The judge who accused London's police of institutional racism
The death of the judge whose report into a racist murder prompted far-reaching reform in the police throws light on how institutions can change.
Sometimes it takes a member of the establishment to shake the establishment - to open eyes, to provoke a sense of shame, to make the case for the word elites like least: reform.
Sir William Macpherson, who died this week aged 94, was certainly part of the British establishment. He went to a top fee-paying school and then to Oxford University, served as an army captain during the Second World War, qualified as a barrister and was appointed a high court judge. He was the hereditary chief of his Scottish Highlands clan - a role which conferred prestige rather than power but added to his authority and influence.
He was also, in retirement, the head of the official inquiry which carefully but unflinchingly revealed the extent of racist attitudes and assumptions in London's police force.
Macpherson died in extreme old age. But his name is forever linked to a man who died many decades too young. Stephen Lawrence was eighteen when he was stabbed while waiting for a bus on the streets of south London almost thirty years ago.
Lawrence was black; his attackers were a posse of young white men. The police investigation into the murder was lamentable - slipshod, inefficient, badly led, poorly executed, and infused with racism and a 'who cares' attitude. Although arrests were made, the evidence was not strong enough for anyone to be charged with murder.
It's a tribute to Stephen Lawrence's remarkable parents, Doreen and Neville Lawrence, that the murder didn't simply fade into the background. Their campaign for justice for their son attracted attention and support. A rare private prosecution that the Lawrence family brought against Stephen's alleged killers was unsuccessful, but it served to focus concern.
Almost four years after the killing, an inquest ruled that Lawrence's death was 'the result of an unprovoked racist attack by five white youths'. The following day, the Daily Mail - an establishment-minded paper not often noted for its commitment to racial justice - took a bold and dramatic step: it named the five main suspects under the headline: 'MURDERERS' and challenged them to sue if they dared.
The spotlight once again fell on the Stephen Lawrence case and the shortcomings in the way his murder was investigated. A few weeks later the government ordered a public inquiry and brought Sir William Macpherson out of retirement to head it.
The findings of the Macpherson report, after almost two years of taking evidence, were explosive. He said the initial police investigation had been 'marred by a combination of professional incompetence, institutional racism and a failure of leadership'. The finding that London's police force was institutionally racist - the phrase that forever will be associated with Macpherson - heralded far-reaching changes into how Britain's cities are policed.
The Macpherson report made more than seventy recommendations - and among the reforms enacted in its wake was the creation of an independent commission to investigate complaints against the police and an end to the double jeopardy rule which means that those acquitted of serious crimes can now face trial a second time if substantial new evidence emerges. As a result of this, two of Stephen Lawrence's killers are now serving long jail sentences
The report has been described as one of the most important moments in modern criminal justice in Britain. Racism within the police has not been totally rooted out and profound racial inequality within British society persists - but Macpherson's findings led to a determined and far-reaching endeavour to make police forces more accountable and more in step with the diverse nation they serve.
Sir William Macpherson was an unlikely reformer. 'I think he was shocked by what he heard', commented Michael Mansfield, the lawyer who represented the Lawrence family at the inquiry. 'He could not believe that as a man in uniform himself once, that men in uniform could behave in the way they obviously did.'
Doreen Lawrence said this week that she was at first concerned that Macpherson was too much part of the establishment to lead a thorough inquiry. But she came to regard him with respect and his report had changed the country.
That's quite an epitaph: he changed Britain for the better.