Downing Street initially opposed allowing the landmark Stephen Lawrence inquiry to examine police relations with minority ethnic communities, arguing that to do so would only raise unrealistic hopes for real change.
The Macpherson inquiry eventually concluded that the Metropolitan police was institutionally racist, providing a watershed moment in race relations in the UK. But newly released Cabinet papers show Tony Blair wanted to treat the racist murder as an individual incident and to search for lessons to be learned for future investigations of racist killings.
The papers show No 10 believed the then home secretary, Jack Straw, should focus on what they saw as “achievable and appropriate” goals in order to ensure the support of the police.
“I had originally contemplated a review to consider whether the events subsequent to the murder held any general lessons for the investigation and prosecution of serious racially motivated crimes,” Straw wrote to Blair on 8 June 1997.
“Since then, however, the solicitors for the Lawrence family have made a formal complaint to the commissioner of the Metropolitan police about the way in which the case was handled. An investigation supervised by the Police Complaints Authority has begun, and this makes it inadvisable for another inquiry into the case to run simultaneously.
“That said, however, there is clear disquiet, not least within the black community, about the issues raised by this case. I believe that the best way to address these, and draw something positive from this tragic case, would be to launch a broader inquiry into police relationships with ethnic minority communities generally.”
In the note, Straw appeared to try to head off claims the inquiry would constitute an attack on the police, telling Blair: “I am concerned that this should not be perceived as undermining the police but as an opportunity to identify and promote good practice.”
A handwritten note in the margin, apparently for the attention of Blair’s policy adviser Liz Lloyd read: “Is this sensible?” The response, signed “Liz” and dated 11 June, read: “No.”
In a typed-up note to Blair’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, sent the same day, Lloyd wrote: “I do not think that another wide-ranging review is the best way forward. It will raise expectations that we will not be able to achieve on one hand, and even with good presentation look like an attack on the police on the other.
“I much prefer JS’s original proposal, which was to consider ‘whether the events subsequent to the [Lawrence] murder held any general lessons for the investigation and prosecution of serious racially motivated crime’.
“I would therefore suggest that JS focuses his review on changes which are achievable and appropriate. It is vital that the police are signed up to the principle of the review, even if they are not in the lead.”
The Macpherson report, launched by Straw about a month later, found institutional racism within Scotland Yard and called for widespread changes in the way public bodies across many different fields interact with communities of colour. Its authors said the debate about policing and racism had been transformed by the inquiry, “and that the debate thus ignited must be carried forward”.
Downing Street’s pessimistic view of the inquiry’s prospects was detailed in Cabinet Office papers released to the National Archives under the 20-year rule.
The files also show that Blair blocked proposals for an ambitious race equality strategy proposed by Straw as Macpherson prepared to publish his report. Straw wanted to publish a government white paper with a 10-year strategy for tackling racial inequality.
He set out his proposals in a letter to the prime minister in December 1998 – before the inquiry’s expected report early the following year. He said he wanted to announce a white paper setting a commitment by all government departments to put race equality at the heart of policymaking.
“At the extreme, black and Asian youngsters have observed their grandparents and parents suffer discrimination, harassment and racial violence and are developing very hardened attitudes against the white community. We have to win back their confidence in the institutions of British society,” he warned.
But Blair was sceptical from the outset, expressing concern that it could result in a “regulation nightmare”. And Angus Lapsley, an official in the prime minister’s private office, said they were “cool” towards a suggestion that racist police officers should usually be dismissed, fearing the reaction of rightwing newspapers.
“This could easily become a ‘Telegraph’ cause celebre if taken too far,” he noted. Blair indicated that he agreed and wrote: “We do not want to go OTT on this.” The proposal was finally killed off at a meeting between Blair and Straw on 18 March 1999.
A spokesman for the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change said: “The government took a whole raft of actions, including on recruitment, and in fact implemented the Macpherson report.”