Sir Trevor Phillips: A well deserved Knighthood for a journalist willing to challenge old & new establishments
My first encounter with Trevor Phillips was not a pleasant one. He was publicly attacking me as a “nice, genteel, racist” in response to an essay ‘Too Diverse?’ I had written in Prospect magazine (which I then edited) about the tension between solidarity and diversity in liberal democracies.
But then a few weeks later he gave an interview to Tom Baldwin in The Times in which he expressed reservations about the direction of multiculturalism and how it was weakening the common British identity needed to bind together an increasingly diverse society.
His argument was not that different to the one that I had been making in ‘Too Diverse?’. Though I now count Trevor as a friend and our views often overlap I do not believe that my piece influenced his rethink, he would have been chewing over his reservations for months.
But the interview did display two of the characteristics that have made him such an important figure in British public life, well deserving of the knighthood announced in the New Year honours list. First, his readiness to change his mind about important issues. Second, his willingness to challenge both the traditional establishment and the progressive one.
His is in many ways an exemplary modern ethnic minority story. He is the youngest of 10 children of parents from British Guiana. Several of his siblings have gone on to high achievement too, and his extended family is scattered over half the globe. But he is also a very British figure, a cussed member of the awkward squad.
His career, and life, has not been without its bumps and bruises, from being New Labour’s favourite black man to being suspended from the party for alleged Islamophobia and just a few months ago suffering the death of one of his daughter’s after her long battle with anorexia.
And he has spent much of his life being the only black man in the room, from his days running the National Union of Students to his Presidency of the John Lewis partnership. He is a pioneer of that modern archetype: the outsider-insider.
At one time it looked as if he might go on to a big political career, thanks in part to his close friendship with Peter Mandelson, but his path to London mayor was blocked by his old rival Ken Livingstone. Maybe it was also blocked by his inability to toe a party line.
Few will read the full citation, but those who do may be surprised that the contribution to public life that may have tipped him into the knightly bracket was not his political or journalistic work, but a scientific contribution to the understanding of COVID’s effects on different ethnic groups. His study, published just as the first lockdown bit, was the earliest to call attention to the issue. He graduated in chemistry from Imperial College, and still thinks like what he calls “a lab rat”; eight years ago he set up a data analytics firm, WebberPhillips, which provides insights to a range of public and private sector outfits. But it is perhaps this attachment to the scientific way of thinking that often sets him at odds with an establishment packed with classicists and humanities graduates.
This recognition will have pleased him enormously, especially as his further involvement in Covid research was made difficult by the controversial status that he now has among influential figures on the ethnic minority left.
In his public life, we know Trevor first and foremost as a trouble-making journalist, from presenting the London Programme in the 1990s to his recent reinvention as a documentary maker – Things We Don’t Say About Race (That Are True) and What British Muslims Really Think -, Sky TV presenter and Times columnist. Trevor pioneered his work on British attitudes to Islam and perceived Islamophobia with his Policy Exchange study On Islamophobia: Problems of Definition. This report transformed the debate on the subject.
He has been the canary in the mine on key debates on race from the problem of segregation to taking minority success seriously. He has also contributed new ideas such as his theory of “cultural protection”, the idea that to thrive as a minority community you need some protection from the majority culture but not too much.
Although he had no direct hand in the Sewell Commission it was strongly influenced by his ideas, the insistence that racial disadvantage is real but complex and that different outcomes are often the product of different cultural traditions and priorities. He was also one of the first to suggest that a catch-all acronym like BAME has outlived its usefulness thanks to the variety of experiences of minority Britons.
Along the way he has been a key architect of contemporary equality and human rights law, and the machinery to enforce it, first as head of the Commission for Racial Equality then as the first head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (2006 to 2012). He has also contributed to the diversification of Britain’s elite through his work at the Green Park recruitment agency and as an adviser to the Parker Review.
Trevor has never really been an institution man which is perhaps why he never made it to Director General of the BBC (is it too late?). But he continues to provide a wise perspective on many areas of public policy, most recently through his work on the ‘History Matters’ project at Policy Exchange set up in response to concern about the growing trend to alter public history and heritage without due process. Trevor’s influential report, History Matters Principles for Change, sets out guidelines all public institutions should follow before contemplating significant change, such as renaming buildings, taking down statues or “returning” artefacts.
He also continues to surprise. I know his writing and thinking pretty well but still find it hard to guess which way he will jump on many issues. That is another reason why the many establishments of Britain have always found him hard to handle and perhaps why it took more than 20 years for Sir Trevor Phillips to follow in the footsteps of his longtime mentor and fellow Caribbean Trevor, Sir Trevor McDonald.