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Will The Real Trevor Phillips Please Stand Up?


By Shola Adenekan


The first time the young Trevor Phillips went with his father to watch Arsenal at the old Highbury Stadium; he was so small that he couldn’t see over the parapet. “So we took the fattest book we had in the house,” he re-called. “I watched my first football match standing on a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”


That statement many of Phillips’ detractors will say best summed up the Sir Trevor that we know today.


Since his appointment as the head of the Commission for Racial Equality, Britain’s race watchdog in 2003, Phillips has not been short of critics. Many will say that he lost his bearings since New Labour came to power in 1997, by joining that inner court of the British Prime Minister – the so-called Tony Blair’s cronies.


Most of his former friends from the loony left of the Labour Party can’t stand him and now many elders in the Black community don’t see him as representing their views any longer.


“Trevor’s weakness,” says Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London and one-time ally, “is that he assumes you’re achieving your job if you are in the newspapers all the time. That actually isn’t the case.”

Massoud Shaejareh, chair of the Islamic Human Rights Commission pointed out that statements coming from Phillips and the CRE were nearly indistinguishable from the right-wing British National Party (BNP).

He said: “Our concerns are on a variety of issues regarding the CRE over a very long period. What is quite clear to all the communities is that the CRE has become part of the problem, rather than the solution. Its very xenophobic perception on cohesion is really not matched by any of the statistics and studies which have been done by a variety of people including the government."

To his friends and admirers, Phillips’ problems with many in the Black community and the old Left stemmed from the fact that he believed in the system, that the system was just and that we can work within it to achieve common aims.


As the head of the CRE, Phillips campaigned for better pay for ethnic minority workers and against racism among the liberal elites.


Phillips is passionate about education and want Black boys to do better within our education system. He sees himself as the perfect role model for them. His views on the issue have clashed with that of the Prime Minister.


Very rich, children educated at posh schools and on first name terms with leaders in America, Africa and the West Indies. Yes, he’s Black, but his Blackness is constantly being questioned by the likes of Lee Jasper and Darcus Howe. In fact, some on the black side of the fence might tell you that Phillips is a sell-out.


But those closer to Phillips will point out that whereas some Black activist types never truly emerge from the juvenile predilection for stomping their feet in front of the master's cameras, Phillips has followed the natural path from ground level to front-line to high office.


In short, he effectuated his beliefs rather than live loudly beneath the frustration of not being able to measure up to them.


Born in London on December 31, 1953, to a seamstress and a British Railways clerk who emigrated to the UK from Guyana. His brother, Mike, is one of the best writers and literary critics in the English speaking world today. Phillips was the last of seven children. 


Soon after settling at a primary school in North London, his parents were on the move again, this to time to America while the young Phillips was sent to Queen’s College Boys School in Georgetown, Guyana. The school was a fuddy-duddy establishment that was a replica of the British boarding system.


When Phillips returned fully to Britain, it was to read Chemistry at Imperial College, London, where he became a firebrand student activist with flowing Afro and the aura of a ladies’ man.


As a student leader, Phillips led protest against the rising neo-right wing politics of the National Front, the precursor to the British National Party. His political soul-mates are the who’s who of today’s Labour Party; Peter Mandelson, arguably the architect of New Labour, Jack Straw, Charles Clarke etc.


In 1978, Phillips was elected the President of the National Union of Students, the first Black person to attain that position.


Phillips’ biography won’t be complete without the story of his daring challenge of the old Soviet Union at a global socialist conference in Cuba. When the organisers demanded that all delegates support Russia in a motion, Phillips rebelled overturning the move.


Student activism has always been the stepping stone to a career in politics but while the likes of Straw and Mandelson took to Labour politics, Phillips went into broadcasting. The decision paid off; as the old Labour under Michael Foot suffered miserably at the hand of the Tories, Phillips’ journalism career flourished.


From the lower rung of London Weekend Television (LWT), Phillips rose to become head of productions and the head of his own production company, Peppers Productions. Along the way, he helped launched the career of many, including the right-wing columnist Richard Littlejohn and his counterpart on the left, the News Statesman columnist Darcus Howe.


When he was appointed the head of CRE, Peter Herbert, a leading Black lawyer who applied for the same post suggested that whether Phillips gains credibility in the Black community will depend on his stance on the major issues like immigration, stop and search, and lack of Black representation in Parliament and in the Labour Party.


Many on the political left will say that Phillips has failed on all counts. His consistent attacks on multiculturalism in a post 9/11 Britain has incurred the wrath of many Muslim and ethnic minority leaders. He has attacked African churches and instead of being seen as an apostle of diversity, Phillips has become the doyen of total assimilation.


And the right love him for it.


The Black MP Diane Abbott decries Phillips’ silence on “the shameful treatment of asylum seekers, Belmarsh and control orders.”


But David Lammy, a fellow Black Parliamentarian disagrees: “From time immemorial it has been suggest that not being connected to ‘the street’ is a problem for anyone who speaks on behalf of the Black community. That somehow you have to be poor or on the breadline to represent the community. But no one would say that in America of Colin Powell or Jesse Jackson.”


This year, the government appoints Phillips the first head of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights, much to the chagrin of Black Organisations like Operation Black Votes, the Society of Black Lawyers and Blink.


Phillips’ dilemma is that he wants to be part of the British establishment while simultaneously representing the views of disaffected ethnic minority youth. The reality is that often the interests of these two groups are often irreconcilable.


Phillips’ friends fondly remark that the son of Guyanese immigrants born in a two bedroom house in North London has come a long way and has learnt a lot on the way.


Perhaps, his education in this regard has to be that neither your race, nor your political affiliation can determine your friends. However, both of those characteristics might determine your enemies.


Shola Adenekan publishes The New Black Magazine. He can be reached at sholaadenekan@thenewblackmagazine.com


Please e-mail comments to comments@thenewblackmagazine.com






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