Magazine article The Spectator

The Case for Sir William MacPherson

Magazine article The Spectator

The Case for Sir William MacPherson

Article excerpt

LADIES and gentlemen of the jury, this is not just an appeal for clemency. It is an appeal for us all to lay aside our prejudices. The accused is well known. Indeed, I would say that his name has become a byword of our culture.

Wherever right-wingers wish to rail against `the race relations industry', or `political correctness gone mad', they reach for a copy of his two-volume 26 report, and use it to belabour their opponents. In the panda cars and the famously barbaric canteens, wherever policemen and women gather together, one imagines that they utter his name softly, sibilantly and perhaps not always smilingly.

Consider him well, members of the jury. He is 74, and a retired high court judge of great distinction. He was the commander of a territorial regiment of the SAS. He is not only Sir William Macpherson of Cluny. He is, technically, Cluny Macpherson, the clan chief of the 3,000 paidup clan members and of the 20,000 Macphersons, including the Jamaica Macphersons and the Macphersons that are doubtless to be found in the ghettoes of Harlem.

Until he produced his report no one would have said he was a softie. Before he was commissioned to investigate matters arising from the death of Stephen Lawrence, the left-wing media were alarmed by his record in cheerfully bunging illegal immigrants back on the plane. The first time I saw him in court, I watched a keen old buzzard who vigorously ejected an animal welfare case. That is why the ice rattles in the gin-and-tonics of the Bromley saloon bar when they discuss him. How could he? they cry. How could he have succumbed, this canny product of Wellington and Trinity, Oxford?

He was brainwashed, they say. He's Macpherson of Loony. He should have foreseen that his words would be picked up and used, unscrupulously, to persecute the police. I ask you to consider that this is painful to Sir William, who is not, as I say, a man of the Left. It is painful because he finds himself duffed up by newspapers and journalists with whom he normally agrees.

It is also painful because he believes his report has been misconstrued, and after several enjoyable conversations with him, I felt there was no option. For much of the holidays I have sat re-reading the great oeuvre, all 335 pages plus maps of the crime scene and the scrunched-up tip-offs that were followed up too late. I have had savage arguments with my nearest and dearest, and, slowly, I have begun to see things his way. I now think that on the fundamental question posed by the death of Stephen Lawrence, he may very well have a point; and even on the peripheral stuff, the stuff that sends us ballistic in the clubhouse, he has made a case that is at least worth hearing.

Sir William Macpherson is a fascinating study in how a sceptical mind, a conservative mind, can gradually come to accept that there is an underestimated problem, and that this problem might require solutions which appear, on the face of it, strikingly illiberal. As I put the report down, I realised that he had found no evidence of overt police racism; and indeed, he says so. What he did find, and what earned him the wrath of the Daily Telegraph, was `institutional racism'; and this is what his critics find so wicked. With one breath he seems to exculpate individual police officers; but with the next he damns them all. How did it work, institutional racism? I asked him.

Macpherson wants us to grasp that the phrase was not his, and that he hesitated before using it, and that he expressly denied that every Metropolitan police officer was racist. But it was the only way he could see to sum up what was clearly a systemic failure of policing, in which unconsciously racist assumptions had played a part at several stages. `It was a collective failure, little groups of people. Not just one person, not the rotten apple in the barrel, but each infecting the other.' He sees this vice, for instance, in the decision of one officer to go off to a pub in search of culprits, rather than question the agitated Duwayne Brooks about where they went; in the delays; in the general slovenliness; and it is hard to disagree. …

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