Not so long ago, the National Consumer Council decided that some shops on railway stations were selling chocolate bars too cheaply and that the public should, for its own protection, pay more for them. This occurred at about the same time as the RSPB mulled over the possibility that it might start shooting or gassing or strangling parakeets (it has since denied it ever intended such a thing). All we needed was a short statement from the NSPCC to the effect that it was entirely in favour of the occasional child sacrifice from time to time and we would have been in an almost perfect upside-down world. But instead the NSPCC insisted that one in five children suffered from abuse, while one of the main disability lobby groups argued that one in three British people was disabled.
In a way, all of these organisations — the ones now campaigning for the very opposite of what they were set up to campaign for and the ones issuing ever more bizarre, grandstanding claims — are reacting to the same problem, one which afflicts all organisations that were set up to fight for the rights of one or another minority group and have now more or less achieved their goals (and we’ll exclude the RSPB from that). The problem is: what the hell do we do now? Here we are with these vast subsidies from the taxpayer and our nice, highly remunerative jobs which come with buckets of status attached …we can’t simply give up and say ‘Problem solved’, can we? But it’s either that or change the agenda, spread it wider so that vast numbers of people can shelter beneath our umbrella (one in three British people disabled!) or invent new forms of discrimination nobody else has thought of.
You might not have been surprised if the Equalities and Human Rights Commission had pursued one of these routes — after all, within its state-subsidised cages is the entire panoply of the British oppressed — the homos, the wimmin, the darkies, the cripples, the Mozzies, as the organisation would probably not put it. One of the EHRC’s predecessors, the Commission for Racial Equality, began as an undoubted and necessary force for good and ended as a repository for institutionalised whining and the pavlovian howl of ‘raaaacist!’ at any and everything. In quasi-Marxist fashion it lumped together all minority groups which it believed could be defined simply by the fact that they were not white and heterosexual, and therefore not part of the oppressive British hegemony. It eschewed any notion of integration; it favoured that bitter oxymoron, positive discrimination. In the mid-1980s, in an example of its political dogmatism, it insisted that British Chinese people should be referred to as ‘black’, which came as a not-altogether-pleasant surprise to the Chinese. But they were, the CRE insisted, objectively and politically ‘black’, no matter what they themselves thought.
But the chairman of the EHRC, Trevor Phillips, has been determined to drag the organisation into the modern world, understanding that the early primitive goals of such bodies have been largely attained, and that the battle now is along more nuanced and less doctrinaire and less predictably oppositional lines. He has done a remarkably good job — to the extent that the CRE’s successor is, once again, a force for the good of society rather than ill, prepared to mull over issues and invite discussion rather than hand down politically correct tablets from the mountain top. And the whole business has also been downsized. No wonder, then, that Phillips is taking it in the neck from many of those jabbering guardians of the rainbow coalition corralled uncomfortably under his leadership. There have been several resignations and spiteful little pieces printed in the press, accusing Phillips — in the vaguest of terms — of having a problematic management style. (Can you imagine trying to run an organisation consisting of these people? Christ, I think I’d sign up to Dignitas in my first week.) Many of these professional agitators fear for their sinecures, without doubt; others have more profound ideological objections.
And then there is Ben Summerskill, OBE (all of these minority-wallahs have honours, natch), the boss of the gay rights group Stonewall, who has resigned from the EHRC (despite having assured the organisation that he would not do so) and stuck the boot in by writing a column in the Times. He suggested that Phillips was not quite up to the job, although he did not specify in what way. Summerskill also laid darker accusations at the feet of the chairman — that Phillips’s private TV production company had profited as a consequence of its boss being the chairman of the EHRC. Summerskill forgot to mention that the single programme made by Phillips’s company had been passed two years previously by the chairman of the EHRC’s Audit and Risk Committee — a certain, er, Ben Summerskill.
I suppose there is something agreeable and rather funny about these two impeccably liberal left-wing former journalists kicking seven shades of shit out of each other, and also some perverse pleasure to be gleaned from the unholy mess at the EHRC, a nest of writhing taxpayer-remunerated vipers. But the truth would seem to be that Phillips, given a very short time indeed to organise this new body at the government’s behest, has done so with a vigour and commitment which the previously comfortably ensconced minorities leaders had not expected nor indeed welcomed. The disability rights representative Bert Massie said wryly of Phillips’s chairmanship that it took a certain skill to alienate absolutely everybody. He was overstating the case, but even if it were true, it might be no bad thing. The discrimination industry had become bloated and self-important and marooned in about 1973.
It will be interesting to see if Phillips succeeds in reforming the EHRC — the first case of such a campaigning organisation reacting to social change in a measured manner. I suppose this will not help his cause terribly, but The Spectator should wish him well in his efforts. It is an odd thing, mind, to find oneself on the same side as a ‘Mandelsonian right-winger’, as Phillips once described himself to me.
But waiting in the wings is a fate much, much worse. Top of the Guardian’s list of people to take over from Phillips, should he finally decide he’s had enough of the insults, is one Shami Chakrabati, the current boss of Liberty, who is appearing on a television screen near you at this precise moment, peddling her incalculably self-righteous bilge to whoever will lend an ear. One step forward, ten steps back.