The new mayor has to make the police tell the truth

Trevor Phillips, on that rough road to the deputy mayoralty of London, has just hit a troubled patch. He was widely criticised, and particularly by the London Evening Standard, for an essay in the recently published collection from the Institute for Public Policy Research, Forces of Conservatism. He argued that a new London police authority should take a firm line with the racist culture of the Metropolitan Police and "uncover the truth, in the style of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, offering amnesty to those in the police who might otherwise be afraid to come forward, in exchange for revelation".

That seemed a harmless enough proposal to me. Several young men have died in custody and there are officers with heavy consciences about. To this day, no one has been arrested or charged with the murder of Kelso Cochrane, who was stabbed to death in the Notting Hill race riots in the late fifties. There is much I have to get off my chest, weighed down by several attempts by the police in west London and once or twice in Brixton to see me off to the calaboose.

Perhaps the Standard itself should enter the mood of reconciliation. I remember that paper being in the vanguard of hostility to the Notting Hill Carnival. I was chairman of the organising committee when, day after summer's day, they incited the authorities to banish the festival from the face of the earth. It was a festival of black proletarian cultural expression, you see, and not one for the white, twee middle classes.

On another occasion, I had been appointed organiser of a national demonstration following the New Cross fire in south London, where many black teenagers were killed. There was always a suspicion of arson, but many of us doubted whether police were pursuing inquiries in an even-handed way. After the demonstration, attended by 2,000 people, the Standard sent a journalist to interview me at my offices in Shakespeare Road, Brixton. I aimed at modesty. I described two minor scuffles, which our stewards had brought swiftly under control. I described the whole event as a good day.

The Standard printed a photograph of a policeman with blood running down his cheek and the bold front-page headline, "Darcus Howe says: "It was a good day." The journalist complained that he was viciously editorialised. Alas, Charles Wintour, the then editor, has recently passed away, but his successor, Max Hastings, may well be prepared, in the interests of truth and reconciliation, to testify how this monumental spin came about.

The huge myth of the British bobby is extremely difficult to puncture. However rotten the mould, there are those who will defend him in spite of incontrovertible evidence to the contrary. Perhaps the upper middle classes see themselves depending on this thin blue line as a defence against the invading hordes of the propertyless.

Trevor Phillips is as conservative as they come. Despite the Standard's indignation, he is always ready to trot out the platitudes about the majority of police officers being good and hardworking. Yet I wonder. It has taken the local commander a couple of years, with systematic follow-through, to ease the pressure on black Brixtonians. I was in a mini-cab recently with my dear friend Kwame, an uncompromising militant, hostile to the police. He commented on the great changes in Brixton recently. Once, the police used to stop him five times a week; yet he hasn't been stopped at all in the past three months.

In the wee hours of Sunday morning, there were shouts from a middle-aged man in my street. He was shouting, "Call the police, call the police . . . murder . . . help!" Eight residents responded and the police dived in promptly to arrest the muggers.

That wouldn't have happened in the past, because the police would not have been trusted. But the old suspicions persist in other parts of London. The Standard and its friends are hostile even to a conservative like Phillips. But do they have an alternative?

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 20 December 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Now then, are we getting anywhere?