The New Statesman Interview - Sir William Macpherson

He's been blamed for the rise in crime and the lowering of police morale. But he stands by every wor

Twelve months have passed since Sir William Macpherson of Cluny issued his report on the Stephen Lawrence inquiry. "Pretty well bang on a year," he says, checking his diary entries. "February 24, report publication. February 25, dentist's appointment." There is no doubt as to which event involved more personal torture.

Ostensibly, Macpherson has settled back to the balmy life of golf and salmon-fishing befitting a retired High Court judge and Scottish clan chieftain. We meet at his ancestral seat in Blairgowrie, where he - in cardigan and slippers - ladles instant coffee into china cups. Once Cromwell's men burned Newton Castle to the ground. Now other torches flicker at Macpherson's door.

Over the past year, the criticism of his report has mounted, as the Metropolitan police sought to ascribe low morale and rising crime to the inquiry's findings on institutional racism. Or, as one commentator put it more pungently: "A significant number of the 550,000 people who were violently attacked last year can fairly blame Sir William Macpherson and his stupid report. The man has blood on his hands."

Now, in his first interview since the immediate aftermath of the inquiry, Macpherson mourns his scapegoat status. "Some of the things written have been well beyond reason . . . They are hurtful. But one has to have broad shoulders in public life." If the odium came only from choleric rightwingers, he might be less beleaguered. Instead, when Sir Paul Condon retired as Metropolitan Commissioner last month, he used his valedictory interviews as an apparent lash for Macpherson. Crime had risen as officers, fearful of being branded racist, disengaged from stop-and-search procedures. Street crime alone was up by 30 per cent. A dozen officers were so traumatised after Macpherson's inquiry that they could "no longer function as human beings". The whole business, he decreed, had been "a tragedy" for the police service.

Does Macpherson accept that his inquiry wrecked careers and lives? "I am very surprised he [Condon] said that. What happened was a tragedy for the Lawrence family. I don't believe it was a tragedy for the officers . . . It was a very strange attitude for him to adopt. Undoubtedly, some officers were given a pretty rough time. They deserved it . . . I simply do not believe that their experience was so damaging that they should be suffering from it a year afterwards." Perhaps the Commissioner was being over-sentimental on his officers' behalf? "I think it may have been that," Macpherson says, eager to offer no personal criticism of Condon, but astonished by his views. "Otherwise, I really don't understand his attitude."

Then there is the charge that street crime rose because cowed officers steered clear of suspects. "That's not a condemnation of the report. That's a condemnation of officers and leadership in the police. If that was allowed to happen, it was quite contrary to what the report said: that stop and search was a valuable tool." Was Condon simply trying to deflect blame for the Met's defects? "I am afraid that is my conclusion. That is what happened. If - and it's a big if - the report was responsible for a cut in stop and search, that's a matter for the police. I cannot see how the rise in crime could conceivably be attributed to the report."

I ask again whether escalating crime figures are down to bad policing. "Yes, partly. And there are other reasons."

One cause he mentions is falling manpower. But again, Macpherson is in the frame. Condon's successor, Sir John Stevens, has already reportedly claimed that potential recruits to the Met - with 400 jobs to fill - have been put off by the hammering the force has taken post-Macpherson. "I simply cannot see how there can be any connection between the two; though I do recognise there's a reluctance in ethnic-minority communities to join."

Does the line taken by the old Commissioner, and perhaps the new, betoken a wish to marginalise Macpherson's findings rather than embrace them? "Yes, and I find that attitude very disappointing. The right thing to do when you're criticised is to accept it and try to improve matters; not to moan about what's been said. I don't think the police have turned their backs on the report. They've taken many essential steps, but they are still prepared to whine . . . about other aspects."

Macpherson's fury is faintly modulated partly because of judicial reticence, but mostly because he has a horror of attracting yet more brickbats. He says at one point: "I hope people won't say: 'Look what he's said to Mary Riddell. He's a twerp, and we're going to have another whack at him'."

Such anguish seems almost exaggerated, given that Jack Straw has promised action on every recommendation, including two deemed risible by critics. (The first, that racist behaviour in private could constitute a criminal offence, was intended to encompass only extreme conduct and never "dinner table conversations", Macpherson says. The second, that an incident was racist if it was perceived to be so by a victim or "any other person", was merely a reworking of an existing police guideline. He stands by both.)

This month's late decision by the Home Secretary to outlaw, in the Race Relations (Amendment) Bill, indirect discrimination in all public bodies, represented a major victory for Macpherson. And still he appears battered rather than triumphant; an attitude informed both by criticism and by the rigours of the inquiry.

In 1997, Macpherson's judicial career - whose high-water mark was his skilful handling of the Black case, involving schoolgirl murders - was over. His days as a Territorial SAS colonel, in which he "did 120 parachute jumps and canoed from Devizes to Westminster", were behind him. His three children, Annie, Alan and Jamie, were grown-up, and he had become accustomed to rustication in Blairgowrie, where the locals call him Bill.

He and his wife, Sheila, were spending a typically tranquil day when the Lord Chancellor, phoned. "He asked what I was doing in my Scottish lair. I told him I had retired, and he told me I was coming down to London to head this inquiry." The task, friends warned, offered a poisoned chalice. The Lawrences were discomfited by his appointment. A newspaper branded him, unfairly, "racially insensitive". The inquiry itself proved querulous and ill- tempered.

"It was the hardest thing I have ever had to do. It was not at all an easy case to conduct. Many people would have failed to conduct it at all. I had to cope with extreme views from all directions." While his critics scoffed at the supposed metamorphosis of Macpherson from fusty old buffer to guru of political correctness, he struggled to find a balance between the Lawrences and the police.

"I remember one officer being asked: 'You didn't want the black boy's blood on your hands, did you?' Everyone gasped. But that's what Mrs Lawrence had been saying for a long time. We found it was not so. The police did not say: 'Here's a little black bastard on the pavement. We won't touch him.' That was the line Mrs Lawrence was taking, but it was nothing like that at all."

The term "black bastard" sounds so peculiar on the lips of Macpherson - formidable in public, genial in private - that one imagines he is haunted still by memories of his inquiry. Did he feel that there was a driven, almost fanatical, edge to some of Doreen Lawrence's charges? "That is not what I say. It was something that was apparent from early on, at the inquest . . . I believed what the Lawrences had suffered led them to the state of mind they were in. I understood that."

What does Macpherson think of a recent report that the Lawrences are now claiming £500,000 in damages from the Met. Should they get such a huge amount of public money? Clearly he believes not. "I must leave that for others to comment on. I don't know enough about it. But . . . I raise question-marks. I say: What's it all about?"

Over the past year, Macpherson, now 73, was not only preoccupied by the inquiry. Last August, he was admitted to hospital in Dundee to have a section of his colon removed. "On the fourth day, the surgeon told me it was non- malignant. I didn't have cancer - a wonderful relief. I wasn't actually fearful of dying. My surgeon said that even if it were malignant, he thought he could operate successfully. Now I know that I will last for another year or two. But at 75, you are senile by statute. I do not propose to sit again."

The Lawrence inquiry altered him so deeply, he says, that he cannot even define the specific changes. Some are obvious. He - once paradoxically steeped in the old-establishment culture of his critics - is now a Blair fan, although it seems doubtful that new Labour would actually get his vote. Naturally, he admires Jack Straw; though he draws the line at his plan to curtail trial by jury. "I firmly believe in the jury system. But that debate is for others," he says tactfully. Would it be fair to assume he believes it unwise to fix something that is not broken? "Yes."

On other reforms, he remains wedded to his report's (much-maligned) suggestion on double jeopardy. Already, a Law Commission report has backed the notion that - in the light of overwhelming new evidence - some defendants may be tried twice for the same offence.

The five main suspects in the Lawrence case will never, he is sure, face trial (or retrial in the case of three) for Stephen's murder. Thus, in his perception, the vindication of a squandered life lies in the acceptance of his report. "I stick to every word and every line. I believe the conclusions were right and the future optimistic. No one should say this is a terrible report. If that's the attitude, it's the fault of the people saying those things; not the fault of the report."

It is hard, at times, to judge whether his plaint is a defence of his own handiwork or a broader fear that a society dogged by racism is being swayed against vital reform. Though both factors may apply, it is fair to assume that Sir William Macpherson longs less for plaudits than for justice.

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