I have known Trevor Phillips since we were both young and starting out. He is undoubtedly one of the most talented of our generation of black people in public life. But not even he would claim that his tenure as chairman of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has been his finest hour.
Black people have watched with mounting dismay as he made a series of interventions on race which were at best silly and at worst revealed no grasp of the facts and figures. First came his attack on multiculturalism. This baffled and upset very many ordinary people, both black and white, who had spent a lifetime fighting racism in their communities. Then there was his claim that we were "sleepwalking to segregation". Manchester University academics had to point out that there was no statistical evidence of "white flight" from inner-city areas with high numbers of minority ethnic residents.
Next was his assertion that there was no institutional racism in the police. Even the police knew that was nonsense. And, most bizarrely of all, there was the claim that the election of Barack Obama would be a setback for black people. Trevor knew black people hated this stuff. But it was received rapturously by the media and by white people who told him breathlessly how "brave" he was. And that seemed to be enough for him.
Of course the EHRC is about more than race. But women, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, the disabled, the elderly and the human rights community all grew mutinous too. Trevor was perceived as too close to New Labour (Peter Mandelson was the best man at his wedding). And there was a growing concern that he was more interested in outreach to the editor of the Daily Mail than in achieving anything concrete.
Then it emerged that there were fundamental problems with the governance and financial management of the Commission. So, for some time, there has been a concerted push (in which most of his commissioners were complicit) to remove him as chair of the EHRC. But Trevor survived by the skin of his teeth and has now been re-appointed as chair by a benevolent Equalities Minister, Harriet Harman.
Maybe it was the right decision. It was always going to be difficult to bring the old Commission for Racial Equality, the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Disability Rights Commission together in one organisation. Not least because, whatever they said publicly, privately they were all opposed to the merger. And the governance and financial issues at the Commission were not just Trevor's fault. The Government has questions to answer.
There is no doubt that Trevor has the charm, ability and contacts to make a big success of the Commission. But first he needs to learn from his near-death experience. He needs to stop talking about widening his remit and concentrate on actually delivering on the equality issues that are already his responsibility. He needs to curb his scarcely-veiled contempt for people who have spent a lifetime campaigning on equality issues and consider that they might have something to teach him. And perhaps he needs to reflect on what the young idealistic Trevor Phillips would have made of the type of quangocrat that he is in danger of becoming.
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