A long-running 'feud'

The Tory London assembly member on what he says is one of the longest-running feuds in London politi

One of the longest running London political feuds is that between Trevor Phillips, the Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality and Ken Livingstone.

The row partly goes back to 2000 when Phillips ran as Frank Dobson’s deputy in his ill-fated Mayoral Campaign against Livingstone.

The following three years that Phillips spent on the London Assembly (including being its first Chairman) were probably not the most productive of Phillips’ career as Livingstone seemed to frustrate Trevor at every opportunity.

"I won’t have that Bastard Phillips on the Police Authority," was Ken’s remark to the first meeting of Tory Assembly members, and consequently Trevor had to sit through two years of endless London Fire Brigade meetings although he learnt at first hand what equalities mean in an organisation that had then barely emerged from the 1950s.

When Trevor moved on to the Commission for Racial Equality he had clearly found his niche in British Public Life and his immensely thoughtful contributions on race issues, stressing the need for integration, discussing the nature of Britishness gave the CRE credence it previously lacked.

The more sensible Phillips' speeches the more vicious Livingstone’s attacks culminating in the bizarre allegation that Phillips was pandering to the BNP.

Indeed in 2006 City Hall went to a great deal of trouble and expenditure to organise a race conference on the same day the CRE had a big event.

I was reflecting on this as I enjoyed a pleasant early evening reception at the French Ambassadors residence in Kensington Palace Gardens to mark the award of the Chevalier de Legion d’ honour to Trevor to go alongside his OBE.

A mixed crowd of the great and the good, including a couple of Conservative MPs, one Labour Assembly Member but strangely not the Mayor of London heard Trevor pay tribute to the French President Nicholas Sarkozy for taking the diversity agenda seriously in France especially in the make up of his new Government.

It has long been my view that whereas the left talk a good story on diversity and equality issues it is actually the right that drive through the agenda. On the London Fire Authority 10 years of Labour control between 1990 and 2000 saw virtually no progress yet all changed when a Tory became lead member on equality issues.

The left spend so much time arguing amongst themselves and playing one ethnic group off against another. I was flabbergasted when locally a Hindu Labour Councillor complained to me that we had invited a Muslim fellow Labour Councillor to take part in a veterans day service earlier this year. The conviction of Waltham Forest Labour Councillor Miranda Grell (a former aide to Deputy Mayor Nicky Gavron) under rarely used provisions of the Representation of the People Act for telling voters her Lib Dem opponent was a paedophile have shown how often the ethnic groups on the left are hostile to the gay rights agenda.

Trevor Phillips great achievement has been to mainstream the whole equalities agenda in the UK and it is not just the French Government that owes him a debt of gratitude.

Brian Coleman was first elected to the London Assembly in June 2000. Widely outspoken he is best known for his groundbreaking policy of removing traffic calming measures
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder