OPINION John Barnie

NWR Issue r26

Martyrdom and its Uses

In April of this year, at a service to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of Stephen Lawrence, the Prime Minister, Theresa May, announced that 22 April (the day on which he was murdered) would from now on be known as Stephen Lawrence Day in memory of the eighteen-year-old who, as everyone knows, was savagely stabbed to death by a gang of six white racists, only two of whom have ever been brought to justice. The service was attended by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, giving it a royal, as well as a governmental, seal of approval.

This could not have come at a better time for the Government since it diverted attention, if only temporarily, from the scandal of the ‘Windrush generation’ and their shameful treatment under new laws designed to curb illegal immigration. This may not have been intentionally racist but British citizens of West Indian heritage could be forgiven for thinking it was. There were apologies all round from the Government front bench, but no question of resignation for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, or for Theresa May who, when Home Secretary, initiated the hunt for illegal immigrants which snared West Indians in its net who had lived here for most, if not all, of their lives. Government ministers rarely resign these days – saving face and staying in post are more important than acting honourably. Amber Rudd did go in the end, of course, but only after she had backed herself into a corner by denying the existence of removal targets. When it was proved there were such targets and that the Home Office knew about them, resignation was forced upon her.

So the memorial service at St-Martin-in-the-Fields, planned, no doubt, well in advance of the scandal, was a fortuitous opportunity for the Government to display its anti-racist credentials.

A striking aspect of the Stephen Lawrence case is the way in which it has evolved over the years. In the beginning it was a racially motivated murder perpetrated by a gang of thugs. Such attacks occur in England’s larger cities. What made this one stand out was the way in which Stephen’s parents, Neville and Doreen Lawrence, refused to give up on their murdered son, seeking justice year after year when a successful prosecution seemed hopeless. In the process, a spotlight was thrown on the Metropolitan Police whose half-hearted, bungled investigation was itself the result of deeply racist attitudes.

All this is well known. It has become part of a story the British tell themselves, or rather, a story they have told to them, time and again, by the media. It is the tale of how the savage murder of a young black teenager, about to enter the prime of his life, exposed a racism in white society which cannot and will not be tolerated. The exposé changed, so the story goes, the attitudes of the police toward race; it taught us that there is no place for racism in a multi-racial, multi-cultural society. The death of Stephen Lawrence was a turning point in British society at the end of the twentieth century.

This is the story, but it is not the whole story – or, rather, there is another version of it which sheds light on how we are governed, and how stories are a crucial element in the self-conscious formation of national myths. Stephen Lawrence, of course, is the innocent victim of this. He is dead, has been for twenty-five years, and cannot speak up for himself. Rather, in the story, we have ‘Stephen Lawrence’ the legend, which successive governments have helped create.

‘Stephen Lawrence’ in this sense bears a remarkable resemblance, in secular form, to the martyrs of the Roman Catholic Church. There is the ordeal, and violent death. The claim that the death somehow changed things – that ‘Stephen Lawrence’ was a victim of racism, but also a witness to society’s unwillingness to tolerate the ugliness of racism. There is the head-and-shoulders photograph which has been reproduced so many times it has become an ikon. There is the state memorial service in St-Martin-in-the-Fields. And now, ‘Stephen Lawrence Day’, a Government-sanctioned apotheosis. The State has enfolded Stephen Lawrence, and his family, in its embrace. Stephen’s mother, Doreen, for example, is now Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon, OBE, Chancellor of De Montfort University, with honorary doctorates from the Open University and the University of West London.

In the process, the legend of ‘Stephen Lawrence’ has taken on a life of its own, decoupled from the life and death of a young man who once really existed. It reassures us that we live in a decent society, where bad things may happen, but where truth and justice will ultimately prevail because those are the values we live by. The legend is powerful because there is some truth in it, but it also serves to mask another truth which is that beneath the surface Britain remains a deeply racist society. Between 1993 when Stephen Lawrence was murdered and 2013, there were 105 racially motivated killings, according to the Institute for Race Relations, while in one year (2013–14) 47,571 ‘racist incidents’ were recorded by the police. Those 105 deaths would have been just as devastating to the families of the victims as Stephen Lawrence’s was to his parents, but while the legend of the latter lives on, the others were news items for a while and then forgotten.

It is the racism beneath the surface which is not addressed by the legend, because we do not want to face it, because we do not know what can be done about it. If you are white, you are invisible in most contexts and so can listen in, unobserved, while other whites express their opinions. In a pub in Aberystwyth some years ago, half a dozen locals were watching the Welsh news on a television set suspended on brackets in a corner of the bar. One item was a report on how primary schools were adjusting to the influx of children from black and other immigrant backgrounds. The view, openly expressed in the bar, because the drinkers assumed that everyone there shared the same opinion, was that they should all be sent back to where they came from.

In my local, in Abergavenny in the early eighties, where the regulars were ordinary, decent townspeople, there was a noticeable shift in the mood once when a black man came in through the swing doors and ordered a drink. ‘It’s like the jungle in here,’ one middle-aged motherly woman said in a stage whisper. Someone else I drank with regularly around the same time had been in the Royal Navy in his youth. We generally stayed away from the question of race, but if it came up he would tell you not to talk to him about blacks because he knew all about them – he had been to Africa and had seen them, ‘living in trees’.

The Brexit campaign of 2016 opened a door on these thoughts – gave a licence to them, in fact. According to Home Office figures, racist hate crime rose by 41 per cent in the aftermath of the referendum. Much of this was, and is, aimed at white EU workers. Poles living in Huntingdon in Cambridgeshire recently had cards pushed through their letterboxes with the message Leave the EU: No more Polish vermin. But Muslims and others whose presence here has nothing to do with EU immigration have also experienced increased racial abuse since Brexit. According to the Muslim Council for Britain, there has been a 326 per cent increase in attacks on Muslims since the referendum. Of course, other factors come into play here, including popular response to Islamist terror attacks in Manchester and elsewhere, but there can be no doubt that Brexit opened a can, and inside it were some very nasty worms.

There are two aspects to all of this. One is that successive governments have acted as if large-scale immigration ought to be all right because it is ‘good for the economy’ and everyone ought to be able to see it. The fact that other issues also come into play in people’s lives was ignored for several decades.

The other is one which hardly anyone wishes to contemplate. It is that distrust of ‘the Other’ may be innate, not only in our society but in our species. Perhaps it is more highly charged in Europe and America because of our history of colonial conquest and exploitation of ‘inferior’ races, but racism can be found everywhere across the world, from genocide in Rwanda to ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. How far back in human prehistory this goes is anyone’s guess. It can never be proved, but it seems highly possible that the disappearance of the Neanderthals in Europe circa 30,000 years ago, and of Homo erectus in China and Indonesia about 50,000 years ago was related to the arrival of Homo sapiens in these regions. In historical times we have seen the pattern again and again. When Europeans encountered alien cultures around the globe from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, they had no compunction in enslaving them or wiping them out, especially if they were thought to be ‘primitive’. Consider the fate of the indigenous peoples of Tasmania. Early Homo sapiens must have felt something similar, expanding with a superior technology into the territory of very closely related, but less culturally developed, species.

Opposed to this is the ideal of a civilised society, the ideal of a common humanity no matter what our cultural and material differences may be. These values are fragile, however, and easily cast aside. The legend of Stephen Lawrence is a well-meant attempt to uphold them, and to some extent it does. Legends contain truth; but they also serve to distort it by a process of ossification which takes place in the telling and retelling of the same story over time.

The other day in Aberystwyth, I saw a white van with Immigration Enforcement: Home Office written in black on the sides. In the van were two officers, also in black. I wondered who they were after.

John Barnie’s latest poetry collection is Departure Lounge, published this year by Cinnamon.


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