Sir William Macpherson’s famous observation back in 1999 that the Metropolitan Police was ‘institutionally racist’ did not come as any particular revelation to me. That is because the Met is the closest thing I have to a family business.
My grandfather and two uncles were all London coppers in decades gone by, and there have been times when I have defended their career choices against the sneers of the bien pensant.
Yes, the uncles were at Grunwick, deployed to get strikebreakers through the picket lines. Had they not retired before 1984-85 arrived, they would doubtless have repeated the performance on one or more northern coalfield.
So what should I have done? Approach them with a class appeal based on Althusser’s analysis of the objective function of the repressive state apparatus, or something? These were hardly the kind of blokes to get their heads round the finer points of French structuralist Marxism.
My point is that breaking industrial disputes is hardly what rank and file plods do most of the time. In their own terms, they saw their jobs as stopping no good and nicking villains, sometimes at risk to themselves, and by all accounts they were bloody good at it.
What I do recollect from my childhood, however, is that at least one of them would openly and routinely refer to black people as ‘sooties’. Yes, the level of racism really was that crude.
This is the context in which Britain witnessed the murder of Stephen Lawrence some 18 years ago. The guilt of Gary Dobson, David Norris and the three or four other individuals was by all accounts readily evident from the start of the investigation.
Yet through what was at best incompetence, and at worst something rather darker, the Met was unable to build a case strong enough to take before a court.
Ever since that point, the legal establishment has taken it upon itself to rectify the situation. Sir Keir Starmer, the director of public prosecutions, took a strong personal interest in the Lawrence case.
Sir William recommended major changes to the law on double jeopardy, expressly so those responsible could be tried again, despite an unsuccessful civil action. This proposal was promptly implemented, a step that should obviously concern civil libertarians.
Let me stress that I am not portraying Dobson and Norris as hapless victims of state persecution. They are a pair of vicious thugs with multiple criminal convictions to their names, suspected of involvement in numerous racially motivated attacks, and fully deserve the prison sentences that they start today.
But their trial has been mounted with the obvious subtext of demonstrating that policing in this country has fundamentally different now, and that racism is no longer tolerated inside the Met or any other police force.
Some commentators on the right argue that that the so called ‘canteen culture’ of old is dead and buried, and that the cops have morphed into some variety of uniformed social workers, obsessed with political correctness and more given to participation in gay pride marches than putting bobbies on the beat.
It is thankfully true that there are greater numbers of ethnic minority officers, and highly publicised sackings of rozzers for cracking mildly offensive jokes. Then again, there are still the statistics for stop and search, which show that black people are six times more likely to be on the receiving end.
I’d love to be assured that nobody with my uncles’ views remains on the Met payroll, but like many other Londoners, I still need to be convinced.