Chris Holme

finds Sir William Macpherson

wounded, but undaunted, in

an exclusive interview

THE retired judge who chaired the Stephen Lawrence inquiry almost quit at the outset because of attacks on his impartiality.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Herald, Sir William Macpherson of Cluny hit back at critics who still seek to rubbish his report a year after its publication.

But he insisted remarkable progress had been made and, with its recommendations accepted, there were now considerable grounds for optimism that race relations in Britain were changing for the better. And for good.

The initial summons came in a phone call from the Lord Chancellor.

''I was first approached by Derry Irvine because he knew me and asked me what I was doing. I said I was happily retired in Scotland.

''But I believed after 24 hours that I had to do it. It was a very important inquiry. I realised it was going to have great impact. It was described to me as a poisoned chalice and by rugby friends as a hospital pass.''

Such words proved prophetic. On the opening day, counsel for the Lawrence family challenged Sir William's fitness as chairman. It was partly based on leaks to the Observer which questioned his rejection rate in immigration appeals.

For a time, he wobbled. ''I contemplated not going on with it because it seemed to me that if I did not have the confidence of the Lawrence family who had suffered so much, I could not continue.''

Sir William believes this was a deliberate attempt to destabilise the inquiry but he was persuaded to stay. The explanation for the immigration appeals issue had no racial undertones but was because of his dislike of the use of judicial review in such cases.

It proved a taster for things to come. Invective became common currency in a controversy so polarised that one side was bound to come out as a loser.

The odds were already heavily stacked against the Metropolitan Police. Its investigation into the killing of the student at a bus stop in London in 1993 had been savagely condemned by the Police Complaints Authority before the inquiry started. Equally, the abject police apology given to the Lawrence family in the middle of proceedings indicated that the Met had abandoned any defence of the indefensible.

The four-strong inquiry team reached unanimous conclusions and were prepared for robust debate.

Sir William is heartened by the way the recommendations have been taken up across the UK, particularly the more considered response by Scottish police forces.

''I am broadly optimistic for the future because the recommendations were accepted by the Government and there are now positive signs that they are being taken up.

''I have been a bit depressed by some of the destructive criticism which tends to be stopping progress in some respects. I did not expect the personal obloquy. By and large, I am able to withstand it. I would have been very upset if I had been criticised for being dishonourable, lazy or unjust.''

The Telegraph has been most vehement in its excoriation, ranging from crude caricature of Sir William as a naive clan chief who should have stayed in his Perthshire castle, to allegations that he was ''bumped'' into political correctness as a result of the initial questioning of his objectivity.

''That is absolutely without foundation. I was, of course, upset by the attempt to derail the inquiry, because that is what it was. But it certainly did not affect me in the conduct of the case,'' he said.

His background suggests a different persona. A former hooker for London Scottish, he has mixed with the rough boys, and former members of the SAS territorial unit which he commanded would also dispute the assertion that he responds to being leaned on.

The inquiry was overshadowed by emotional tension for extreme, retributive justice. Ironically, the only person present with the technical skills to swiftly deliver this was the chairman. Sir William, however, made use of his pen rather than a cheesewire.

He said the recommendations came directly from the evidence and submissions from all parties.

The idea of legal curbs on dinner-table chit-chat which outraged some, was a response to the video footage of foul-mouthed racists enacting attacks with knives and other offensive weapons. The law covers such behaviour in public but not in private.

Another matter suggested for further consideration was the relaxation of double jeopardy in exceptional cases where new evidence, through improved DNA or other forensic techniques, became available. This also was deliberately misconstrued, but the Law Commission has since given its backing to the proposal.

Police use of stop-and-search powers and highly dubious statistical correlations with a rise in muggings prompted one Telegraph columnist to describe Sir William as a judge ''with blood on his hands''.

But he insists the inquiry was adamant that stop-and-search powers should not be abandoned. What it called for were checks to eliminate the racial bias which meant blacks were six times more likely to be stopped than whites.

''My view is that if the police have been holding off using these powers... that is the police's fault, not ours. If they are properly officered, they should carry on doing it, but not in a discriminatory fashion,'' he said.

This goes to the root of clearing out the canteen culture in the Metropolitan Police. Whereas Scarman recognised the existence of obvious rotten apples, Macpherson identified a more insidious form of racism which penetrated further through osmosis.

Eradication of institutional racism faces the same problems of the earlier culture of institutional corruption. No-one believed it existed until the Times tape-recorded two officers on the take. Disbelief continued even after an officer appointed to investigate the bribery was later suspended. Some did not believe it even when one third of the Met's detective force was forced out quietly by Sir Robert Mark, or else via a spell in Pentonville.

Sir William said the commissioner had taken on the message and he was encouraged by the work of its racial and violent crimes taskforce. He also welcomed the inspection of forces at divisional level. ''I am quite sure that the majority of police officers up to the rank of inspector accept that there is a need for change, but it will take time,'' he said.

In the wider community, it will also take closer examination of our historical baggage. The preponderance of Highland surnames in the West Indies does not reflect a cosy colonial co-existence, but slavery in the servitude of Scottish masters. Similarly, the clan or family system was corrupted by disaffected Confederate soldiers of Scottish origins into the Ku Klux variety which became the model for race hate.

''My eyes were really opened generally in respect of racism and particularly the more subtle kinds,'' Sir William said.

''I never dreamed that in my retirement I would be ask to conduct what I believed was a very difficult and fraught inquiry which I will never forget to my dying day.''