Anyone who believes that only Donald Trump has the sheer temerity to exercise a political volte face by conducting one of the most racist campaigns in American political history, and then present himself as a unity candidate should think again. Our own version of personal ‘re-inventionism’ is being writ on a smaller but no less significant political stage, by our very own Eric Pickles MP.
On the 1st of December, Mr. Pickles will be hosting a national anti-hate crime campaign – an initiative emblazoned in the vivid blue, red and white of the British Flag – entitled Better Than That: Britain is no place for Hate Crime. For many activists the mention of Pickles as the defender of minority rights is like a red rag to a bull. Memories of Cabinet members such as Mr. Pickles and the current PM Theresa May who were part of the Cameron government, picking away at our hard-won struggles for racial justice, civil liberties and human rights and inciting a climate of racism are still painfully raw. The anti-extremism measures that stoked up Islamaphobia; the ‘Go Home’ van initiatives that incited xenophobia; and the call to adopt British values that cast ethnic minorities as the ‘other’ – were all measures that were implemented while Mr. Pickles was part of the inner-Cabinet in Cameron’s government.
A number of people who have been invited to the launch have already said they wont be attending. The view of one highly respected professional working at the coal face with BME communities offers a barometer to the general mood within the sector:
‘I won’t attend … that a man as thoroughly discredited as Pickles could have the nerve to host this. Don’t forget he called us ‘Stalinists’ for asking for a race equality strategy and scrapped the race equality fund at the same time as he proposed more funding for bin collections.’
In short many of us consider Pickles’ attempt to present himself as a champion for hate crime as utter rubbish!
As Communities Minister, Pickles introduced, what many of us considered a transparent assimilationist policy. His Report entitled Creating the Conditions of Integration, pledged to end the era of multiculturalism. It asserted that the English language and Christian faith would be restored to the centre of public life. He raised the spectre of the non-English speaking ethnic minority bogeyperson bringing public services to its knees due to ‘crippling’ interpretation and translation costs, while cutting funding for ESOL initiatives. In Pickles’ world, people of colour lived in ‘ghettoes;’ their failure to integrate made them susceptible to radicalisation; they refused to learn English; did not share British values – and so on and so forth went his divisive riff against ethnic minorities throughout his tenure as a Cabinet Minister.
There was no acknowledgement of the systemic and institutional dimensions of racism. 44% of young black people were unemployed during his government’s watch but no resources were provided to tackle discrimination in employment. Instead his government was prepared to consign the Equalities Act to the red tape bonfire because it was deemed to be placing disproportionate burdens on business.
Mr. Pickles personally endorsed these measures by declaring equality monitoring as unnecessary, intrusive and a waste of taxpayers’ money and issued guidance to stop what he called the ‘gold-plating of equality rules’
Pickles was particularly reviled by the Gypsy and Traveller community, and with good reason. In an article entitled Five Reasons Gypsies and Travellers Hate Eric Pickles (and why you should too), the author unpicks Pickles’ role in the steady diminution of their rights and dignity. The violent eviction of Travellers from Dale Farm in 2011 led to a resolution from the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination for Pickles to suspend the planned eviction and find a peaceful solution whilst the Council of Europe called for an end to the violations of the right to adequate housing of Travellers.
Pickles personal role in the unfair targeting of Gypsies and Travellers was exposed in a High Court judgment. It found Pickles guilty of unlawful discrimination; breaching human rights and equality law and abusing his ministerial powers to flout planning regulation by personally deciding whether Gypsies and Travellers should be allowed to settle on green belt land.
The continued deep-seated antipathy towards Mr. Pickles was clearly brought home, when I discussed the launch of the national hate crime initiative with a member of the Romany community. He snorted:
‘To expect someone who has whipped up antiziganist sentiments and contributed to the increase in hate crime and discrimination against my community, to then present himself as a hate crime champion will stick in my community’s craw.’
It’s not just Pickles’ role that has raised eyebrows. There appears to have been little consultation with the public, let alone practitioners on the proposal. Nobody working on the frontline with ethnic minority communities that I know, appears to have any information on how the initiative will tackle hate crime nationally. It all feels rather like the Big Society initiative – big on rhetoric on the outside and hollow in substance on the inside. Then there is the statement on the invite which sets out the raison d’etre for the national anti-hate crime initiative. It asserts that ‘(i)mmediately after Brexit, the Home Office reported a 41% rise in crimes motivated by race or religion compared to the same month last year.’ Surely it cannot have escaped Mr. Pickles’ notice, that it was the virulent anti-European, anti-immigrant rhetoric used by the Brexiters within his own Party, that has emboldened racists and accounted for the increase in hate crime across the country.
Someone suggested to me that perhaps Mr. Pickles has gone through some kind of moral metamorphosis and the initiative is an attempt to expiate past wrongdoings. Another colleague suggested that it could be an act of political chutzpah in which Mr. Pickles is attempting to re-define his legacy for posterity. Whatever his motivation, my message to Mr. Pickles (and to President-elect Donald Trump) is this: I do not give you permission to try and protect me after your words and actions have aided and abetted the violence, abuse and harassment that has been visited on me, my family, my friends and my community. You have not earned the right to act in our name.