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Thursday, 14 December, 2000, 17:32 GMT
Hague sparks race debate
Tory leader William Hague
William Hague has opened a can of worms
By BBC News Online political correspondent Nick Assinder

With his eyes wide open, William Hague has walked into a race relations minefield with his verdict on the Macpherson report.

According to the Conservative leader, the report into the police investigation of the Stephen Lawrence murder two years ago has demoralised the police service.

Officers are now so afraid of being branded racist that they have virtually stopped using their powers of stop and search.

Memorail to Stephen Lawrence
The police inquiry into Stephen Lawrence's murder sparked claims of racism
The result, he claims, has been an increase in street crime such as muggings, phone-snatchings and random violence.

He told a meeting of the Centre for Policy Studies in London: "The tragedy of the Lawrence murder, and the further urgent work that needs to be done building up trust between our ethnic communities and the police, do not excuse the way in which the Macpherson Report has been used to brand every officer and every branch of the force as racist."

And he added that the result had led to "a growing crisis on our streets".

This is all part of Mr Hague's assault on the "liberal elite" he claims is now running New Labour Britain.

But while there is no doubting Mr Hague's belief that the forces of law, order and justice failed Stephen Lawrence and his family, this is still hugely controversial stuff. And it brought a swift response from the government.

Getting himself noticed

The prime minister's official spokesman accused Mr Hague of desperation and using "disreputable" tactics to get himself noticed.

He disputed the figures of street crime and claimed that having lost the argument over the economy, Europe and law and order, Mr Hague "has cast around for something that gets himself noticed and talked about".

The implication is that the opposition leader is playing the race card.

It is the same sort of argument the government used when Mr Hague caught it on the hop over the value of pensions and the law and order issue earlier in the year.

On each of those occasions Mr Hague appeared to chime with popular sentiment and, as a result, won a boost in the opinion polls.

But his advances were always short-lived and once the issue lost its initial heat, his popularity slid back to its previous level.

That has allowed ministers to accuse him, with some success, of bandwagon-jumping.

Made things worse

But this latest assault is of a different order. It goes to the heart of all the arguments about institutionalised racism in Britain and the effects of political correctness on state institutions. And it is a can of worms.

Many clearly believe that the Macpherson report has demoralised the police force, particularly the Met.

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that individual officers are no longer prepared to use their powers of stop and search.

Some claim this is because of fears they will immediately be branded racist, others insist it is a way of hitting back at Macpherson by showing that his findings had actually made things worse.

It is an argument that rages throughout every police force and every local authority in Britain but which has, so far, remained taboo.

Mr Hague, who is evidently passionate about the issue, has now pitched it into the public arena.

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14 Dec 00 | UK Politics
Hague rounds on 'liberal elite'
25 Mar 99 | Stephen Lawrence
The Lawrence inquiry
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