Neville Lawrence: just an ordinary Englander

I await with bated breath Sir William Macpherson's report on the Stephen Lawrence inquiry. But I am more interested in the big headline than in the minutiae. An organisation as huge and unwieldy as the Metropolitan Police will need at least a couple of years and serious budgetary adjustments to make any fundamental changes. And perhaps by then we may well have forgotten what the details were. These huge reports tend to enter with a great fuss and fanfare and leave the stage on tiptoe.

As long ago as 1959, the Conservative government set up a royal commission on the police. Part of its brief was to investigate relations between police and public and to consider how to deal effectively with the latter's complaints. The Police Federation and the Superintendents' Association admitted then that relations between police and public had grown worse. The commission concluded that there was overwhelming and disturbing evidence of police malpractice.

Forty years on, what has changed? The 1959 commission did no polling. But we know from last week's Guardian/ICM poll that only 20 per cent of the whole population give the police a clean bill of health. A significant minority - 31 per cent among people aged 16-24 - say that the police are racist and unfair to blacks and Asians.

Yet the British were once extremely supportive of the police. They subscribed to the affectionate image of the British bobby. They supported governments that gave the police new powers, better weaponry and higher wages. Now it seems their support is heavily qualified.

I sat in a meeting a few months ago listening to a very senior officer from Scotland Yard. He had looked forward to his son joining the force. After the Lawrence case, his son said no. The senior officer was gutted.

How and why did the transformation take place? Put it down by and large to Neville and Doreen Lawrence. Neville Lawrence, like me, came to England as a teenager, but he could easily have been born in south London 55 years ago. He would have been christened at the local Anglican church and confirmed ten years later; attended the local primary and secondary modern; done his apprenticeship in the building trade; shopped for his suit on the high street; married Doreen from the local bank; honeymooned in Cornwall. No national dress, no Koran, no Bhagavadgita. Neville Lawrence talks and behaves like an ordinary Englishman. In middle age he lost a son for no other reason than that he was black, and he failed to get justice for the same reason.

So the general white population identified with him quite easily. He was one of them and they liked the cut of his jib. He was not doing the bidding of Trotskyites or any of the rest of the extreme left. He appeared without political complication, in all his simplicity. In so doing he touched a sense of fair play long embedded in the British psyche. He moved police officers and hardened politicians. When he galvanised the support of the saintly Nelson Mandela, it was an added bonus.

What can be done about the police? There are several changes that can be made at once. The first and most obvious is to recruit police officers systematically from the black community. The second is to tackle stop and search. Officers are judged for promotion, in part, on how many stops and searches are made on a tour of duty. There should be no reward for numbers stopped and searched. In fact, the opposite should be the case. Those officers with unusually high figures ought to be investigated.

Third, there is the question of independent investigation into complaints, which ought to be transferred to the Commission for Racial Equality. Finally, every effort should be made to get the support of the Police Federation so that it becomes a booming voice for change. Otherwise, all attempts at reform will be vulnerable to subterfuge and dissident behaviour.

The conditions are ripe for change; if the moment is not seized, disaster is inevitable.

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 19 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, We are richer than you think