Multiculturalism’s Nemesis

Multiculturalism's nemesis

Trevor Phillips has come a long way since his student radical days. As head of the Commission on Equality and Human Rights, he's accused of pandering to the right in Britain's multiculturalism debate.

Meet Trevor Phillips, the man charged with shaking Britain's view of diversity

Mar 15, 2008 04:30 AM
Lynda Hurst
Feature Writer

Trevor Phillips has just been asked what he thinks of Africentric schools, like the one Toronto is planning in an optimistic bid to cut the 40 per cent dropout rate of black students.

The question is not unexpected.

It's bound to come up in an interview with the controversial head of Britain's Commission on Equality and Human Rights, a man who believes that too much tolerance of diversity can lead to “sleepwalking towards segregation.”

“Well, to be polite, and as a visitor,” he says, “I'd be very surprised if a majority of blacks wants education in a ghetto. The reason why young blacks drop out of school is very unclear but it's unlikely to be about (not discussing) which African king ran Benin in 1842.”

Phillips, born in London of Guyanese parents, says he has never heard of a deliberately black-only school and doesn't see the rationale for starting one now, here or anywhere else. What, he asks, is the added value? “You can certainly see the negative value children cut off from the whole of the educational experience, cut off from negotiating the real world.”

Which isn't to say that children with African and Caribbean origins shouldn't be learning about them: “Families should be teaching the culture to their kids and (public) schools should integrate it into the curriculum.”

Ah, integration. It's a key concept in Phillips's way of thinking about how societies should manage diversity. Problem is, his critics, intentionally or unknowingly, confuse integration, a two-way mixing-together, with assimilation, one-way cultural absorption. Even more contentious is his considered take on “state multiculturalism,” a policy Britain has more stumbled into than planned, as Canada uniquely did in the early 1970s.

Phillips thinks it's become a counterproductive ideology, at least in the UK. If the aim was to soften differences and promote shared views and values, that's not how multiculturalism has played out. “What started as a straightforward recognition of diversity,” he says, “has become a system which prizes racial and ethnic difference above all other values, and there lies the problem.”

These issues weren't talked about in Britain until recently. Indeed, they were virtually off-limits since a shaming tide of racism 50 years ago greeted what Phillips calls the “backlash of colonialism” and native Britons refer to as the “empire's revenge.”

But the scale and diversity of successive waves of immigrants from vastly different backgrounds now demands debate, he says: About how to reach an integrated society, where all people are equal under the law, where there are common democratic values and where crucially there's a common language.

Anxious that the situation is spinning out of control, many British are asking: Do newcomers want to become British or merely to live there? What's the endgame when UK cities are increasingly Balkanized into different racial, religious and ethnic enclaves? Or when a special police unit has to be set up to investigate 300 forced marriages a year because some minorities have cultural practices they're not willing to part with?

Since July 7, 2005 when four British-born Islamist terrorists killed 52 people in London the issue of a changing Britain has been steadily creeping to the forefront. (“I'm not saying there was a silver lining to 7/7,” he says, “but reaction to it galvanized the discussion.”) Earlier this month, Conservative leader David Cameron weighed in out of the blue to say that he'd long been opposed to multiculturalism because it has “has brought about cultural apartheid.”

But it's Phillips, a high-profile black man in the bear pit of UK race relations, who takes much of the flak. Appointed chief anti-discrimination watchdog in part because of his non-ideological, pragmatic approach, he's alternately applauded for broaching an overdue debate or castigated as a publicity-seeking provocateur.

Decried as not “black” enough by some activists, he's accused of bias precisely because he is black by some Muslim leaders. The mayor of London, the volatile left-winger Ken Livingstone, has charged him with “pandering to the right.”

The personable, 54-year-old Phillips's path to the bear pit has been a winding one.

Sent back to Guyana for his schooling, he returned to London at 17 to study chemistry at Imperial College. A student radical, he drew media attention as the first black president of the National Union of Students. For 13 years, he hosted The London Show, which dealt with the hot-button topics of the day, on the LWT network, then headed its current events unit.

He once listed “mischief” as one of his recreations in Who's Who. Not lately.

In 1998, with his brother Mike, Phillips wrote Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-racial Britain, which charted the history of Caribbean immigration to Britain over the preceding 50 years. He followed up with an acclaimed documentary series based on the book.

Losing a bid in 2000 for the London mayoralty, he became chair of the assembly (city council) under the aforementioned Livingstone. He left electoral politics in 2003 to chair the Commission on Racial Equality. Three years later, it was subsumed into the new super-commission that monitors all forms of discrimination from racism to disability.

In Toronto this week to speak at a business conference, he sits down over a pot of tea and says he's curious about how Canada developed a (generally) positive attitude toward immigration.

“You've found a way of negotiating differences successfully that's possibly unique in the world,” he says. “I think it's because you regard immigration as a plus, a welcome thing, while we regard it with suspicion. We need a little bit more of what you've got.”

They're getting it. A points system, similar to Canada's, is about to be set up for immigration applicants. And if Phillips could orchestrate events, Britain would also adopt a written constitution.

He's a convert to the view that “you need a clear set of rules and articulated values basic principles based on human rights so that everyone understands the kind of society they're coming to.”

Societies have to be more explicit about what they expect from newcomers, he says. “It doesn't work any more to expect people to `get it' automatically.”

Getting the fact, for example, that faith in a secular society should remain in the private, not public, sphere. It's why he disputes the Archbishop of Canterbury's recent remark that Islamic sharia law is “unavoidable” and should be incorporated into the UK legal system.

Aware of the uproar in Ontario in 2004 over a proposal for sharia tribunals to be used to arbitrate domestic disputes, his own view was echoed in Premier Dalton McGuinty's ultimate decision that all citizens must live under the same set of laws.

“Muslims have to understand they are coming to a liberal democracy. Is a literalist interpretation of the Qur'an acceptable? No, it can't be. As for sharia, it can't be made sense of as a legal entity because it varies from culture to culture.”

Just as the UK's Jewish community is both deeply Jewish and deeply British, says Phillips, one day its Islamic community will forge a new British-Muslim identity. Or so he hopes: “It's what progressive Muslims want.”

He's optimistic because “as a species we're addicted to survival.”

But he's not naive. “I don't believe integrated societies are created by accident. You have to offer incentives or the opposite will take place there will be different groups of suspicious people.”
Lynda Hurst is a longtime observer of multiculturalism in Canada. She can be reached at