New Year Dishonour
On Saturday morning we awoke to the news that the former prime minister, Tony Blair, and the broadcaster and former head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Trevor Phillips, had been awarded knighthoods, entitling them to be referred to as Sir Tony and Sir Trevor, in the New Year’s Honours, nominally granted by the Queen (almost invariably on the recommendation of the Prime Minister, although someone on Twitter told me that Blair was the Queen’s own choice as was his admission to the Order of the Garter). The award to Blair is no surprise; he is a former prime minister, widely regarded as a ‘great’ leader (alongside, maybe, Thatcher, although she was rapidly promoted to the House of Lords a few years after resigning as PM) and appreciated by people on the Labour Right as someone who won elections for the party, unlike any other Labour leader since Harold Wilson. Trevor Phillips’s appointment, however, is a disgrace. He has a very slim record of public service, most of it spent running the EHRC (i.e. doing a job he got paid for); his recent reputation is based on a series of inflammatory TV broadcasts and Daily Mail articles purporting to “tell truths” about race and religion in the UK that others (except for the tabloids) weren’t telling.
Tony Blair is chiefly admired by people on the Labour Right for winning elections. It’s also true that he passed some good progressive legislation during his first term: the Freedom of Information Act, the Human Rights Act, the Sexual Offences Act. He won a landslide in 1997 in large part because the Tories were bitterly divided over Europe and had become known for displays of mean-spiritedness and sanctimony that were juxtaposed in the media with sex and corruption scandals involving MPs. Blair won on a pro-Maastricht platform and signed the Social Chapter of that treaty, from which the Tories had negotiated an opt-out. He won a respectable victory in 2001 on the back of an economy that was performing well, and that new legislation endeared him to many progressive voters. In 2005, however, he won by the skin of his teeth with 36% of the vote, largely because the Tories were seen as both nasty and weak and because the Liberal Democrats were riding high. Blair’s decision to drag us into a disastrous war and his reactionary turn since 2001, proposing mandatory identity cards and signing an unequal extradition treaty with the US for example, had eaten into the progressive vote and turned it towards the Liberal Democrats and, in Wales and Scotland, the respective nationalist parties. The current ruling class also has much to thank Tony Blair for: his insistence on letting unlimited numbers of eastern Europeans settle and work in the UK was the turning point for Britain’s attitude towards the EU. UKIP started to gain ground, especially after Lord Pearson was replaced as leader by Nigel Farage.
If Blair’s award is disappointing but not surprising, Trevor Phillips’s is puzzling. His record of public service is not that great; his TV and journalistic output over the past 15 years or so has been appalling, mostly consisting of inflammatory documentaries and Daily Mail articles puporting to tell ‘truths’ about multiculturalism and ‘immigration’ that they claimed “couldn’t be told”, but were in fact tabloid stock in trade. As ever, the terms ‘immigration’ and ‘immigrant’ were being used about people who had been in the UK for generations, at a time when the largest flow of actual immigrants consisted of white people from eastern Europe. It is true that in the past, Phillips had held sympathetic views about Islamophobia and had chaired the Runnymede Trust’s body that published the 1998 report on the subject, leading to legislation on racial and religious hatred during the Labour government, but his views now are very different. There’s no reason to present a documentary on what a minority “really thinks” about everyone else other than to foster hatred and suspicion (which is usually the case when Muslims are shown as having different opinions from others; it is presented as a threat to national security, sometimes given to security correspondents to write up, rather than a simple difference of opinion). If this had been about Jews, it would not have secured a slot on national TV and would have seen everyone involved banished from public life if published anywhere else.
One of the ‘lessons’ we were expected to learn from the Labour antisemitism affair was that racism does not always manifest itself in the ways we expect, and that people who have reputations for not being racist, or even for being anti-racist, can be prejudiced in ways they do not realise. (It’s also true that these principles have been used to justify claims of antisemitism about things that bear no resemblance to racism at all.) Trevor Phillips’s past reputation as a campaigner against racism should not blind people to the fact that his hostility to Muslims is prejudice and is bigotry, and that the media use him to reassure white racists that their prejudices are not exclusive to them: that a well-spoken Black man who ran racial equality quangos and think-tanks agrees with them. So his views expressed over the past 15 years make a knighthood for services to “racial equality” particularly inappropriate; we have all heard of people getting the Nobel Peace Prize for making peace after having been a warmonger, but this is like rewarding today’s warmonger for yesterday’s peacemaking.
It’s not the first time that a British empire honour has been given to someone most people would not recognise as honourable, of course. The further up the honour system you go, the more apparent it is that the services are to the state, not to the benefit of the people. But it has to be said: Blair is a man who did more harm than good, whose arrogance and stupidity left a baneful legacy and whose good acts were early on in his leadership and are in danger of being swept away just 20 years after they were passed, while the other is known over the past twenty years for race-baiting and suspicion-mongering rather than “service to equality and human rights”. There’s nothing honourable about warmongering or hatemongering and we should not be expected to pretend there is.
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