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MacPherson, William 1926-

MacPHERSON, William 1926-

PERSONAL: Born 1926, in Scotland; son of a brigadier; married Sheila Brodie, 1962; children: Annie, Alan, James. Education: Attended Oxford University, Wellington College, and Trinity College.

ADDRESSES: Home—Newton Castle, Blairgowrie, Perthshire, Scotland.

CAREER: Barrister, London, England, 1952-83; Queen's Counsel, London, 1971-83; High Court of England and Wales, Queen's Bench Division, London, presiding judge of Northern Circuit, 1983-96. Military service: Scots Guard; Twenty-second Territorial Special Air Service, lieutenant colonel (honorary colonel); Royal Company of Archer's (Queen's bodyguard in Scotland).


The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry: Report of an Inquiry, Stationery Office (London, England), 1999.

SIDELIGHTS: When William MacPherson, chief of clan MacPherson and a peer of the British realm, was appointed to head an official inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence, a black teenager, at the hands of white youths and subsequent bungling of the case by London metropolitan police, there were fears of a whitewash. MacPherson was considered the very epitome of the establishment, with his family pedigree as hereditary chief of an ancient Scottish clan, his service in the elite SAS Territorials and the Queen's official bodyguard in Scotland, and his years as a High Court judge. It also did not help that MacPherson had one of the worst records for allowing judicial review in immigration cases. In light of these facts, the Lawrence family asked the British Home Secretary to reconsider the appointment; their request was denied. However, when MacPherson handed down his report, it was the police who cried foul while Britain's black community praised the integrity and insightfulness of his conclusions.

Instead of putting the blame on a few individuals with racist tendencies, MacPherson produced an unequivocal finding of institutionalized racism throughout the police forces. As Jennie Bourne commented in Race and Class, MacPherson "had, with his concept of institutional racism, broken with cultural explanations and remedies, broken with individualised definitions and ethnic identity and thrown the spotlight on the workings of institutions instead. He had listened earnestly and conscientiously to the evidence put before him by individuals, families and community organisations, and had responded accordingly."

MacPherson's most famous case began on April 22, 1993, when a group of white youths surrounded Stephen Lawrence and friend Duwayne Brooks. Lawrence was stabbed while, according to Brooks, at least one of the assailants yelled racial epithets. Unfortunately, when police arrived on the scene, they were told that Lawrence suffered from a head injury, not a stabbing, and so they waited for paramedics rather than rushing him to a hospital. They later claimed not to have seen Lawrence's blood on the sidewalk.

This was the beginning of a series of mistakes that would bedevil the prosecution. As John Upton commented in the London Review of Books, "The groundwork for the subsequent case against the Metropolitan Police was most ably laid by the organisation itself, within minutes of the attack. Their shoddy approach to securing the crime scene and their failure to utilise the 'golden 24 hours', vital in any murder investigation, lost them who knows how many opportunities for arresting the murderers or gathering crucial evidence and information." In the end, the flaws in the investigation proved fatal, and the prosecution withdrew its case against the suspects, to the fury of the Lawrence family, Britain's black community, and all those who suspected the police of widespread racism.

In response, the Tony Blair government announced in July of 1997 that it would launch a full-scale investigation into police conduct of this and similar cases. Over the objection of the Lawrence family and his own friends, who feared he was being set up as a scapegoat, MacPherson agreed to come out of retirement and preside over the investigation. In February of 1999 he handed down his conclusions, published as The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry: Report of an Inquiry.

MacPherson's report is a devastating condemnation of the racism and racial insensitivity that exists throughout the Metropolitan Police and much of Britain's judicial system, and includes no less than seventy recommendations for major changes. Not surprisingly the report sparked controversy, and in December of 2000, opposition leader William Hague condemned it for fostering the spirit of "political correctness" that he argued has crippled police enforcement against ethnic minority suspects it its wake. In response, Labour Party members accused Hague of playing the race card in a desperate attempt to win the next election.

MacPherson himself remains committed to his report and to the cause of healing the racial divisions within British society.



Boston Globe, February 25, 1999, Kevin Cullen, "Institutional Racism Marks London Police Report," p. A1.

Financial Times, December 15, 2000, "Hague Sparks Row over Crime Claims," p. 6; February 24, 2001, Jimmy Burns, "The Pioneer-making Changes Fit the Bill," p. 6.

Guardian, February 22, 1999, Nick Hopkins and Ewan MacAskill, "Report Savages Met for Racism," p. 1; February 22, 1999, Nick Hopkins, "Lawrence Inquiry: Report Lays Bare Racism at Met," p. 3.

Hindu, December 17, 2000, "Hague Speech Provokes Anti-Tory Rage."

London Review of Books, July 1, 1999, John Upton, "The Smallest Details Speak the Loudest," pp. 3-9.

New Statesman, February 21, 2000, Mary Ridell, "Sir William MacPherson," p. 18.

New Straits Times, December 29, 2000, "Hard Words for 'Softly' Policy."

New York Times, February 23, 1999, Warren Hoge, "British Report Finds Racism Pervades Police," section A, p. 5.

Race and Class, October-December, 2001, Jenny Bourne, "The Life and Times of Institutional Racism," p. 7.

Spectator, August 2, 2002, Boris Johnson, "Try, Try, and Try Again: Retrials Should Be Possible, Sir William MacPherson Tells Boris Johnson," p. 14.


Clan MacPherson Association, (August 26, 2004), "Chief of Clan Macpherson."

Parsonage Clan Macpherson Association Web site, (August 26, 2004).*

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