Trevor Phillips On Race, What Muslims Think And Getting Support From The Far Right

'Had it occurred to you that the Muslim friends you have might not be entirely typical of people who live in Burnley or Dewsbury?'

11/06/2016 08:04
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Trevor Phillips describes himself a 'Prophet of Doom' on immigration to Britain

"I don't think I'm saying anything that shocking or particularly that new," says Trevor Phillips, the self-described 'Prophet Of Doom' on race and integration in Britain. Middle class people like him are not affected by the dangers he is warning about, he says. The only way an unprecedented level of immigration impacts them is "it's probably easier to find a Brazilian cleaner than it used to be."

The former Labour politician, Equality and Human Rights Commission chair and television journalist published last month his essay on diversity Race and Faith: The Deafening Silence, arguing the country was "sleepwalking into catastrophe" while we "hum to the music of liberal self-delusion" by not confronting the "dark side of the diverse society". The son of immigrants from Guyana argued that the scale of immigration and the hostility to liberal values of some arrivals meant we could not simply expect them to integrate on their own. Unless we adopt a more proactive approach to integration, he wrote, we tolerate a level of ethnic segregation that will "set community against community, endorse sexist aggression, suppress freedom of expression, reverse hard-won civil liberties, and undermine the liberal democracy that has served this country so well for so long". The essay followed two incendiary Channel 4 programmes he presented: What Muslims Really Think in April and The Things You Can't Say About Race last year. In the latter, he argued multi-culturalism had become a "racket" exploited by people to entrench segregation.

When he meets me in the Highgate offices of the production company he works with, Ofcom has just decided not to investigate complaints that What Muslims Really Think "increased Islamophobia". The programme was based on polling that said, among other things, just 18% of British Muslims thought homosexuality should be legal. By comparison, Phillips cites YouGov polling of devout Christians that showed nearly half of them supported homosexuality being legal. As well complaints to Channel 4 and Ofcom, some criticised the polling for focussing on areas with larger Muslim populations, likely to be home to more new arrivals from more conservative countries. Phillips dismisses this as "complete crap" from "people who can't add up". "Polls are re-weighted anyway, so the sample reflects the census-derived demographics. It reflects the whole group of Muslims," he says.

Race And Faith's argument in a nutshell:

  • Politicians refuse to acknowledge the downsides multi-culturalism brings, even though stories about it provoke "muttering in the pub, or grumbling at the school gate"
  • A failure to address the minority of arrivals who have illiberal attitudes to sexuality, the family and politics will potentially mean our liberal democracy

  • We need 'active integration' in which we oblige schools and other institutions to promote integration and establish England as the standard working language

  • We need to understand race, not as colour but as 'the different sets of values and behaviours prevalent in some ethnocultural communities' and realise how these can obstruct integration

He is particularly angry that people tried to argue that the poll sample of 1,000 could not reflect the views of three million Muslims. Phillips, a scientist by academic background who went into journalism and then politics, says "anyone with three weeks of statistics" knows this is a representative sample size. "I was irritated by that not because it was critical because it was so ignorant," the 62-year-old tells me. "The truth is people would not make that kind of argument if it was about anything else. But because they so desperately don't want to deal with the fact British Muslims, overall, have a rather different way of viewing the world and significant minority [has] views that are hostile to the mainstream views on key questions."

He cites a conversation with a journalist as an example of the "elite conversation" wealthy people have on the issue. "A very distinguished newspaper columnist, he's one of our most respected columnists, I've known him for years, said to me: 'Well this really can't be true because, I have quite a lot of Muslim friends and they don't believe homosexuality is wrong'. I said to him: 'Had it occurred to you that the Muslim friends you have might not be entirely typical of people who live in Burnley or Dewsbury or in Tower Hamlets?' His next response - this is important point about this class - 'well I grew up a Catholic and when I was young, Catholics would've said the same about homosexuality but of course we've changed.' That's just not true."

I ask whether Islam is the most sensitive issue in the debate about multi-culturalism to Britain. He concedes it is the "most difficult" for many people but not for him. As chair of the EHCR, he prosecuted people who share his ethnic heritage for discriminating against gay people. "I had to go to court, people who are black lost their jobs. I think that is equally sensitive," he says. "I don't have any particular thing about Muslims."

Steve Parsons/PA Wire
Phillips claims a 'significant minority' of British Muslims have views that are 'hostile' to the British mainstream

Phillips says view that Muslims will abandon social conservatism encapsulates a "profound disrespect" for religious minorities. "Underlying it is the elite view that 'we left all that business of faith behind with our childhood' and Muslims when they grow up, they'll also leave it all behind them'." Phillips argues more Muslims will not integrate on their own in the way earlier immigrants did. Firstly, he says, the religion has less experience flourishing in societies where it is a minority. Secondly, the modern world allows immigrants to keep much better in touch with the old country and customs. Jews arriving in Britain a century ago would never go home, he says, and for Phillips' parents, coming to Britain was a big choice. Phillips claims that 270,000 people travel from Britain to Pakistan a year and people can easily visit several times a year.

"The idea that you let go of the old country, that isn't going to happen," he says. "Even if you don't go there, you can actually watch your crops on the family farm grow on the internet. Yesterday, I talked to three members of my family in New York, Toronto and tonight I will talk to one of my school friends in Georgetown ... Immigrants don't have the same cut off they used to have." Thirdly, he argues changes in Britain have stopped forcing people to step outside their comfort zones. His father worked on the railways and at the Post Office, where he had to interact with people of different backgrounds. But "great workplaces" like textile mills don't exist anymore and people work in smaller businesses alongside people no different to them, Phillips says.

The Social Integration Commission published a report in 2014 warning that segregation by race, age and class was prevalent in Britain. Its findings disputed a widely-accepted belief about London, saying the capital is less integrated than the rest of the country. "That really surprised even me, who's a Prophet of Doom on these things," Phillips says. "The orthodox view is that London is this big melting pot and we all love each other, what is truer is London is a zone of co-existence ... When left to their own devices, people tend not to mix with people who are not like themselves."

Phillips has been saying this for more than a decade. He first called for us to "assert a core of Britishness" in 2004, while chairing what was then the Commission for Racial Equality. He says the questions he is raising are now becoming irresistible in the face of demographic change in Britain. "By 2040, at least a third of our population will be people of colour," he says. After 7/7, Phillips' warning about segregation was shot down by a then relatively unknown minister, David Miliband, who called it alarmist and the argument "fatuous". "It'd be interesting to see if he said that now," Phillips says.

PA/PA Archive
Enoch Powell's shocking 1968 speech drove politicians to limit themselves to saying 'anodyne and platitudinous' things about race, according to Phillips

In his essay, Phillips writes about Enoch Powell's infamous 1968 speech that warned mass immigration would lead to "rivers of blood". This effectively ended Powell's career in the Conservative Party and made politicians only say "anodyne and platitudinous" things about race, religion and diversity, Phillips wrote. "Rome may not yet be in flames, but I think I can smell the smouldering," he wrote in the essay. When I suggest this warning draws a parallel between Powell's assertions and his own, Phillips dismisses this. 

Until now, Phillips' arguments have been well rehearsed and honed in the way you'd expect of a broadcast journalist, ex-London Assembly member and former head of a major public body. But he seems slightly flustered at the prospect of commenting on Powell, a politician now the subject of near universal condemnation. "I don't think of it. I don't want to be drawn on it," he says when I ask whether he thinks Powell was right. "I think Enoch Powell and attitudes to Enoch Powell have defined race relations in this country for far too long. He's dead. My children's generation have no idea who he was and don't care. I don't even really want to get into it."

Phillips' comments have earned him comparisons to - and occasionally endorsement from - members of the Far Right. When he warned of racial segregation in 2006, then London Mayor Ken Livingstone suggested Phillips could soon be "joining the BNP" because he was "pandering to the right".This is ironic given his argument that doing more to integrate minorities would diminish the appeal of groups like the BNP. But the headlines Phillips' comments generate can make them sound similar to what parts of the Far Right say. "Divisions sparked by mass immigration could lead to CATASTROPHE," was one in the Daily Express. After his essay was published last month, one Tweeter who identified as a "Nationalist", said: "Trevor Phillips now accepting that we were right all along.”

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Trevor Phillips (centre) as chair of the London Assembly, questioning Ken Livingstone in 2002

When I raise this, Phillips quotes Livingstone, with whom he had frosty relations while he was on the London Assembly, as if mentally rolling his eyes. He adds: "My grandmother used to say: 'Just because the devil picks up a good tune doesn't make it a bad tune'. I think that's exactly how you give the Far Right power - you surrender all the ground to them because they claim that they agree with you." What follows is his first verbal slip up so far: "[The Far Right] can claim what the shit - excuse me, they can claim whatever they like." Regaining himself, he continues: "The question is: Is our analysis correct? It obviously isn't going to take us to the same place as them."

Phillips then says he doesn't want to "dodge" the question. His delivery changes to be more emphatic. Emphasising each syllable as if it were a separate word, he says: "The only reason these people get any mileage with people who are not themselves, a bit psycho, is because, they appear to be the only people who will recognise the world that ordinary working people are living in." Phillips says Ukip - which he stresses he doesn't regard as far right - owes its successes to its ability to say parties on the Left are "studiously ignoring the lived experience of ordinary people", he says. "We let them get away with it because we've become so prissy about the idea that something one of us says might be taken out of context," he says. Phillips notes Jeremy Corbyn has tried to address anxieties about immigration but sighs: "Tell that to Ken Livingstone."

Phillips admiringly cites the Germans who have spent billions of euros on a programme to pro-actively integrate the million refugees who arrived last year. That is, Phillips says, an example of "thinking about this seriously". He recalls a study by the ECHR into the UK meatpacking industry that found migrant workers were being placed on shifts based on their nationality, as managers wanted to overcome language barriers. Phillips says: "Is that actually the type of society we want to live in? If you don't make a conscious decision that that is not what you want, that is what you are going to get. The same thing will happen in schools, in neighbourhoods." 

He says: "Diversity in our society is now inevitable and better for our society but that won't come by accident. We have to plan for it. It's not going to happen just by accident. We can't be complacent about this."

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
'The only reason the Far Right get any mileage with people who are not a bit psycho, is they appear to be the only people who will recognise the world that ordinary working people are living in'

I ask Phillips what Britain will become if we do not follow his advice. He answers without hesitation: "America." "Why do people think there's a thing called Black Lives Matter [in America]?" he asks. "Most of White America think black lives don't matter because they don't meet any. At 6 o'clock they go home to a street that is full of other white people. They will never really experience what it's like to be black or Hispanic. Their children may mix but I bet you they're not going to the same birthday parties."

The elite Phillips accuses of being "squeamish" about race are predominantly white, he says. Does the fact he's black make them squeamish about criticising him? "Quite the reverse," he says. "I know people say: 'Only a black person can say this' and all the rest of it but actually when I said, 12 years ago, that I thought we ought to think again about how we use the word multiculturalism. Everybody was all over it." He says a lot of his critics at the time actually relished the fact he was black. "They were able to say 'how dare he say this? And isn't it absolutely shocking that a black person can say this kind of thing because most black people will disagree with him'. I don't think my colour has discouraged anyone at all. In fact, it made it worse. It made some people feel quite liberated to find a black person they could disagree with on race."

The recent reaction to his essay has been more positive and devoid of the "usual" criticism that he is saying these things for self-publicity. "It's quite nice not to be sneered at," he says.

After our interview finishes, Phillips walks with me to Kentish Town tube station, still speaking and making his case. He asks why The Huffington Post is interested in speaking to him, as the left-leaning media "hate me", he says. 

Then he says something that makes me produce my dictaphone and get him to repeat. "I think I'm probably not right about quite a lot of things," he says. "But the way for me to prove I'm not right is with more evidence. As with most scientists, What I think is: Let me put a hypothesis based on the evidence I know. I hope, most of the time, I'm 50% or 60% right. But I have no objection if somebody comes along with a better piece of evidence and says: 20% of you'd just told is just junk and here's the evidence'. I will change my mind but, come with the evidence man."

I ask what he thinks will happen next. "Well if I knew the answer to that, I probably would've been able to make it happen by now," he answers. He refers back to his politics in the 1970s, which remind me that, whatever you think of Phillips' arguments, he came to them from the Left, not the Right. "I started in politics as a student Maoist. I'm a great believer in struggle. I think this is the struggle of our age. You only know the result of the struggle after you've had it."

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