What happened to Trevor Phillips? Just how did this former champion of race relations go from spokesperson of the National Union of Students to the Chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality- one that fought the tide of stop-and search instances by the Met Police around black men. Nowadays, he’s predisposed to saying that there’s a lot of black-on-black crime that nobody anywhere is willing to talk about. It is of course, not true that nobody is willing to even to discuss, and his views on multiculturalism “encouraging separatism” isn’t amongst the unsayable either – It’s not like you can’t find a Daily Mail columnist espousing those views. At least with the latter opinion, I can firmly say that Phillips’ stance of multiculturalism isn’t a recent development. Pretty much a lot of his statements on race relations in the UK are not recent. But what is a recent comment based on this line he’s been walking on to suggest that the current wave of populism in 2016-2017 is largely due to ‘political correctness’. He also has a new documentary coming out this Thursday called Has Political Correctness Gone Mad?, in which I hope to review by the following week.
When thinking about how Phillips got to the stage that he did, I assumed that he may be simply getting older and that it might be a generational gap. I actually remember discussing this very point with a close friend of mine last summer, after she was recounting a documentary he did the year before “Things We Don’t Say About Race That Are True”. But I’ve come to realise what an insulting assessment that actually is. Why don’t we see Lee Jasper telling black youths to pull their pants up? Why isn’t Darcus Howe regretting his activism of over four decades? The fact of the matter is, at some point Trevor Phillips got cynical. He’s more or less come to oppose anti-racist efforts as they currently stand. Some of which he helped in building.
Once upon a time, Phillips campaigned for better pay among ethnic minorities, and for more spaces for ethnic minority presence in executive positions, and against racism within even the elite of liberalism in UK Politics. Now the assumption is that he caught the ‘New Labour’ bug when they came to power in 1997 from his good friend Peter Mandelson, with a later unsuccessful run for Mayor London, and his chairmanship of the Commission for Racial Equality and later Equality and Human Rights Commission was fraught with controversies arising from the divisiveness of his leadership, his statements on ‘multiculturalism’ encouraging separateness among different communities only further encouraging former left-wing compatriots and other public speakers within the Black British community to denounce him. It seems from close observation, Phillps’ stances may not have from merely old age, or even exposure to New Labour ideology per se – but a logical extension of an ideal for Black Britons to aspire to: For Phillips, equality means being allowed the opportunities to aspire for the best in the society that you live in – the young Phillips interpreted practices such as stop-and-search rightfully as an obstacle, as harassment by the authorities on the basis of race is as form of victimization and one of these social roadblocks; during his time in political activism, Phillips identified more in the workplace, and within the establishment itself. In fact, the few hazy moments he had during his time in New Labour was during the run-up to the 1999 mayoral election, which turned Ken Livingstone from ally to enemy – He felt that he was being passed over because of his race. Phillips sees racial equality in terms of the positions available to them. A sort of “self-made person of colour” although I imagine Phillips would now reject the POC terminology as being too ‘politically correct’. And yes, acceptance to a Britishness standard is part of that. From this, we might be able to see where Phillips opposition to multiculturalism comes from, since he seems to advocate a form of “cultural assimilationism” in its favour.
To this end, he has taken to shoe-horning his bedbug in cases which have the barest of connections – like 21st century populism. I’m expected to accept that ‘political correctness’ is what gave America Trumpism, Brexit over here, and Labour in shambles. I’m expected to bear responsibility for white anxiety around around acceptable language and behaviour, which is really what he’s talking about in terms of ‘political correctness’ for why the wave of alternative right washing away progressivism. As bad as post-Brexit UK seems to be, it has not completely sank under the new reactionaries. But what has Trevor Phillips offered beyond providing cover for the Colonel Blimps of the media and political establishment? How is his tea parties with David Goodhart changing his mind about Muslims in Great Britain, when he is half-parroting them? Can he really claim that we’ve become a society too polite to properly discuss British society and its minorities in light of all this? Even before Brexit, Nigel Farage was on Question Time in what seemed every fortnight while bemoaning the BBC’s descent into “left-wing propaganda” where you can’t say anything yet he somehow was verbose and loquacious enough to find multiple ways of not saying anything. Certainly not about immigration and the Arabs who threaten to subvert ‘core Christian values’ in the UK. I mean, really. Did these people come out of nowhere? Or were they emboldened by a quiet, bitter subsection of the population angry about Britain changing that Mr Phillips thinks that they’re opinion is worth courting? Surely when ostensible liberals and progressives use the rhetoric of the illiberal while when Jack Straw who was then Home Secretary made comments on Asian men seeking “young white girls as ‘easy meat’” in response to the Rottherham sex trafficking scandal, they only stoke the fire, right? This tactic never disarms the far-right. It emboldens and legitimises them by making it appear that there is a problem that the “liberal establishment” are too weak to challenge effectively.
Since Phillips has pretty much the same opinions as two years ago when he produced “Things We Don’t Say About Race” documentary, I think that it might be fair to ask that given the rise in anti-Semitic attacks, and other hate crimes since Brexit, whether its worth noting the concentration of wealth in households in Jewish and Cypriot communities? How exactly is telling ethnic minorities, especially migrant communities to aspire to Britishness useful when the notion of Britishness is so nebulous? Surely migrating to another land , learning the language, paying taxes and citizenship applications would be enough. But Phillips seems to think that not prompting isolated communities into some nebulous concept of Britishness will turn the tide against demagoguery.
The problem is, this demagoguery has been here building and gaining strength, often accompanied by an admittance or the use of their language to encourage them. Demagogues don’t give rational answers, and they don’t want conversations either. All they want to do is bellow simple solutions which often have one group benefiting at the expense of another. They care for nothing but an authoritarian playground. Phillips is right that we don’t need to hold our tongues and be bold. But let’s also call a spade a spade: More often than not, suspicion of communities with ethnic minorities is what creates tension and division, and not any leftover ‘incompatible values’ the people from those communities supposedly have. This is not helped when a commentariat and other influential figures cast fears on migrants entering before they even get off the boat. It’s almost certain Farage’s campaigning with a “Breaking Poster” depicting a large queue of migrants helped in tipping the scale of the Brexit vote. Racist rhetoric is real in the UK, and it’s not always shy or subtle in its message. Polite encouragement, appraisals or even silence when its coded is only making racists bolder in their language. This isn’t a time for complacency, or giving excuses for reactionaries. There’s only one tactic that we can borrow from them – and that’s a clear, blunt and unsubtle message in telling them to sod off. Make that a universal standard of Britishness.