of her thoughts on Johnson seemed to imply that no one could possibly disagree with a grieving mother and instead we must all bow to her outlook. In the media’s coverage of Lawrence’s references to ‘those people’ (that is, Johnson and his supporters) and how they ‘need to take a good look at themselves’, there was an almost hectoring, even aristocratic tone. The newspapers’ message seemed to be: if you don’t do as Lawrence says (and vote for Ken, presumably) then you are morally reprehensible.
What is really important here is the degraded political process that nurtures and encourages this elevation of victim experts such as Lawrence. Lawrence isn’t the first – and she won’t be the last – to get embroiled in a process that we might call ‘victim-hegemony’. In 1993, for instance, Colin Parry became a somewhat unlikely spokesman for the Northern Ireland peace process after his young son, Tim Parry, was tragically killed in an IRA bomb blast in Warrington, England. As the media encouraged Parry’s ‘search for understanding’ of the conflict, this avuncular Middle Englander was soon dispatching ‘down-to-earth’ advice on how to resolve the Irish war. As he put it at the time: ‘While making a programme with BBC’s Panorama, I realised there was a real need for someone, apart from politicians, who had something coherent to say.’ (4)
Nobody had the temerity to ask in what way Parry was qualified to meddle in or pronounce on the 25-year-old conflict. He was not democratically elected by voters in the Six Counties of Northern Ireland or anywhere else for that matter. Parry himself said that it was precisely because he was not an elected politician that meant his views were potentially refreshing and insightful and thus should be taken seriously. The BBC, amongst others, indulged and flattered him, and he became for a few years the ‘anti-politician’ of the Northern Irish conflict whom members of the public were expected to respect rather than to question.
Similarly, a few years later the UK tabloid the News of the World sainted Sara Payne, mother of Sarah Payne, the eight-year-old girl who was murdered in 2000. The paper encouraged her to shame politicians by insisting that ‘Sarah’s Law’ – which would permit parents to see who is on the sex offenders’ register – be put on the statue books. Hold on – can the rest of us have a say on that issue, please?
At a time when the political elites feel intensely isolated from society at large, many feel a frisson of excitement at having ‘ordinary folk’ talking in front of the cameras. But the affable ordinariness of the Lawrences, the Parrys and the Paynes can only go some way towards explaining their appeal for the media and political classes. Rather, it seems that all three families, as well as others, have been elevated to the status of oracles of wisdom on the basis that they have suffered terrible and traumatic losses. Today, some families are not allowed to grieve in private; instead they are encouraged to take on the role of spokespeople for change, a role that some of them willingly accept. Thus, the raw pain of losing a child in terrible random circumstances becomes endowed with meaning, as an experience that provides one with invaluable insights into the workings of society.
The very act of suffering, rather than being elected or politically engaged, has acquired a high status; having suffered is seen as an admirable thing, and the words of those who have suffered are seen as beyond question. Victims’ thoughts and insights are playing a dominant role in the political process today, often at the invitation of politicians and commentators looking for new sources of authority. So if Doreen Lawrence is acting all aristocratic in relation to mayoral elections, and Colin Parry is behaving like a missionary in deepest Belfast, it is only because they have been sent packing in that direction by today’s political climate. This creation of a new layer of victim-aristocrats is also a product of the political elites absolving themselves of responsibility for important decisions. So, while it was judges and politicians who set in motion the Macpherson report, which they expect everyone to obey, it is the unelected Doreen Lawrence who is constantly called upon to morally enforce the report and its proposals.
The rise of the victim-aristocrat is bad for open debate and democracy. Such is the moral authority granted to Doreen Lawrence today that it is entirely possible that debates about racism and Macpherson will be stultified in the run-up to and during next year’s mayoral elections. Of course, anyone who opposes Boris Johnson and what he stands for should argue against him aggressively and trenchantly. But when Lawrence and her media supporters suggest that Johnson should not ‘even be putting his name forward’ as a candidate because they consider him morally suspect, then that is plainly an attempt to prevent the electorate from having an opportunity to pass judgement on Johnson during the election.
We’re often told to respect the memory of the dead. But is that any excuse for burying democracy too? If Lawrence and others want to see off Boris Johnson, then they should stand against him and try to win over London’s voters.
Neil Davenport is a writer and researcher based in London.
Mick Hume investigated the implications of the Macpherson report’s redefinition of racism and said that one murder doesn’t make a racist society. Brendan O’Neill explained that after the Macpherson report, a sweepingly relativistic view of offensive speech and criminal action has become institutionalised in policing, politics and public debate. Jennie Bristow asserted that ‘religious hate’ should not be a crime. Or read more at spiked issue Race.
(1) ‘Johnson as major ‘could ruin unity of London’ by Patrick Wintour, Guardian, 4 August 2007
(2) ‘Ulster System Institutionally Racist’ by Mark Oliver, Guardian, 26 June 2006
(3) ‘Howard turns clock back on crime policy’, Nicholas Watt and Alan Travis, 11 August 2004
(4) ‘Warrington remembers IRA bombing victims’, BBC News, 14 March 1998
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