Our politicians are so out of touch that they are only outraged by police misconduct when it affects their own, says Joyce McMillan
ON Tuesday this week, Doreen Lawrence took her place in the House Of Lords, as Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon. She has become famous in British public life, of course, for her long, patient and sorrowful campaign to win justice for her 18-year-old son Stephen, murdered by a gang of thugs at a bus stop in Eltham in 1993, apparently for no other reason than that he was black.
The defining fact about the Stephen Lawrence case was the complete failure of the initial police investigation, marked by a mixture of delay and carelessness in gathering evidence, and apparent hostility to the victim’s friends and family, that led to the collapse of the first trial of those alleged to be involved in the attack; there are also strong allegations that in the course of the campaign, police officers sought to distract attention from their initial failure by trying to discredit the Lawrence family, spying on them, and seeking information that might damage their public image.
So there was a special irony in seeing Baroness Lawrence take her seat this week, at the moment when the Westminster establishment finally seemed to begin to recognise that there can be no justice, when a nation’s police force, or forces, routinely place the defence of their own reputation above any recognisable concept of truth or justice.
The case which brought the problem home to them was, of course, that of the former Conservative Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell, who was forced to resign, just a year ago, over allegations that he had called police officers at Downing Street “plebs”, after an altercation over whether he could ride his bicycle through the main Downing Street gate.
It speaks volumes about the social composition of the present government that these allegations were widely believed at the time, so much so that the Prime Minister felt compelled to act on them; but it now seems – following the release of a dissenting letter from the Deputy Chair of the Independent Police Complaints Commission – that the allegations were false, and that the senior police officers asked to mediate with Mr Mitchell after the incident sought to protect the reputation of the officers involved by giving a misleading public report of the meeting.
Cue outrage at Westminster, with talk of apologies and inquiries, and of a final end to the system of police forces investigating themselves, or being investigated by fellow police forces from neighbouring areas. The former Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, Hugh Orde, has suggested that England should move to a police complaints Ombudsman system, along Northern Irish lines; and the Home Secretary, Theresa May, has publicly rebuked the chief constables of the three investigating forces, Warwickshire, West Mercia and West Midlands, for their role in the alleged cover-up.
All of this, though, invites some very serious questions about exactly why it has taken a self-interested assault by police on the integrity and reputation of a government minister to make our elected politicians fully aware of the grave issues raised by poor police conduct in this country. In the last few years, after all, we have seen the release of a report which detailed shockingly cynical and mendacious conduct on the part of South Yorkshire police and their chief constable in the aftermath of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster – misconduct which did not prevent the chief constable in question from continuing his successful police career until as recently as last year. We have seen evidence of undercover Metropolitan Poice officers engaged in massively expensive, complex, and abusive long-term infiltration of completely legitimate protest groups, infiltration that included sexual relationships with female group members and the fathering of children with them; it is difficult to imagine a more useless, illiberal or offensive waste of police resources.
We have seen an innocent man, Jean Charles de Menezes, shot dead in a moment of blind panic and ill-informed racial profiling, following the London terrorist attacks of 2005. And we have seen a police force, in the shape of Met, essentially lay the ground for the entire current row over press regulation in the UK, through its craven and in some cases possibly corrupt failure to prosecute powerful media groups which were clearly indulging in illegal activity.
Yet none of this, it seems, has brought the issue to the attention of our parliamentarians as forcefully as the plight of poor Mr Mitchell, knocked down in a trice from ministerial rank to the status of a mere backbench MP. I don’t mean, of course, to belittle the damage done to Andrew Mitchell’s reputation by the “Plebgate” affair; he has every right to be angry, and his friends have every right to defend him. Compared to the agony suffered by Doreen Lawrence, though – or by the Hillsborough families, or the parents of Jean Charles Menezes – his problems are minor, and his chance of rapid redress unusually strong.
This week’s hullabaloo at Westminster, in other words, should alert us to two things. First, and most certainly, it should alert us to the presence in large parts of the UK of a police culture that is out of time, inadequate, petulant and over-defensive in the face of criticism, and no longer capable of investigating itself with any rigour or integrity.
Secondly, though, it should also remind us once again of the emergence at Westminster of a political class so insulated from the lives of those at the sharp end of British society, and so sealed in its own self-referring bubble of privilege and gossip, that although it hears the stories of events like Hillsborough, and even sometimes speaks fine words about them, it takes an assault on one of their own – an MP, a minister, a colleague – to make them respond to police misconduct with the language that Doreen Lawrence and her family should have heard 20 years ago.
For this week at Westminster, we have at last been hearing the language of genuine outrage, of serious rebuke, and of necessary change; the words for which families like the Lawrences have had to wait down all the long years, and which now ring at last through the corridors of power, just a couple of decades too late.