Interview with Trevor Phillips
Trevor Phillips talks about his role at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and his experience of the 1807 bicentenary
On the creation of the EHRC and his role as chair
I'm the first chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and so far I've lasted I think sixty-five days, and nobody has yet called for my resignation, so I think that's quite a good thing in public life these days; quite a record. The Equality and Human Rights Commission is a new creation, which came into being in October 2007, and it is partly a merger in the sense that it has taken over the mandate of the Commission for Racial Equality, the Equal Opportunities Commission, and the Disability Rights Commission, but it has a much expanded mandate and another new quality which I think marks it out: it has the responsibility for law in relation to sexual orientation, age, and religion and belief, and discrimination in relation to those things. So in the sense that people can bring cases to us, we have the responsibility for making clear what the law is, and in some areas, the traditional areas of race, disability, and gender, we've got a responsibility for overseeing the way that public authorities carry out their duties under the law.
Secondly, I think that the mandate is extended in a different way; for the past thirty years most anti-discrimination work has really been about individual casework, and it's been about what happens after something's taken place, after hurt has been visited on someone. The emphasis I think of the new Commission is already, and will shift more towards, dealing with prevention. So that is, for example, why we have new duties on public sector organisations to essentially have schemes that will anticipate structural and systemic forms of discrimination, and it's our job to make sure that those duties, so far as they are significant - and, you know, that's contested to some extent, how good they are in law - but so far as they are significant, to make sure that they bite. And the third big thing, I think, and this is probably going, eventually, to be the biggest change in the equalities regime, is that we now have competence in relation to human rights. To some extent we've got some legal competence, we can go to court on certain things and so on. But I think the more important thing is that it's our job to promote the values of a human rights framework, and in Britain today I think it's probably fair to say that the words 'Human Rights' are pejorative, in the sense that, for most people human rights is about perverse individuals using the law, particularly this European law, to frustrate what is decent and right on behalf of the community. And some of that is to do with the fact that human rights law has essentially only been exercised so far, in the public's mind, by clever lawyers in complicated and rather exotic cases, and secondly because nobody has really promoted human rights as an approach to, for example, providing public services; making sure that people are treated with dignity in care homes; that children have voice, for example, and so on, and I think part of our job is to promote the latter. So, that is a job that we have, and it's quite a fun one, really.
On his involvement in the 1807 bicentenary
Probably I should first say that my involvement in 1807, professionally, has been partly as a former chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, because it's kind of obvious that you would have to involve the CRE, and we took a particular slant on this, partly to support local projects, but more than that, to try to get the curriculum and what happened in schools changed. So we both supported the efforts, which have been successful, to give the issues of slavery and the slave trade, in all its manifestations, a place in the curriculum, and we have also run a project to try to provide some resources for schools, so there's something practical coming out of the year. I had the opportunity also because, you know, I'm interested as a person, to be involved in some of the events, and to see some of the curatorial work that's been done both in museums and art galleries and so on, and, irrespective of what you think about the quality, or the slant, or whatever you might say, actually the most important thing about a lot of this is that it happened at all. The place from which you had to start, when you think about the commemoration of 1807, is that nobody wanted to know. You know, this is not a story of essentially un-alloyed, unmixed, imperial glory, or heroic success, you know, it's not the Armada. It is a story about what is probably the biggest single crime committed by the British state and its predecessors in its history. It is a story about its persistence for, what, two, three centuries in reality, and everybody's collusion with that. And it is ultimately a story about how, as a nation, or series of nations, we dragged ourselves out of it, but there's quite a lot of unpleasant things in these, in this story, and I think most people would have quite happy with a sort of note that said 'wasn't Wilberforce a great guy?' and maybe a service to remember him, and on you go. But the fact that there were so many different tales told in this year about what this whole moment meant, I think, is really very important. You know, everybody now knows who Wilberforce is, but they knew that before. A lot more people know who Equiano is. A substantial number of people, of course, a minority taking the population as a whole, but a substantial number of people know that there was a difference between the abolition of the slave trade, and the abolition of slavery. A lot of people now have a better understanding, perhaps, of the degree to which slavery was a thoroughgoing aspect of what made us what we are now. And that in a way is the most important thing to me.
I thought it would be flat. I was afraid that it would become... well, I was afraid that one of three things would happen. Either it would be a non-event, you know, there'd be interesting things but nobody would pay much attention. Secondly, I was afraid that it would be something that only really happened within two places within the black community, or communities, and not even the whole black community, but within the African-Caribbean communities, because, you know, those who didn't come by what I sometimes call the cruise route, people who've come straight from Africa, might say 'what's it got to do with us? I don't want to be reminded of that.' And the third thing I was worried about was that it would all focus on a rather pointless and abstract debate about reparations. And all of those would have been... awful. And disastrous. Why? Because, actually what they would have done was to defeat the central purpose of having a national year which is to get everybody to acknowledge that this is a shared history, everybody had a piece in this history, everybody, in some way, drank from this well, and that was my real worry. So I, and a lot of people contributed to this, but I can say what we did: we put quite a lot of pressure on government, and the Prime Minister was in the end persuaded that this is something that the government had to really take seriously, and I think we owe a great deal to Baroness Amos, who was then leader of the House of Lords, for that. I guess my own small contribution was to persuade the Deputy Prime Minister, who put a great deal of energy into the whole year, used his office, used his influence, and people have all sorts of views about John Prescott, but I will say that on this particular thing he was marvellous, I mean he was really extraordinarily effective. He influenced the Prime Minister, he influenced the Chancellor to make things happen. And perhaps the third element of this, interestingly, in terms of making it a national moment, the BBC.
On his work with the BBC
I think the principal movers at the BBC were probably Mark Thompson, the Director General, and the Head of Factual Programming at the BBC, Glenwyn Benson, who brought in a couple of people in particular, a woman called Chantal Badjie, to help coordinate the season and to work with some really first rate producers - I mean, you mentioned Tony Phillips; Pam Fraser Solomon was very important in this - to make them do it. My own, and again there are a lot of people who I think contributed to this, but my own contribution, I suppose, was to phone up both Mark and Glenwyn, who I know very well, and who've been friends and colleagues for a long time, and make myself unpleasant to them, and persuade them that if they didn't actually put some resources and some drive behind it, then I would make myself even more unpleasant! But, to be honest it wasn't that hard a sell.
There was low expectation, that was the main thing. It wasn't that anybody thought 'Oh God, we mustn't do this', it was that most people thought 'Who the hell's going to be interested in this? Who will care?' And it took a bit of time through the whole of the early part of 2006 to get everybody to wake up and say look, this isn't just about doing some sort of docs which tell everybody what terrible racists and so on they are, this is about some more imaginative ways of approaching this, and you know, simple things like Moira Stuart's programme. It took a little bit of time to persuade people, but actually, because everybody realised that she'd become this sort of national treasure, it allowed producers to begin to think of the ideas in a slightly different way. I think also the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister getting the service to happen in Westminster Abbey was extremely important. I mean it sounds bizarre to make that a key issue, but that's how the British establishment works: if you've got an event in Westminster Abbey, then it means that the nation should think it's important, and once the nation thinks it's important all sorts of people want to associate themselves with it, and that suddenly meant that - and the Museums had already started to think about doing things - but people who had been a bit, sort of, iffy, suddenly became less iffy, because they realised that there was a bandwagon. So, I would guess that probably the most important thing here was that a bunch of us - you know, Valerie was one, myself, Richard Reddie, some of the people who lead the churches, and I'm just talking in a sense about the descendents of slaves, but then of course there were the church people, the Wilberforce people and so on - just battered away, and we managed to get a bandwagon going, because that's how these things work. In the end it's not, nobody's going to do it to please me, they do because they can see everybody else going with it and they don't want to be left out. And from my point of view, I don't care! The most important thing is not that they do it because I want them to do it; the most important thing is they do it because they've got a reason to do it. That's how people do things well.
On the media and museums coverage of 1807
It's funny, you know, I don't actually recall anything that was on television, it's quite peculiar. I'm sure I should do, but I don't really, and, you know, as a television producer I find that a bit sad. Possibly because there wasn't a decision that there would be a landmark drama series. That would have stuck. I mean, my only sort of close comparison, and I only know because I was so deeply involved in it, was the Windrush season, and in a way it was similar, thousands of things went on, but everybody remembers it because there was a big series on television. And luckily the series was not bad, so it wasn't embarrassing, but it was more - and I can say this because I made the damn thing - it didn't really matter about the quality, it was the weight of it, and the prominence of it, and the support that the BBC gave to it that really, I think, sticks in people's memories, though it was a fine piece of television, blah, blah, blah, but the fact that the institution got behind it is what made the difference. And I don't think that we had anything quite like that this time round. I think there were quite a lot of interesting pieces of radio. You know Jim Walvin did a good piece really about what it means now. I think that the things in the media which attempted in a way to update the transatlantic slave trade were worthwhile but somehow didn't quite capture the moment. Oddly enough, in spite of the entertaining diversion right in the middle of it, I think that the Westminster Abbey service did count. It did count, it did matter. You know, it was on the news and so on, but just the fact that it happened, the Queen was there, and so on, that made a lot of difference, and of course it would be hard to sit in York and not to mention the archbishop of York's various contributions. John has a fantastic, sort of, folk touch, and all of the things, you know, the service he had here, which was very, kind of, African and so on, I think these are things that will stick out in people's memories. As far as the museums and galleries are concerned, I thought the Bristol exhibition was pretty damned good. What I really liked about the Bristol exhibition was its determination really to get over the ordinariness of slavery. I mean in the sense that, you know, it's banal, not quite in the sense that (Helena Arendt?) talks about the Holocaust being banal, but the banality of it in a sense, you know, it's everyday-ness, the fact that every candlestick maker was in some way involved and nobody, nobody thought 'this is all a bit odd'. I think that is the most significant thing, and I think they've done that quite well, I think they've done that really quite well.
I haven't seen Liverpool and Docklands but I hope to. I think that's a hard one to pull off, isn't it, I mean I can see how you would tell that story about how race was conceived within the white British establishment as the kind of excuse for slavery. The trick is to tell that story in a way that enough people to make it worthwhile and significant will stay with it long enough to deal with it. I would guess if I had a sort of disappointment about the whole enterprise it is that - and it's a small disappointment, you know, this is a counsel of perfection in a way - it would be that, I think we didn't really get enough done in advance to prepare people for it, so that we could get across the thoroughgoingness of the contribution and the presence of slavery in particularly English but, you know, British culture and the economy over this year. I think a lot of effort was put into this, and you know, it was moderately successful in some places, and I'm not at all complaining, but I just think that we could have used the opportunity, had we prepared intensively enough, to get people a little bit past Wilberforce, a little bit past the political story, and a little way past the idea that this was just a sort of rather outrageous thing that was done by some rather bad people.
On the importance of the bicentenary
The central thing I want people to take away is that this is a profoundly decisive influence on what Britain is today, in the same way, in the popular imagination, we think of the Second World War as, you know, both decisive and also characteristic. I would like people to think of it in the same terms as they would think of, for example, Richard the Lionheart and King John, Robin Hood, Sheriff of Nottingham, you know it seems to me people have internalised something when they associate a myth with it. Now I don't think we quite managed to get the myth involved in slavery, it's there somewhere, and it's something to do with cruelty, it's also something to do with rebellion, but the point about it is, it belongs to all of us, so if I wanted a kind of real thing that I would have liked us, or I'd like us to get across and to have part of people's mental landscape is that this is a shared piece of history. Now, actually, we've got 'til 1834 to get that across, and that to me is fine, because I think 1807 was just a start. The second thing which I'd really like to get across is of course that, you know, this particular bit of the past is not a foreign country, it's still here, it influences what we are, and the point about the social and psychological inheritance of race and racism is of course central, but also, just at a very concrete level, maybe one of the things that we didn't do, and, had I still been in television or in journalism, I would have focussed on more, is a very simple thing, and maybe this is the myth, or rather legend that I really would like people to have in their head by 1834: when slavery was abolished, slave owners got twenty million, a lot of money at the time, slaves got nothing. I mean that is the most profound injustice that probably you can identify anywhere in this country's history. We haven't ever really quite got the shame of that, and we haven't really understood what it meant. And that's partly because we haven't identified the people who got the money, and the people who are still sitting on it, and between now and 1834 that's probably one of the things I would like to do.
On the legacy of 1807
I think, obviously, the most important thing is a better appreciation, and that to me was why pushing for the 1807 abolition to be an integral part of the national curriculum was so significant, because I'd like the next three, four, five generations of British schoolchildren to have as good a sense of what this means as they did about 1066 and the Domesday book, because actually, this is as influential as that; at the moment nobody really thinks that, but they should. More concretely, what I hope we will do is use what remains of this year as a platform to build some projects, build some money, frankly, to try and deal with some of the remaining very loud echoes of slavery. You know, why is it that African-Caribbean families are in the situation they are in, why it that African-Caribbean boys today are twice as likely to find themselves being hauled off to prison as coming to a university like York. Now, we can do something about that, it takes money, it takes resource, it takes skill, and it takes determination, and I think that this, the fact of this year should be a way of using a platform to build some new resources for that. And then there are a million things that people can do, some of the churches have begun to do things; I myself tried to run the London Marathon to raise some money for a little charity that we've begun, and we've raised quite a lot of money, but I intend to put my hand in some more people's pockets to be able support educational and employment projects for young people. So, I guess those are two things: one, that there is a lasting dent in the landscape where 1807 and 1834 sit, and that dent wasn't there before; and second is that we use this year as a platform to develop the resources, both intellectual, educational, and financial, I suppose, to do something that will countervail the still persistent effects of the slave trade and of slavery.