The Man who Whipped

By Darcus Howe


I wrote last week about how the Mail on Sunday had spiked a 1,000-word piece it had commissioned from me on the disproportionate exclusion of black boys from our schools. How interesting that, when I opened the Mail on Sunday last weekend, I found an article by Trevor Phillips, the failed Labour Party candidate for mayor, and current chairman of the Greater London Assembly.

He almost spoilt my breakfast. “The time has come for Zero Tolerance,” read the headline. “In a powerful and highly personal essay,” went the introduction, “a distinguished black politician argues parents, teachers and police must all play their part in combating the violent culture of young black criminals.”

Distinguished politician? In that league, we may refer to, say, Aneurin Bevan, Harold Macmillan, Tony Benn or Roy Jenkins. But Trevor Phillips? One minute he appeared as a mayoral candidate for London, printed manifesto in tow, and the next he was demoted to candidate for deputy behind Frank Dobson, who was adopted as the official Labour candidate. They were flogged out of town. Trevor could not even mobilise the Afro-Caribbean vote. Ken Livingstone took it all. Distinguished politician indeed!

And why a “personal essay”? I guess that means the Labour Party is not in agreement with his views. Read on and you may understand why. “In the estates and back alleys of London,” he writes, “there is a murderous guerrilla war going on that is costing hundreds of lives.” Hundreds of lives? Phillips has got Brixton and Hackney mixed up with Kabul or Belfast.

Then he divides the rest of us into “those who think it is time to root out the cancer in our midst and those who want to turn a blind eye”. My readers will know that I regularly tell tales of woe from the front line in Brixton where I live: of my own experience of being mugged, of my close relative who got involved with a violent Yardie gang. But I do not recognise the London that Trevor describes. Within the Brixton community, there is a tremendous effort to isolate the Yardies so that they may be seen to be vulnerable. Within half an hour of any serious gun crime, someone is nicked. These quiet, persistent and non-elaborate processes are relentlessly in motion, and we are well on top of it. But there is a deep economic problem that always lies at the base of extensive crime. Refugees have flooded the labour market, depressing wages hugely. Thousands of blacks leave school or college with hardly a hope in hell of getting even a low wage.

Then Phillips mounts his hobby-horse. “I strongly support the establishment of church-controlled schools. The old-fashioned discipline of Caribbean teachers, uniforms, detention, tough lessons and, yes, even the possibility of corporal punishment … could stop many a criminal career before it begins.” Well, if we need all that, why do you see, at the train and Tube stations and bus stops of south London, thousands of young black men going to ordinary jobs each morning? Lowly paid for their hard labour, they nevertheless keep their family homes and look after their children well.

And where is Phillips to find these deans of discipline, these white men with canes who will rip the skin off the bare bottoms of black boys, these gym mistresses who will attack Marks & Spencer knickers? He hasn’t a clue. Those teachers do not exist any more and, if they did and tried the whip, they would have to be escorted from Stockwell comprehensive by the army.

And church schools? If Phillips had his way, young blacks, asked in ten years’ time who they are, will define themselves as Anglican, Roman Catholic, Pentecostalist or Muslim. What a retreat that would be from civilised standards of education and the quiet sophistication of the secular.

Some years ago, Phillips asked me to dinner at one of those London clubs. He was seeking my opinion on his entry into politics. I told him to join the Tory party and participate on the right wing of it. It is time he found his true place.