BRINGING ETHNIC DIVERSITY TO BRITAIN’S BOARDROOMS
Trevor Phillips interview: ‘Lenny Henry’s celebrity has allowed us to be heard’ – bringing ethnic diversity to Britain’s boardrooms..
A call in spring 2014 from Lenny Henry for cash to boost the presence of ethnic minorities in the broadcasting industry – on and off-screen – set a hare running.
“When he made the speech I sent him an email which said: ‘I don’t care what you think mate, you’ve just been elected leader,’” says Phillips, the broadcaster and former head of the Commission for Racial Equality. The answer he got back was: “Get out of here.”
Thanks to interest from Vince Cable, Henry and Phillips are involved in a new taskforce, chaired by serial blue-chip boss Sir John Parker, to bring diversity to Britain’s boardrooms.
In the same way that ministers set out to boost women’s share of top roles to 25 per cent, now they want to eradicate all-white boards by 2020. For all his years in the media glare, Phillips is just crunching the numbers this time, insisting: “I am the backroom boy on this – which is where I am most comfortable.”
Really? “Lenny’s celebrity and the fact that people really like him has allowed us to make an issue count and be heard in a way that 100 years of Trevor Phillips would not achieve.”
He’s still a polished performer, in horn-rimmed specs and dark suit, but, having turned 61 on New Year’s Eve, a little greyer around the edges. These issues have been around for a while too, but Phillips is convinced business is finally ready to tackle them.
The five years of work on gender “has made a lot of business leaders open their eyes to the general notion that they may actually be missing something by going to the same white male club”. But there is a long way to go. Phillips’ firm, Green Park Diversity Analytics, found that 62 per cent of FTSE 100 boards are all-white and only 5 per cent of board members have ethnic minority backgrounds.
“At the time when we first did these figures there was not a single person of Chinese or East Asian extraction in the senior ranks of FTSE executives. It is amazing,” he says.
“You don’t have to be Asian to deal with the Chinese, but I think we also have to think about what they see when they are looking from the other side of the table at us.”
Race will play a key part in the election debate, under the guise of immigration. Phillips labels the issue “the great unmentionable” because Labour and the Conservatives fail to talk about what “most people actually want to hear debated, which is how we manage differences in communities, how we manage change”.
That stance has driven voters into the arms of Ukip. “I think we should be confronting the arguments that Ukip makes directly, but not by saying that anybody who supports Ukip, or votes for Ukip, is a racist, because that is just not true.” Phillips disagrees with what the party stands for, but admits it sounds like he is defending it too.
“They are the only party, by the way, which says we should reduce immigration from Europe in order to allow immigration from the Commonwealth. If anything, Ukip’s immigration policy is more pro-black than it is pro-white.” Hasn’t the immigration issue turned back the clock on race relations, though?
“No, I don’t agree with that. Again, you have got to distinguish what is happening in the country from what is happening in Westminster. I think on almost every measure, people’s attitudes towards people of a different race or background are healthier, more positive.”
Phillips believes we are living in an age “not of racial hostility, but potentially of racial indifference, that is to say we end up living side by side but not really knowing much about each other”.
Still, it is a far cry from the Britain he was born into in 1953, the seventh child of a Guyanese postman. Schooled here and in Guyana, he embraced politics early as president of the National Union of Students. Despite studying chemistry at Imperial College, he pursued a television career and fell in early with New Labour. Lord Mandelson was best man at his first wedding.
But after nine years at the Commission for Racial Equality and its successor body, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, something curbed his ascent.
He alludes to “various sins which I committed, like not being the best of friends – apparently – with Ken Livingstone”. The pair fell out when Phillips turned down, as “patronising”, the chance to be Livingstone’s mayoral running mate.
His questioning of multicultural ideals didn’t endear himself to Labour either, even though he is still a fully paid-up member.
These days, Phillips is busying himself at his TV firm, Pepper Productions. He is also writing a prequel to Windrush, his book on the rise of multiracial Britain.
He doesn’t have any “significant ambitions” in politics. What about standing for London mayor next year, succeeding Boris Johnson? “Oh crikey, no,” he exclaims.
He has great admiration for his old sparring partner Livingstone, although “I don’t think he ever really demonstrated a big vision for London, but I learnt a lot from watching him operate because he really knows how to terrify his opponents”. Johnson, meanwhile “made the role of London mayor at least 10 times as big as it ought to be”.
Meanwhile, back in the corridors of power, having trained as a chemist, there is a wider problem that gnaws at him. “The one thing that will not change, no matter who wins the election in May, is that there is not going to be a single person at the cabinet table who is trained in natural sciences or engineering.
“Can you imagine the Japanese or the Germans having that?”