The Macpherson report changed Britain – but not for the better
Thirty years on from the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence, elite identity politics now dominates our lives.
Thirty years since black teenager Stephen Lawrence was killed in south London, we are all living with the damaging legacy of the Macpherson report into that racist murder.
Public inquiries don’t normally change much in the real world. They are mostly judge-led talking shops, set up by the UK authorities to kick an issue into the long grass, producing lengthy reports that make a day of positive headlines before being left to gather dust.
The 1999 Macpherson report was different. It has been hailed as one of the decisive moments in British legal history, credited with changing our nation for the better. The Macpherson report did indeed help to transform British law, politics and society – but, in many ways, those changes have been for the worse.
Its 350 pages codified the new worldview of powerful British elites. As I have said before on spiked, it wrote identity politics and victim culture into the heart of UK public life and British law. It redefined racism as an ‘unwitting’ prejudice that all of us witless people are ‘infected’ by, so that we need to be cured by the enlightened state authorities through re-education and legal restraints.
One result is the bizarre situation whereby, though Britain is by any objective standard a far less racist society than in even the recent past, our public life appears increasingly obsessed with finding racism everywhere. Another is the constant mission creep of ‘hate speech’ laws and rules restricting free speech.
Stephen Lawrence was murdered on 22 April 1993. After Tony Blair’s New Labour was elected in 1997, home secretary Jack Straw appointed retired judge Sir William Macpherson to head ‘The Inquiry into the Matters Arising from the Death of Stephen Lawrence’.
As a former army officer and the hereditary chief of Clan Macpherson, Sir William might seem an unlikely figure to have spearheaded radical change. But surrounded by expert advisers and human-rights lawyers, he became the authoritative voice of the new identity politics. Most importantly, his report mattered because the entire UK establishment threw its weight behind his words.
The inquiry did expose how the incompetence of the Metropolitan Police had allowed the five suspects in the murder to avoid prosecution; allegations of corruption impeding the Met’s case arose later. But the substance of Macperson’s 1999 report and its 70 recommended reforms related to other ‘matters arising’ to do with British law and society. In effect, examining Stephen’s death became the pretext for pursuing a far wider agenda.
The central problem identified in the Macpherson report was ‘institutional racism’ in the police force and across British society. When that phrase was first used by Stokely Carmichael and the Black Panthers, they targeted the top-down racism of powerful institutions in 1960s America. The Macpherson report, however, had something very different in mind. It saw racism as having ‘infected’ a mass of individuals. What Macpherson called ‘institutional racism’ could thus be ‘detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority-ethnic people’.
The magic words were ‘unwitting’ and ‘ignorance’. The problem was, apparently, that millions of ordinary, ‘ignorant’ people were being ‘unwittingly’ racist, often without knowing it. Powerful political and state institutions, rather than being blamed for the problems of racism, could henceforth be recast in the role of anti-racist saviours, tasked with cleansing the rest of us of our original sin of ‘unwitting prejudice’.
Little wonder that the entire British political and media establishment embraced the Macpherson report with such enthusiasm. For the past two centuries, the ruling class had wielded the politics of race and empire to legitimise its authority. Now the authorities could change cloaks, and adopt official anti-racism and identity politics as new weapons to discipline the masses.
The Macpherson report’s specific proposals followed from this, well, prejudice. It redefined a racist offence to mean ‘any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or by any other person’. If anybody at all said it was racist, it had to be treated as such. This subjective definition of racism has since become central to the ever-expanding category of ‘hate crimes’ in law and police practice.
The consequences of this for freedom of speech have been baleful. But Macpherson wanted to go further still, by making it a crime to use racist language even in the privacy of your own home. At the time, that seemed to be an Orwellian step too far, even for Blair and New Labour. In the 24 years since the Macpherson report, however, its spirit has been incorporated into the law and we have witnessed many people being prosecuted and punished for words used in private conversations, emails or WhatsApp groups.
Then, in 2021, the year of Sir William’s death, the Scottish parliament went full Macpherson by passing the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act. This removed the traditional ‘dwelling defence’ and made it possible for Scots to be jailed for ‘stirring up hatred’ in their own homes, for example by shouting abuse at the TV or cracking an offensive joke at the dinner table. The SNP justice minister responsible for that atrocious act was Humza Yousaf, who was recently rewarded by becoming party leader and Scotland’s first minister.
The Macpherson report’s other proposed legal reform was the abolition of the ‘double jeopardy’ rule, which had historically limited the persecutory power of the state by preventing anybody from being tried twice for the same offence.
Macpherson’s main justification for the change was the failed private murder prosecution through which the Lawrence family had tried to convict those suspected of killing Stephen. After the ‘double jeopardy’ rule was abolished, two of those men – Gary Dobson and David Norris – were finally convicted of his murder, which might seem to many like justification for the reform. However, seen in a wider context, the abolition of the ‘double jeopardy’ protection was another way in which the Macpherson report marked an authoritarian shift in the relationship between state power and personal liberty.
The 30th anniversary of the murder of Stephen Lawrence is a grim milestone. Such a blatant, hate-filled racist murder thankfully belongs to a Britain we have largely left behind. But the Macpherson report into Stephen’s killing still casts a long shadow over everyday life in our supposedly free society.
At the time Macpherson was published, I wrote an editorial in the April 1999 LM magazine (née Living Marxism), which concluded that, ‘In an age when a nonsensical concept like “unwitting racism” is widely accepted as good coin, it is imperative that we keep our wits about us and question everything’. Like the Macpherson report itself, those words still seem relevant today.
Mick Hume is a spiked columnist. The concise and abridged edition of his book, Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech?, is published by William Collins.
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