After the new Lawrence scandal, the Met can't afford to come up empty this time

The long era of the cover-up has unravelled, for perhaps the last time. Transparency now is crucial to any credible effort to restore trust.

The most troubling aspect of Peter Francis’s allegations that his role as an undercover police officer included instructions to "find dirt" on the family and supporters of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence is how much less shocking this news is than it should be.

The revelations in last night’s Dispatches programme, and a new book on undercover policing from Paul Lewis and Rob Evans, have led news bulletins and led to emergency statements in the House of Commons. If Francis’s allegation of a conscious decision to withhold the knowledge of the existence of the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) involvement in the Lawrence case from a public inquiry is true, that would be the most indefensible of cover-ups. Yet this would also fit the pattern of earlier revelations, over the years, about this historic failure of policing.

The truth is that the Met Police has always remained deeply conflicted about the Lawrence case. Indeed, it is that long, defensive pattern of ambivalence over being called to account which helps to explain why, even two decades on, the force is embarking on yet another process to discover how deep its own failures went. The official line was that the force held its hands up, pledging to learn the lessons and bring about change, yet the Met often seemed to calculate how little it could escape with admitting. So former commissioner Sir Paul Condon apologised to the Lawrence family, part way through the Macpherson inquiry after the complacency of its earlier reviews of the case had been starkly exposed in cross-examination. He could admit that the family had been failed, but resisted any acknowledgement of what the inquiry called "institutional racism", though perhaps using that most emotive of terms rather than "discrimination" for the systemic racial disadvantage in outcomes made this harder. The Met pledged significant change after Macpherson and did make some serious attempts to make progress yet this ambivalence about the inquiry’s outcome also established a habit of challenging the recommendations as an impediment to effective policing, not a driver towards it. Given that the challenge was of cultural change, this set important limits on how deep it would go.

Duwayne Brooks was with Stephen Lawrence when he was killed. The Met acknowledged at the inquiry that they had never properly supported him as a victim of crime. This was not simply a sin of omission. Significant resources went into investigating a victim, while the murder inquiry went nowhere, except to be damaged by the additional pressure put on a vulnerable witness. Brooks’s own book Steve and Me, published in 2003, offers a jaw-dropping account of a gruelling campaign to destroy his reputation. He was later awarded damages from the Met. A proper inquiry into the SDS exercise might help to explain how this happened.

Brooks, now a Lewisham councillor, has shown impressive resilience to survive these successive ordeals. It is a sobering thought, yet it is almost certainly true, that had he been murdered and his friend Stephen survived, none of the events that were to change social, political and legal history would have happened. For even for a measure of justice to be done for Stephen Lawrence, it somehow had to be established, well beyond any reasonable doubt, that the teenager was the very archetype of a blameless victim; and that nothing could be pinned on his family or even the broader campaign in his support. Duwayne Brooks’s personal story, he had left home and was living in a hostel, may have failed to meet the excessively high threshold for a crime shocking enough for us all to care about the failure to solve it. The stark failures would have remained safely under the carpet.

The long failure to protect the vulnerable victims of sexual grooming shows the cost to justice paid when a focus on the credibility of victims can hand impunity to perpetrators.

The Lawrence family also faced several, ultimately unsuccessful, attempts to marginalise their own campaign. It took four years for Stephen Lawrence’s case to gain a sustained national profile. Many rightly consider Paul Dacre’s "Murderers" front-page of February 1997 as the Daily Mail’s finest hour. It was a crucial and transformative intervention, and was an important staging post to new Home Secretary Jack Straw’s decision to announce a public inquiry.

Things might have turned out very differently. The Mail’s very first report on the Lawrence case had been a more sceptical one, under the headline "How Race Militants Hijacked a Tragedy", in May 1993, the month after the murder. The report questioned the role of campaigners who had "brought in Nelson Mandela on the short path towards the making of a cause" and looked at how a march on the BNP headquarters in Welling had led to violence and rioting.

The Lawrence family worked closely with a range of trusted, anti-racist activists to promote the Justice for Stephen campaign. Yet the Lawrences also took care to avoid the type of support which could distract from or discredit their cause. They immediately condemned the violence in Welling as a dangerous distraction and, in its wake, formally wrote to warn particular groups, including Panther UK, who they feared were less interested in campaigning for justice than in using their son’s name and tragedy for their own ends. It could turn out that these efforts to protect the campaign’s purpose and integrity were a highly prudential way to frustrate the undercover effort.

Anybody who lived near Eltham in the 1990s will also know that there were significant BNP-inspired attempts to fuel a street counter-narrative of rumour and smear in the Eltham and Greenwich area for several years in the 1990s, a phenomenon explored in depth in Roger Hewitt’s excellent Cambridge University Press book White Backlash. Ranging from unfounded allegations that a black gang may have committed the murder to attempts to smear the victim’s character. It would be important to investigate that the undercover police dirt-digging exercise did not play any role in fanning this rumour mill.

***

Policing has changed since the early 1990s but too slowly. There has been good work on engaging communities on tackling gun crime, yet disproportionate stop and search ratios have barely shifted. Richard Stone, an adviser to the Macpherson inquiry, pointed out in his recent book that efforts to diversify the Met leadership have stalled, with a fall in the number of potential non-white candidates reaching the rungs just below the apex. That story of gradual, and sometimes glacial advance is reflected in sensibly cautious public attitudes. Six out of ten people believe there was a deep-seated problem of racism in the Met when Stephen Lawrence was killed, with only 7 per cent disagreeing with that broad consensus. A similar proportion are hopeful that the response today would be quicker, fairer and less racist, but Londoners and non-white Britons are less likely to think so. Only one in three ethnic minority Britons believe that policing is generally fair.

The challenge to win confidence in policing is not only a question of race. British Future returned to Eltham this spring to hold a citizens' jury on the 20th anniversary of the Lawrence murder, bringing together 38-year-olds who were Stephen Lawrence's peers with 18-year-olds in the area today. This Eltham citizens’ jury agreed that race relations had improved considerably. It was possible to identify an "integration consensus" when that would not have been the case in the much more racially polarised mid-1990s.

The most contentious issue was policing - but this was now as much a question of age as race. Across ethnic and class backgrounds, the 18-year-olds had a shared experience of mutual mistrust from their experiences of policing. They found the police’s presentation to the jury group unpersuasive. David Lammy and Gavin Barwell, who attended the event to hear the citizens’ jury findings told the participants that the same story could be heard across London, from Tottenham to Croydon. They agreed with the Eltham participants that there were too few Londoners in the Met, including white and non-white Londoners.

"Policing can only work through consent", said Gavin Barwell, a point he has reiterated in stressing the importance of investigating the new allegations. A constructive reform agenda might emphasise issues which demonstrate how good community relations will enable and assist good policing, rather than impede it. A CCTV camera in every police van, for example, would protect the reputation of good police officers while offering securer protection for citizens too.

What hope for deeper change this time? Many may take much persuading. Yet it is that long history of reluctant retreat which makes the tone of the initial response from the Metropolitan Police quite striking. "At some point it will fall upon this generation of police leaders to account for the activities of our predecessors, but for the moment we must focus on getting to the truth", said the Met on Sunday night as the news broke. Curiouser still, precisely the same line was used to respond to revelations about the McLibel case at the end of last week, before being recycled and reused a second time as the Lawrence story broke. There is a clear hint that Commissioner Hogan-Howe could decide it is in his interests to cross the Rubicon by standing decisively on the side of robust disclosure, external rather than internal scrutiny and cleaning house. But it would be a big strategic choice, and he would have to move quickly and robustly, to avoid being stranded mid-river.

There will surely be internal pressure for the Met not to have the type of "Khruschev moment" which the statement implies. Hogan-Howe’s holding statement yesterday - emphasising the practical difficulties in piecing together information from reluctant ex-colleagues – sounded like an effort to manage expectations.

The Met cannot afford to come up empty this time. The long era of the cover-up has unravelled, for perhaps the last time. Transparency now is crucial to any credible effort to restore trust.

A general view of a sign outside New Scotland Yard in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

Getty
Show Hide image

Is the Great Fire of London a blueprint for how governments deal with disasters?

Visible leadership, an established authority, and a common external enemy: an enduring defence mechanism 350 years on.

In 1968, the science journal The Lancet ran a report into human behaviour. When populations are confronted with disaster, it recommended, effective “communications, coordination, and control, and the establishment of a recognised authority” are of utmost importance (advice that should have been heeded immediately after the Brexit result in June this year).

The 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London this week seems is a good time to think about how we deal with disasters: over 13,000 homes were destroyed, 87 churches ruined and thousands of Londoners displaced.

For me, one of the most striking parts of the story of the Great Fire is not the fire itself nor the dramatic rebuilding programme that followed, but the state of flux in between.

When the fire broke out, England was at war with both the Dutch Republic and France. As soon as news reached France, the Venetian ambassador Alvise Sagredo, declared that the fire would be “worse than the plague and any other disaster, capable of making [the English] change their government and their principles”.

In England, even the London Gazette warned that England’s foes would try “to persuade the world abroad of great parties and disaffection at home against his majesties government”. Faced with unparalleled destruction and unprecedented disarray, how did the king, his advisers and civic authorities regain control of London?

With the Guildhall severely damaged and the Royal Exchange destroyed, the first step was to find a new base for civic and mercantile power. On 6 September, Charles II instructed the Lord Mayor and the city aldermen to resume governance of the city. Gresham College and buildings around Bishopsgate were taken over and efforts were immediately taken to re-establish trade. Vendors were granted permission to set up sheds in temporary markets at Bishopsgate Street, Tower Hill, Smithfield and Leadenhall Street.

“Honest and able persons” were selected to monitor the ruined city to ensure fire did not break out afresh, appeals were made across the country for charitable donations and neighbouring counties were called upon to provide sustenance. From the navy stores, ship’s biscuit was offered to the needy and canvas was provided so that the tens of thousands of homeless people stranded in the fields surrounding London could fashion tents.

The measures were not perfect. Visiting Moorfields, the diarist John Evelyn described, “the poor inhabitants . . . some under tents, some under miserable huts and hovels, many without a rag”.

Those stranded found food to be in short supply and many succumbed to the illnesses bred by a reduced condition in life, including aged playwright James Shirley, who died in October 1666.

But it wasn’t long before people started to disperse – either leaving London altogether, finding accommodation elsewhere, or returning to the locations of their former homes and shops to erect makeshift shacks above the ruins.

In the background, the trial and execution of French watchmaker Robert Hubert, who falsely claimed to have started the fire, provided a focus for any anger and rage.

With communication ruptured following the destruction of the London Gazette printing house and the General Letter Office, rumours of plots, arson and invasions had spread almost as quickly as the fire itself. Indeed, terrible violence had broken out during the fire, with mobs targeting any “strangers” or foreign-born Londoners. One French servant, for example, reported how gangs of “English women did knock down strangers for not speaking good English. Some of them armed with spits, some with bread staffs, and the captain with a broad sword.”

When the London Gazette was released the week after the fire – after only skipping one edition of its biweekly run – it provided readers with a detailed description of the catastrophe, emphasising its accidental nature and promoting the role played by Charles II and his brother and heir, James, Duke of York, in preventing the fire spreading even further.

Against protocol, the newspaper also allowed important tradespeople to advertise their new offices: the goldsmith-bankers, for example, informed readers that they had found premises along Broad Street.

By mid-September, the etcher Wenceslaus Hollar had already begun his survey of the city and plans had been submitted to the king from John Evelyn and architects Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, to name just a few, as to how to rebuild the capital.

Writing at the time, Sir Nathaniel Hobart, believed that the “rebuilding of the Citty will not be soe difficult as the satisfying all interests, there being many proprietors”. As such, one of the most important innovations following the disaster was the establishment of a judiciary, known as the Fire Court, to untangle the complex web of formal and informal agreements between tenants and landlords. From 1667 until 1672 the Fire Court settled hundreds and hundreds of cases.

There were certainly many bumps along the way – for a while, the City of London was plundered and inhabited by gangs. Plus, anger towards foreign-born Londoners continued; owing to his Dutch background, one Johan Vandermarsh had to fight tooth and nail to keep hold of his property on Lime Street, despite helping to save many of his neighbours’ homes.

All of this considered, there was nothing like the widespread disorder that Charles II had feared and his enemies expected. On the contrary, the visibility of the king and his brother and heir – and the convenient suspicion that the fire had been started by an external enemy – worked to bind the people to their king and settle unrest. Although hard to believe at the time, there was also the promise of “a more beautiful city”.

Rebecca Rideal is a historian, factual television producer and author of 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire.

She will be speaking at London’s Burning festival on Friday 2 September – a contemporary festival of art and ideas produced at Artichoke to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London. Free to the public, it runs from 30 August-4 September.