Protesting against police racism in the Stephen Lawrence case

“I had been the chancellor, I had been the foreign secretary, I had been the prime minister. Therefore I must have known what was going on, but I didn’t.”

That was how then prime minister John Major explained to a 1995 inquiry that his government had encouraged the flogging of weapons to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq—and then lied about it.

The institutions of the state are a facade behind which rulers pursue their objectives. For all the hokum about the mother of parliaments and British justice, poisonous unofficial networks are the rule.

But a crisis can bring the state’s contradictions to the fore. An injustice can be so heinous that it cannot simply be covered up. Victims or campaigners can refuse to let an issue go away. When such a crisis hits, institutions can appear to embrace reforms while staying basically unchanged. They are capable of casting aside previously important individuals for the sake of stability.

And to make this process as controlled as possible there are public inquiries. These bring delay and detail when those at the top are in trouble. There are currently 16 full public inquiries ongoing.

That those suffering injustices must force the state to call an inquiry, can make their existence feel like a victory.  But it is more complicated. Only government ministers can establish them. Their official purpose is “preventing recurrence”. Usually, an esteemed judge or a lord—often both—gets a narrow set of things they can look into.

So all the honourable men and women of the Covid inquiry share a world view, share a class and a shared interest in keeping the system going. And the terms of reference are normally restrictive.

Take Lord Leveson’s phone hacking inquiry. He didn’t look at phone hacking, never mind police or political corruption, but “press ethics”. There is a wealth of detail, some of it damaging. But the purpose is to keep the issue from fundamentally harming the institutions they claim to investigate.

It is one reason they take so long—in one case 13 years. So in 2015 the Home Office said Judge Pitchford would head an inquiry into undercover cops. He died before he had a chance to cover anything up and was replaced by Sir John Mitting who brought new vigour to the task.

The first interim report took eight years and cost £636,000 per page. The inquiry sat for 64 days in that time. Some 35 of them were filled by lawyers making statements and asking Mitting to hide cops’ names. A “closed” version with the stuff we are not allowed to see was sent to the Home Secretary. That was stage one of six. It is naive to think public inquiries bring justice.

But it would be foolish to think they do nothing and are of no interest. The Macpherson inquiry into “events surrounding the death of Stephen Lawrence” saw the significant declaration that the police are “institutionally racist”. That still hangs over the cops, condemning them to this day.

The finding reflected the scale of support for the Lawrence family and the strength of anti‑racist campaigning. Justice was not on the inquiry’s agenda nor did it produce it, but it was a moment that shifted the terrain of the debate about racism.

An inquiry covered up the murder by British soldiers of 14 civilians on a civil rights march in Derry, Northern Ireland, in 1972. But 38 years later another inquiry saw some pain lift as the British state was forced to admit that its soldiers shot and killed unarmed civilians.

One big lie, at least, had finally been admitted after years of campaigning. That mattered. Even if the actual report let many who should be blamed off the hook.

What scandals can do is puncture the illusion that the state rules in everyone’s interest. Public inquiries are meant to perpetuate that illusion—whether we let them is down to us.

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