Lawrence verdict: this isn’t justice – it’s politics

The cultural elite has exploited and politicised the murder of Stephen Lawrence to a degree that would have made Machiavelli blush.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

‘Justice has been done.’ So says every newspaper in the land, following the conviction of David Norris and Gary Dobson for the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993. Justice? Are they serious? Judging from the narcissistic catfight amongst various sections of the elite clamouring to claim responsibility for ‘getting’ Lawrence’s killers, involving everyone from tabloid supremo Paul Dacre to Islington’s favourite QC Michael Mansfield to PM David Cameron, this isn’t so much a case of ‘justice has been done’ as ‘justice has been done by me!’. In the Lawrence case, the needs of justice were long ago usurped by the desires of the political and media elites to use this grisly case as a soapbox from which to pronounce their moral superiority in modern Britain.

It is clear from the orgy of post-conviction self-congratulation amongst the chattering classes (Dacre says yesterday was ‘a glorious day for British newspapers’) that the trial of Norris and Dobson was a political trial. It was a showtrial, or at least a showy trial, which was relentlessly used to advertise and entrench the morality of the new political elites. Just because Norris and Dobson are lowlifes, whom no one will much miss when they are banged up, doesn’t mean we should give the nod to this bending of the justice system to the whims of the cultural elite.

It is fitting that the Lawrence case should end with a political trial, because this was the most cynically exploited and politicised murder in living memory. Lawrence was not the first young black man to have been murdered by racists, nor was he the first black murder victim to have been failed by a seriously botched police investigation. But he was the first black murder victim whose tragic demise was cynically milked by the cultural elite and used as the lynchpin of a moral crusade against Old Britain and its foul, backward inhabitants. In a triple whammy of murder-milking, Lawrence’s death was used by the elites to demonise the white working classes as the new ‘brutes within’; to redefine racism as a disease of the brain rather than as a relation of power; and to dismantle long-standing legal principles that were once seen as central to the justice system.

Firstly, and most immediately, Lawrence’s murder was exploited to problematise huge swathes of white, working-class Britain. In the hands of a cultural elite which felt increasingly cut off from, and disgusted by, Britain’s native working classes, the Lawrence murder became a significant turning point in the way in which the white working classes were discussed and understood – and feared.

In the wake of the murder, journalists ventured to the place where it had occurred – in Eltham, a working-class part of south London – with the same combination of trepidation and excitement that Victorian anthropologists no doubt felt upon arrival in African backwaters. ‘INTO HELL’, declared a frontpage headline in the Daily Mirror, as its reporter described the council estate on which Norris and Dobson (and other initial suspects in the case) grew up – an ‘E-reg Escort land’ where there is ‘racism seeping from every pore’ (1). The Mail resurrected the s-word – ‘savages’ – to describe some of the racists who lived on the Eltham estate, who apparently ruled through a ‘culture of fear’ (2).

Frequently in the post-Lawrence press coverage, the five white men who were originally suspected of the crime (which included Norris and Dobson) were held up as being typical of the white working classes. As author Michael Collins put it, post-Lawrence, intellectuals tended to depict the white working classes as ‘xenophobic, thick, illiterate, parochial’ (3). One of the tactics most frequently used by these rewriters of the working classes as uncouth savages was to contrast the decency of the Lawrence family with the fecklessness and ignorance of white working-class communities. As Siobhan Holohan argued in The Search for Justice in a Media Age, the laziness and lack of work ethic of the five suspected killers were treated as ‘an inversion of the Lawrences’ commitment to education, hard work and religious faith’. What’s more, says Holohan, the media continually extrapolated from the lives of the five suspects to paint a picture of broader ‘white deviance’ (4).

One of the most striking things about the post-Lawrence demonisation of the white working classes is that many different sections of the cultural elite became united around it. From The Sunday Times, which even before the murder of Lawrence in 1993 had been obsessed with promoting Charles Murray’s nonsense about the British ‘underclass’, to the Guardian, which preferred to fret about poor and ignorant people in more PC, anti-Charles Murray terms, normally clashing sections of the chattering classes found common ground in the idea that the murder of Lawrence spoke to the emergence of a dumb and brutal ‘white trash’. As one author argued, ‘journalistic expressions of hostility towards “racist thugs” dovetailed well with The Sunday Times’ return to the issue of the British underclass’, while the Guardian could pursue its metropolitan crusade against ill-educated Brits through the Lawrence prism (5).

The coming together of various elites around the Lawrence case in the 1990s, with everyone from right-wing tabloids to liberal broadsheets to both Tory and New Labour politicians fretting about social and moral breakdown in weird ‘White Britain’, revealed just how intensively the killing had been politicised. Having occurred at an historic moment when the working classes were losing their political clout, and when the elites were becoming ever more estranged from the masses, it became the perfect tool for elite expressions of both fear of and pity for the mob. Much of the contemporary discussion of the white working classes – as ‘chavvy’, prejudiced, in need of moral re-education – springs from this politicisation of Lawrence.

Secondly, and intimately linked with the above, we also saw the redefinition of racism on the back of the Lawrence killing. Through the Macpherson Inquiry in 1999 – an investigation into the police’s mishandling of the murder – racism was thoroughly reconceptualised, turned from an ideological thing into a kind of instinctive tick, from a tool of the powerful into a disease amongst the powerless.

Much is made of Macpherson’s judgement that there was widespread ‘institutional racism’ in Britain. But he didn’t mean that certain institutions, such as the police or the immigration service, were racist, but rather that racism can be ‘detected’ in the ‘processes, attitudes and behaviour’ of some of the individuals who work in such institutions (6). In short, courtesy of Macpherson, the problem of racism came to be divorced from questions of power and ideology, and started to be seen as a weird behavioural trait among thoughtless individuals, which was in need of urgent excision.

Indeed, one of the key concepts promoted by Macpherson was the idea of ‘unwitting racism’ – the notion that people often discriminate ‘through unwitting prejudice [or] thoughtlessness’ (7). Here, racism is reduced to a form of bad manners, an unthinking uncouthness, something ingrained in us without us necessarily knowing it. Such an historic rewriting of the concept of racism allowed the better-educated sections of society to pose as the guardians of racial etiquette. Thus was ‘official anti-racism’ born, a tool wielded by New Labour and its media cliques to depict certain sections of society as insufficiently multicultural and therefore in need of racial re-education. ‘Anti-racism’ was weaponised post-Lawrence, providing our increasingly at-sea political elites with the kind of moral crusade they desperately craved, one in which they could pose as whiter than white (no pun intended) against the unthinkingly racist hordes. Post-Lawrence, we’ve seen official ‘anti-racism’ used to hector and ‘cure’ everyone from ill-spoken reality TV stars to grunting footballers, all of whom have become the equivalent of sinners in this new and deeply divisive ‘racially correct’ Britain.

And thirdly, the Lawrence murder was turned into a battering ram against historic pillars of the justice system which the authoritarian elite considered to be pesky inconveniences. Most notably, the double jeopardy rule – the idea that no individual should be tried twice for the same crime – was dismantled in the name of convicting Lawrence’s killers. One of the recommendations made by Macpherson was to institute a ‘power to permit prosecution after acquittal, where fresh and viable evidence is presented’ (8). The then home secretary, New Labour’s Jack Straw, leapt with glee upon this opportunity to rid Britain of what the authoritarians in Labour considered to be a legal anachronism, and double jeopardy was done away with through the Criminal Justice Act of 2003. Which is why Dobson, found not guilty of the Lawrence murder in 1996, could be retried for it.

The idea that no one who was autrefois acquit (previously acquitted) or autrefois convict (previously convicted) could ever again be dragged before a court and made to answer for the same crime was a central principle of justice for centuries, fought for long and hard by progressives in England in the seventeenth century and later adopted by American revolutionaries. It was a principle which guarded individuals – all of us – from potentially being hounded by the powerful and vengeful state. Yet in the great milking of the Stephen Lawrence murder, it was casually discarded by an elite more interested in scoring political points than standing up for justice.

Was justice really done yesterday? No. Politics was done, in a manner which would have made Machiavelli proud. Whatever you think of Norris and Dobson, you should not let yourself believe that the transformation of a murder into a tool of political one-upmanship, illiberalism and moral crusading is the same thing as justice. It is in fact the very opposite. In the Stephen Lawrence tragedy, it remains a case of: Cultural Elite 1, Justice 0.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

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Topics Politics


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