The Equalities and Human Rights Commission( EHRC), set up in 1998, with fulsome backing from the LibDems, is deliberately being weakened by the Tories in government. Its heartbeat gets fainter, pulse and voice weak, and the hope must be for a long coma. The budget has been slashed; campaigning commissioners are being turfed out, among them respected black activist Simon Woolley and Baroness Meral Hussein-Ece, a Muslim. Baroness Onora O’Neill, 71, has replaced Trevor Phillips as chair. Phillips ( a Blair appointee) was not as effective or dynamic as he needed to be, but he did understand how discrimination damaged individuals and society. O’Neill is a thoughtful philosopher, ex principal of a Cambridge college, an establishment figure with no record in equality or human rights work. Oh, except for a paper on the ‘dark side of human rights’ which suggests some victims get off on their feelings of victimisation. The Hillsborough relatives and Doreen Lawrence have been accused by others of just that. Imagine what the Commission would be under Shami Chakrabarti or Geoffrey Robinson Q.C or the indomitable Helena Kennedy? They just wouldn’t play safe or dead and would NEVER be appointed.
The UN has just warned that the UK may lose its ‘A’ status on human rights protection and so cannot join in top table discussions on those universal rights and country violations. On equality UN figures are as miserable. Latvia is getting better on gender parity and we are getting markedly worse. On race there is serious criticism of government inaction. That will have our lovely reactionaries rubbing their stomachs with deep satisfaction.
The Tory right has always hated anti-discrimination remedies and dangerous talk of human rights. According to these ideologues, inhabitants of this capitalist, individualistic nation, should, put up with hard luck and unfairness and not bother busy, busy businesses with profligate complaints. By comparison, the US, an even more fanatically individualistic, capitalistic, nation has had equalities laws and anti-discrimination institutions since the sixties for ethical and economic reasons. Not even George Bush and his band of NeoCons could persuade majority public opinion that such ‘interfering’ legal protection was ruining the country.
The Human Rights Act and the Commission materialised after years of painstaking work by the LibDem lawyer Lord Anthony Lester and other civil rights and democracy experts. I remember endless seminars, fiery arguments, public meetings to work out a good model to defend all UK citizens from prejudices and unjust actions. That principle was what got me on side. The Commission would not only be fighting for black Britons and women, but white men too, old, young and gay people, anyone who had been treated unfairly. Though the campaigns against them never stop, those rights are now firmly in our heads and hearts. Theresa May gave them as her reasons for not extraditing Garry McKinnon, Asperger’s sufferer and Pentagon hacker to the USA recently; we are collectively profoundly upset when the human rights of children are violated as they were by Savile and others and shocked to see the abuse of vulnerable old people in some care homes, their right to human dignity violated.
I had an illuminating exchange at a party this week. A property developer wanted to know how he could get the EHRC to take up his daughter’s case. Expected to get top grades, she applied to an Oxford college and was rejected. The disappointed teenager has, since, tried to kill herself: ‘It’s not fair, they didn’t give her a chance. They just judged her on class.’ I replied I completely sympathised and I do. And I hope he too now has some empathy with the qualified black man who never gets an interview, the old worker sacked because of his age. From being against such ‘political correctness nonsense’ as he put it, the father had started to see why we need laws to safeguard us all.
David Cameron seemed, at one time, far removed from his anti-equality troglodytes. He worked tirelessly in the last election to persuade voters that under his leadership Tories had undergone not a makeover but irreversible reconstructive surgery. It was no longer the ‘nasty party’( in the words of Theresa May), but nice, caring, sharing, modern, meritocratic, inclusive and diverse. He understood the Conservatives were stuffed without new blood. Their most loyal white, middle class supporters were getting old and most young Tory whippersnappers were almost as badly out of touch with modern Britain. Excluded and self-excluding voters had to be attracted to boost numbers and change the old image of the party. I do think Cameron, in that moment and mood, passionately believed and truly meant what he said- in that he is Tony Blair’s doppelganger.
Now the PM backs off from all that idealism, dumps progressive policies and state institutions to enforce best practice, casually abandons his pre-election persona and swerves sharp right. Disabling the equalities and human rights agenda and sacrificing the Commission are offered as proof to the old guard that he is still one of them. And as ever LibDems leaders, warm in their ministerial cars and self importance, do nothing to stop him or defend an institution they so wanted, so believed in.
Published in the Independent 5th November 2012