The convention of the Commission for Racial Equality should have been an occasion for celebration. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Race Relations Act, which created the CRE and its mission to promote equality of opportunity in the UK. The passing of this Act was a watershed in the post-war history of Britain.
But the convention, which began yesterday in London, has been overshadowed by anger from ethnic minority activists over the imminent absorption of the CRE into a new equalities super-watchdog and by Ken Livingstone's decision to boycott the event. The London Mayor has decided to hold a rival "race and faith" conference across town to protest at the direction the CRE has taken in recent years under the leadership of its chair, Trevor Phillips.
Is any of this justified? It was certainly a misjudgement of Mr Phillips to support the creation of the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights. The reasons offered for the merger are weak. Talk from Mr Phillips of "moving race from the margins to the mainstream" makes for a nice soundbite, but has little meaning. The issues of discrimination based on disability, age, sexuality, gender and race are sufficiently different to require separate watchdogs. In the absence of any rationale, it is hard not to conclude this is political empire building from Mr Phillips, who has already been appointed head of the new body.
More important, however, Mr Phillips has got it wrong on multiculturalism in the UK. Last year he spoke of Britain "sleepwalking into segregation". But the UK has one of the highest rates of ethnic intermarriage in Europe. The far right enjoys much less support in Britain than on the Continent. A policy of promoting equal rights and tolerance has been a success. The homogenous nature of some wards in places such as Bradford is a concern. But those who claim a muscular policy of "integration" is the solution are misguided. The suburban rioting in integrationist France last year is surely evidence enough of that.
We do not accuse Mr Phillips of any conscious desire to inflame community relations, still less of wanting to strengthen the BNP. But he is guilty of a dangerous lack of consistency. On the one hand, he advocates separate lessons for underachieving black schoolboys, while on the other he denounces creeping segregation. He denigrates the far-right, but a seminar at this conference was, at one stage, scheduled to debate, "Did Enoch Powell get it right?".
Mr Livingstone feels that Mr Phillips' judgement has been skewed by a craving for publicity. The Mayor is no stranger to publicity-seeking himself, of course. But his critique of the present leadership of the CRE remains, sadly, all too convincing.Reuse content