Trevor Phillips: Role model?

National identity, he said, is about more than symbols, like the Queen and flag. It is about behaviour
Click to follow
The Independent Online

What young black men need, says Trevor Phillips, who stepped down as chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality this week in preparation for taking over as the top man in a far bigger quango, is better role models. They don't just need footballers or musicians, they need, well, people like Trevor Phillips.

The exemplars offered to black teenage boys in school are part of the problem, Phillips told Teachers' TV News yesterday. " 'Maybe I'll become a footballer, and I don't need to read to become a professional footballer,' " he said. "Hip-hop stars and so forth - what are they? They're people who get shot, they're people who get put in prison, they're people who steal, they're people who basically are unpleasant and bullying."

"We live in a society, he said, "where black maleness is in some ways the definition of failure."

Failure is not something of which anyone could accuse Trevor Phillips, who is to be the first head of the new Commission for Equalities and Human Rights, which will cover the entire range of anti-discrimination, from gender, sexual orientation, disability and other minority interests to, eventually, race.

He was born in London, in 1953, to Guyanese parents, the last of seven children. His father was a British Railways clerk, his mother a seamstress. The family of nine lived in a two-bedroom house in Finsbury Park until Phillips' parents moved to New York in the 1960s to improve their quality of life. Considering the city an unfit place for children, they sent Trevor to a school in Guyana - an "Edwardian" experience, he later said, of old-fashioned discipline, uniforms, detentions, tough lessons and corporal punishment. When he returned to London it was to study chemistry at Imperial College.

Ever since he has been happy straddling two, and more, cultures. It is a background from which he has developed some controversial thoughts about the nature of Britishness - a subject on which he was expanding to Teachers TV yesterday.

National identity, he said, is about more than symbols like the Queen and the flag. It is about behaviour. "If I'm in the Caribbean, I'm standing on the street corner, I look like everybody else. If I start walking, everybody can tell I'm foreign, because I'm walking twice as fast. If I go into a shop, they know I've come from England because I start looking for the queue."

"Culturally," he has said, "I'm pretty used to moving from one guise to another."

His critics say the movement is more profound than that.

Phillips entered public life as a student radical. With his big hair and beard, he presented an image of Black Panther supremacy combined with socialism. He opposed National Front marches, led sit-ins, and was elected the first black president of the National Union of Students. Among his student associates where Peter Mandelson, who went on to become the architect of New Labour, and Charles Clarke, later Education Secretary. The radical trio went to Cuba and condemned the Soviet Union as reactionary - though even then, one contemporary recalls, Phillips was a smooth operator who behind the scenes would rather seek "consensus than conflict".

But Phillips did not seek to enter politics, like his peers. He applied for a job as a researcher at London Weekend Television, where he was interviewed by John Birt. He began on a black and Asian affairs show before presenting The London Programme, which touched all the totemic issues of the day - stop and search, racism and the poll tax. He ended up as head of current affairs, and launched his own production company, Pepper Productions, which made him a lot of money - though, like all rich folk, he describes himself merely as "comfortable".

At LWT he worked again with Peter Mandelson, who was best man at his 1981 wedding to Asha Bhownagary, a Parsee child psychologist.

The Phillips paradox had been set. The former left-wing firebrand who once listed "mischief" among his recreations in Who's Who counts among his friends individuals who stretch from the far left to the demagogic right. Admirers include Andrew Morton, biographer of Diana, Princess of Wales, and the Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn, who owed his first break in television to Phillips.

His recent attacks on multiculturalism have won him plaudits on the right, too. George Walden, the author of Time To Emigrate?, recently described Phillips as "a modern-minded, intelligent man, whose words reflect what everyone - migrants included - see around them."

At the other end of the spectrum were old leftists such as the late Labour MP Bernie Grant, a neighbour and fellow native of Guyana. But the core of his networking is among those at the heart of the New Labour project. He and Tony Blair exchange Christmas cards.

It was only in 1996 that he actually joined the Labour Party, though this was chiefly because he felt that his role in television barred him from holding a party card. But that did not stop him from standing to become Labour's candidate for Mayor of London. (He failed, in part because of his lack of a track record as an activist, in part because he had sent his two daughters to an independent school.) But although the eventual winner, Ken Livingstone, offered him the role of deputy mayor, Phillips loyally became the running mate of the official Labour candidate, Frank Dobson, and promptly lost.

Still, he had his reward. He briefly became Labour leader on the London Assembly, before being appointed by the then Home Secretary, David Blunkett, to the £94,000-a-year job as chair of the Commission for Racial Equality in 2003.

There he soon detected which way the wind was blowing and began to critique CRE orthodoxy about the importance of multiculturalism - the policy pursued by successive governments since the 1960s of affirming the identity of different minority communities. "Multiculturalism suggests separateness," he said in 2004. "We are in a different world from the 1970s. What we should be talking about is how we reach an integrated society, one in which people are equal under the law, where there are common values of democracy rather than violence, the common currency of the English language, honouring the culture of these islands, like Shakespeare and Dickens."

Many thought he was playing into the hands of the right-wing anti-immigration lobby, but he stuck to his line. Britain was "sleepwalking towards segregation". Some parts of the country could become "fully-fledged ghettos" like those in the United States.

The Asian community had by this point - post 9/11 and the "war on terror" in Afghanistan and Iraq - redefined itself in religious terms. It was now the Muslim community, and Phillips seemed unable to get a handle on the change. His CRE was noticeably reticent over concerns among Muslim leaders about the impact of terror laws on Asian communities. After protests against the Danish cartoons satirising the Prophet Mohamed had sparked protests in the Muslim world, Phillips spoke of the need to "allow people to offend each other". Then, when one government minister after another followed Jack Straw's lead in criticising the use of the veil by Muslim women, instead of offering the corrective many expected from the chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, Phillips added his own broadside. He said Muslims' attitude could trigger violence worse than in the riots in the north of England five years before. "So-called Muslim leaders", he said, were "overly defensive". It was hard to imagine him adopting a similar position a decade earlier had anyone attacked the black community in similar terms.

Not that the black community is entirely supportive. Many are concerned that Phillips, and the Government, is following an agenda which seeks to blame black communities instead of tackling institutional racism. Operation Black Vote has opposed the creation of the body which Phillips is to chair, saying it will diminish the struggle against racism.

Black figures such as the MP Diane Abbott have accused Phillips of being too close to the Government. "Among the big race issues of recent years have been the Government's shameful treatment of asylum-seekers; Belmarsh; and control orders. All of these impact most brutally on racial minorities, and on all of them the CRE has been eerily silent," she said. "Instead, it has concentrated on attacking multiculturalism and a sub-Blunkett agenda of "citizenship" and "integration". These themes avoid conflict with government, and lay the blame with black and Asian people for their own plight."

This week the Mayor of London, Mr Livingstone, joined in the criticism, accusing Phillips of preferring to create headlines rather than get on with combating racism and discrimination. He was particularly critical of a plan for a seminar at the CRE's 30th anniversary celebrations this week entitled "Rivers of blood: Did Enoch Powell get it right?". It was intended, the Mayor said, "to grab alarmist headlines rather than develop meaningful discourse". Phillips had "gone so far over to the other side that I expect soon he'll be joining the BNP".

Phillips's supporters discount such attacks. But it is hard to deny his declining popularity among ethnic-minority organisations as he takes over at the new Equalities Commission. There is, as Inayat Bunglawala of the Muslim Council of Britain puts it, with considerable understatement, "concern about his ability to take an independent approach from the Home Office on key issues to do with minority groups".

Phillips has in the past recalled how, as a boy, his father took him to watch Arsenal. "I was so small that I couldn't see over the parapet. So we took the fattest book we had in the house, and I watched my first football match standing on a copy of Uncle Tom's Cabin." It is a story he may come to regret telling.

A Life in Brief

BORN London, 31 December 1953

FAMILY Married to Asha Bhownagary; two daughters

EDUCATION Queen's College boys' school, Georgetown, Guyana; chemistry at Imperial College, London

CAREER President, National Union of Students, 1978-80; London Weekend Television researcher and reporter, 1980-86; LWT head of current affairs, 1992-94; leader of the London Assembly, 2000-2003; chair of Commission for Racial equality, 2003 -2006; chair of Equalities and Human Rights Commission, 2006-.

HE SAYS "Race relations is the one issue where everybody thinks that they are experts based upon what happened to them in Tesco last week."

THEY SAY "Trevor's weakness is that he assumes you are achieving your job if you're in the newspapers all the time. That isn't actually the case" - Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London

Comments