Why the honours list is guilty of the sin of omission

The new year's honours list merits a browse. Seldom am I able to recognise a friend or associate in the list of awards. Being a republican and an anti-colonialist by instinct, I bring a certain scepticism to the Order of the British Empire and the like. Even so, awards continue to be bestowed on many from the Caribbean Islands. Only Trinidadians and Guyanese are exempt, as both states are republics.

Andy Roberts and Vivian Richards, two of the finest cricketers of our time, received the OBE some time ago, and Garfield Sobers is now Sir Garfield. These have tempered my scepticism - as has the honour bestowed on my friend and colleague Trevor Phillips this year. Trevor was awarded an OBE for his work in the arts and broadcasting and his commitment to public service. I suppose his work on the Windrush series finally convinced those in authority that he is worth a medal.

The Order of the British Empire is a rather strange honour. The sun has set and Gandhi, Nkrumah and Manley Snr brought the curtain down over the empire. Nothing is left of it in the Caribbean - apart from Monserrat, with a population of 4,000, and Anguilla with about the same. Still, if the likes of T Phillips are now honoured with an OBE, we should be thankful for small mercies.

And yet, and yet . . . I find it puzzling, incomprehensible even, that the Lawrences, Neville and Doreen, have been omitted from the honours list. Let's compare their case with that of Peter Imbert, once commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. He is now Sir Peter. He presided over a police force in which racialist attitudes festered and were left largely untouched. Under his regime the detective agencies within the Met degenerated into an appalling state. Old practices were allowed to ossify and no imaginative solutions were offered. Yet he emerges from the new year's honours list smelling of roses.

Doreen and Neville Lawrence, in contrast, have contributed immensely to the improvement of policing in the Met. I cannot think of any civilians in the past 50 years who have uncovered for all to see the weakness of modern policing as have the Lawrences. To say their work has revealed the extent of racism in the Met is to circumscribe their achievements. They have brought to our attention the incontestable fact that the tradition of good, even excellent detective work had all but disappeared in the Met. They have done so without creating public disorder which they could easily have mobilised. They have managed to do so without making it difficult for the police to admit their wrongs and to put them right.

Their approach to the leadership of the black community has been temperate enough to allow orderly change to proceed. It would have been easier to rabble rouse, easier to whip up anger and hatred and so reduce parts of London to ashes as was the case in 1981. In short they have rendered the state a great service. The Lawrences demanded justice in the finest of liberal traditions and controlled the mass of angry young blacks who have demonstrated their ability to fight fire with fire. Yet Neville and Doreen have not been honoured: perhaps criticism of state institutions still draws the hostility of those who rule and govern.

But there is more to the Lawrence question than mere honours. Wherever I go I am accosted on the street by black people who wish to know whether the inquiry will order the arrest and prosecution of Stephen's murderers. I have had to explain that legally it is not on the cards and I have had to make it clear that even his murderers must benefit from the laws of the land. This is an extremely bitter pill to swallow. What then? I am not sure whether the commission of inquiry is restricted in its terms of reference from recommending compensation. Even if it is, nothing prevents the learned judge from extending his brief. The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, will not be bound by such a recommendation but it will be impossible for him to ignore it. Five million pounds, I say.

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 08 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Stuff the millennium