Trevor Phillips is a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange and Chairman of Green Park Executive Search. He is a a former Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
The voice of tyranny is often represented as the thunderous pounding of a gauntleted fist on the door in the dark reaches of the night. In fact, in my short time as Chair of Index on Censorship, I have learned that, more frequently, people who try to tell the truth under authoritarian regimes first detect the true voice of oppression in the quiet, dry-as-dust whisper of the bureaucrat’s pen as it scratches out some apparently innocuous message.
Then you read it and it says: recant, and repent now. Confess, grovel, beg, denounce your fellow deviants, and you may save your livelihood, your home, your permit to travel. Do as we say, accept the mortification of the flesh, and your soul may, just, escape eternal damnation.
When I glanced at the email sent from the Labour Party, late on a Friday afternoon, it took a moment to grasp that it was not just another plea from one of the remaining candidates in our leadership election. The phrase “administrative suspension” seized my attention, much as I imagine “anathema” might have done in centuries gone past.
These words signal banishment from a community you might have inhabited for decades; friends, colleagues, even family, may be compelled to shun the accused lest they too are shamed and excluded. The Labour Party’s most recently revised rule book contains broad strictures against antisemitism, Islamophobia, and other kinds of religious hostility or prejudice. Significantly, the eleven page indictment I received from the Labour Party concerns matters of faith, doctrine and dissent, written, not in the language of a democratic, open political movement, but in the cold-eyed, accusatory prose of the zealot. In essence, I am accused of heresy, and I am threatened with excommunication.
A year ago a cross party parliamentary group proposed that “Islamophobia” should be defined in broad terms as a “kind of racism” hostile to “Muslimness”. In a comprehensive pamphlet published by the Policy Exchange think tank, I pointed out that for many, one great attraction of Islam is its pan-racialism; Islam does not belong to any ethnic group. I also argued that the vague concept as “Muslimness” rested on the delusion that all adherents of the faith would agree on doctrine, dress and behaviours; this is “the” progressive equivalent of “they all look alike to me”.
It was therefore only a matter of time before this “definition” would inevitably lead to the persecution of individuals who dissented. I never imagined that I myself would be the first political victim of such a witch-hunt.
Thus far, there have been no actual visits from the Grand Inquisitor (though it could happen any time; as we know, nobody ever expects the Inquisition, Spanish or otherwise). I have not yet been subject to the auto-da-fe.
As with most such trials of faith, the charges have been drawn up in secret and my fate will be decided in absentia. I am not allowed to speak about the allegations to anyone, in public or private, even a spiritual adviser, be that a rabbi, imam or priest. I am forbidden to quote from the indictment. I am not told the names of my accuser or accusers, so will not able to test their credibility; nor will anyone else. Even if I knew who had added my name to the list for denunciation, I would be forbidden from mentioning that person in public.
It seems that no-one in this jurisdiction, even a former Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, is entitled to the protection of the European Convention on Human Rights’ Article 6, the right to a fair hearing. One hopes that the next leader of the Labour Party turns his or her attention quickly to the human rights of the organisation’s own members before starting to pick away at the mote in the eyes of others.
I am forbidden from repeating what is on the charge sheet; but I can, I think, reflect on what is not there. The Party makes no attempt to suggest that I have done anything unlawful. Nothing that I have been shown even suggests that I have offended any particular individual. I have never thrown a mobile telephone at a colleague nor have I raised my voice to a comrade. The evidence before this particular inquisitio consists entirely of statements made in public, allegedly written or spoken by me, or about me, which are said to breach the party’s rules on matters of religion or race.
Some readers of this report will appreciate my perplexity. I am a person of colour, of mostly African descent. As it happens, I also come from a family which, were it not for the intervention of transatlantic slavery, would be close to marking a millennium as Fulani or Mandinka Muslims. Most of my slave ancestors were forcibly converted to Christianity, probably by the agents of John Gladstone, father of William, the largest plantation owner in the Guianas, and the biggest beneficiary of compensation after abolition; but some of my relatives (including the sister closest to me in age) have, in my lifetime, made the return journey to embrace Islam, not least because of its justified claim to be a genuinely pan-racial major religion.
However, no-one’s bona fides should rest on their heritage or familial associations; people of all stripes and backgrounds can exhibit unacceptable prejudices, even against those who share their ethnicity or faith; in this country a not insignificant degree of hostility to Ahmadiyya Muslims stems from other followers of the faith. The single most common source of assault against Muslim women should be recognised as the genital mutilation of thousands of girls each year, often against their will, but always sanctioned by their own families, supposedly in the name of Islam. So my bewilderment lies as much in the fact that the charge of Islamophobia should be levelled at someone with my particular history.
I believe that I can lay claim to have made some contribution to Muslim welfare over the past half century, starting as a student anti-racist campaigner. It is generally recognised that the Runnymede Trust’s 1997 report on Islamophobia introduced the term to the UK’s political discourse; and that it was the Trust’s 2000 inquiry into the future of multi-ethnic Britain, the Parekh Report, that prompted the last Labour government into its first, unsuccessful attempt in 2001 to pass a law that would protect Muslims and others against incitement to religious hatred.
It was the CRE that persuaded the last Labour government to keep trying to pass the legislation, finally succeeding with the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006. I personally commissioned and launched the two reports as Chair of the Runnymede Trust. When I became head of the CRE in 2003, my principal adviser, a Muslim woman who had previously handled relations with faith communities for Tony Blair, and I, worked closely with two Labour Home Secretaries, David Blunkett and Charles Clarke, to force through the 2006 Act. Were I to choose the first candidate to be expelled from the Labour Party for Islamophobia, I don’t think I am the individual I would have chosen.
But an even more puzzling aspect of this indictment is its timing. Though I cannot reveal the precise charges, I do not think that I am breaking any confidentiality in saying that every single aspect of the indictment relates to words which have been published and widely disseminated over several years. Some emanate from television programmes seen by more than two million people, and reviewed in newspapers and magazines read by several million more half a decade ago. Much of the material quotes objective research conducted by people other than myself. There is not a single item in this indictment not instantly available to anyone with access to Google.
It is well known that I have published hundreds of thousands of words on the issue of ethnocultural integration over the past forty years. Many have disagreed with me on various topics; but never before has anyone inside or outside of the Labour Party suggested that I have broken any rules. In the past few years alone, under the current leadership, I have shared platforms with prominent minority Labourites such as David Lammy, Rushanara Ali, and Ayesha Hazarika. During the period under question I have interviewed Tony Blair for Channel 4 and spoken at Labour party meetings, including the annual conference of the Fabian Society. I have never been “no-platformed”.
In the final week of the 2019 general election, I even celebrated the anniversary of the Sickle Cell Society (which I had helped to launch forty years ago) alongside one of the Leader’s closest cohorts, seen every week sitting next to him at PMQs : the party’s Shadow Secretary for Women and Equalities, Dawn Butler, at an event in her own constituency. Had the party’s principal equalities spokesperson considered me an “Islamophobe” and a racist I very much doubt that she would have consented to be photographed cutting the ceremonial cake with such a vile bigot.
So what can account for this extraordinary turn of events?
I generally believe that the simplest explanations are the most likely. There is no political mileage in smearing me; I have not declared any public allegiance to any of the current candidates for leader, for example.
Some may see disciplinary action against me as payback by elements in the party for public criticisms of the leadership’s failure to tackle anti- semitism within the party. But the indictment makes no mention of that topic; if it had done so, it would suggest that the party’s leadership and its bureaucracy are prepared to corrupt the disciplinary process in order to victimise their opponents. That alone would be a scandal.
But corruption can take many forms. There is one further possibility which I would find particularly disturbing; that the attempt to discipline me is a signal – a dog whistle, if you like – to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, currently conducting an inquiry into the Labour Party’s handling of anti-semitism, of the treatment it can expect if it fails exonerate the leadership.
It could also be that by putting its own alleged “Islamophobes” in the dock, the Labour Party is trying to pressure the EHRC into mounting an analogous inquiry into the Conservative Party. In short, the Labour Party would be weaponising Islamophobia to protect itself, to attack its political opponents and to divert attention from the EHRC’s judgement on its lamentable record on anti-Semitism. If that were true it would be the very definition of political corruption – using Labour’s influence to intimidate a legally independent institution would be reprehensible.
It would, however, be consistent with the tone of Labour’s inquisition. The 1578 edition of the Directorium Inquisitorum (a standard Inquisitorial manual) emphasises that the job of the Inquisition is only secondarily to punish the wicked. The more important purpose of punishment is “….that others may become terrified and weaned away from the evils they would commit”.
As it happens, I do not believe that I have transgressed the arcane codes laid out in the Party’s rules. I fully accept that I may not share the views of our current leaders or even of the majority of members. But readers may judge for themselves whether my evidence-based writings are in themselves cause for condemnation; everything is public, on the record and easily accessible. I have never belonged to any political party other than Labour, and I have stuck with the tribe through its many travails. It would be a tragedy if, at the very moment we most need a robust and effective opposition our nation had to endure the spectacle of a great party collapsing into a brutish, authoritarian cult. That is why I will not go without a fight.
This article is reproduced from Policy Exchange’s paper The Trial: the Strange Case of Trevor Phillips.