In defence of Baroness Warsi

The Tory right has it all wrong.

I have a soft spot for Baroness Warsi. Before the Islamophobic and racist trolls arrive "below the line" to claim it's because she shares my faith or ethnicity, let me clarify: it has nothing to do with that. It's because she, like Ken Clarke, is neither a right-wing Tory headbanger nor is she a smug Notting Hill Cameroon. She's unafraid to speak her mind and, by Tory standards, is normal(-ish).

This morning, Baroness Warsi appeared on the Today programme to defend the Tories' non-campaign in Oldham East and Saddleworth and used the radio interview to lay into right-wing Tory backbenchers who've been grumbling about the party's overall approach to the by-election, where they came third.

Here's how Warsi put it:

We had many, many members of parliament turning up; we had some who made much comment about the fact that we weren't fighting a strong enough campaign but, interestingly, didn't turn up to campaign.

I would say to those who are critical: "Unless you were here, unless you were out delivering and unless you were knocking on doors, you really don't have a right to complain about us not being vigorous enough."

The response from the Tory right was instant and brutal; here's ConservativeHome's Tim Montgomerie:

She should be defending her own campaign rather than lashing out at others.

And here's James Forsyth, one of the best-connected Tory-supporting journalists, writing on the Spectator's Coffee House blog:

What to do about Warsi is quite a problem for the Tory high command. She does visibly show how the party has changed but she's also not very competent.

Hmm. "Not very competent"? As compared to who? The gaffe-prone Education Secretary, Michael Gove, who had to apologise for a series of ministerial mis-statements over the scrapping of Building Schools for the Future (BSF) last summer and, in recent weeks, has had to execute U-turns over funding for school support and free books for kids? The reckless Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, who is on the verge of wrecking the NHS with his hasty, ill-considered and expensive reorganisation?

Forsyth describes the baroness's intervention on the radio this morning as "Warsi's 'nasty party' moment". But, hold on, Theresa May, who coined that notorious phrase back in 2002, had a point: countless centrist voters across the land did indeed consider the Conservatives to be nasty, uncaring, reactionary, right-wing, etc. In fact, the problem I have with the criticisms of Warsi emanating from the Spectator, ConservativeHome et al is that they fail to recognise the rather obvious point that the failure of Cameron's Conservatives to win a majority last year wasn't because they went too far in terms of "detoxification", "modernisation" and "rebranding" -- it was because they didn't go far enough! Or does Tim Montgomerie think a more right-wing, low-tax, anti-European, anti-immigration platform would have secured Cameron his majority in 2010? Really?? Just ask William Hague and Michael Howard how that barmy approach worked out for them in 2001 and 2005 . . .

Whether Warsi is gaffe-prone is a debate for another day; attacking her for attacking the right or running a lacklustre campaign in Oldham East and Saddleworth is just silly. The Tories had no chance of winning the seat and, had the Lib Dems somehow won it from Labour, that would have actually helped the Tories by helping to stabilise the Tory-led coalition. And, lest we forget, it was the Tory right-winger Andrew Mitchell, and not Sayeeda Warsi, who, according to Gary Gibbon, "told cabinet colleagues on 21 December that they (collectively, all, both parties) should do everything they can to help the Lib Dems in Oldham East". Gibbon adds: "I hear that no one in that cabinet meeting (including the PM) dissented from this pretty blatant piece of informal pact-making."

No one? Not the right-wing standard-bearers Liam Fox or Iain Duncan Smith? So why shoot the messenger (in this case, Sayeeda Warsi)?

On a side note, you can read my interview with the Tory chair, from October 2010, here.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Bomb Isil? That's exactly what they want

The government appears not to answer the nature of its enemy, warns Maria Norris.

As MPs are set to vote on further airstrikes in Syria, it is difficult to shake off the feeling that the government does not fully appreciate the complexity of the problem Isil poses. Just a cursory glance at its magazine, the pronouncements of its leaders and its ideology reveals that Isil is desperate for Western bombs to fall out of the sky. As Martin Chulov argues, Isil is fighting a war it believes was preordained since the early days of Islam. Isil’s obsession with the city of Dabiq, in Northern Syria, stems from a hadith which prophesises that the ‘Crusader’ army will land in the city as a precursor to a final battle where Islam will emerge victorious. Dabiq is also the name of its magazine, which starts every issue with the same quote: "The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify -- by Allah's permission -- until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq". Isil wants a war with the West. If we don’t negotiate with terrorists, then we also should not give them what they want.

Further, bombs are indiscriminate and will inevitably lead to the suffering of those trapped in Isil territories. Isil is counting on this suffering to swell their ranks. Civilian suffering from airstrikes only underline the narrative that the West is at war with Islam, which plays directly into Isil’s hands. And despite misleading headlines and the genuine government concern with individuals fleeing to Syria, Isis is supremely unpopular. It is no wonder that its magazine is filled with glossy adds begging people to move to its territories.  You cannot be a state without people. Terrorist attacks such as Paris thus have a two-pronged purpose: they provoke the West to respond with its military, and they act as a recruitment drive. The fact that fake Syrian passports were found around the sites of the Paris attacks is no coincidence as Isil are both seeking to stem the flow of refugees from its territories and hoping to provoke an Islamophobic backlash. They hope that, as more Muslims feel alienated in the West, more will join them, not just as fighters, but as the doctors, nurses and teachers it desperately needs.

In addition to this, airstrikes overlook the fact that Isil is a result of what Fawaz Gerges calls a severe, organic institutional crisis in the Middle East. In a lecture at the London School of Economics earlier this year, Gerges pointed out the dysfunction created when a region that is incredibly resource rich also is also deeply undemocratic, riddled with corruption, food insecurity, unemployment and poverty. This forms an institutional vacuum that is filled by non-state actors as the population does not trust its political structures. Further, the civil war in Syria is also the site of the toxic soup of Middle Eastern state dysfunction. Iran supports Assad, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, fund anti-Shia groups in Syria. Throw in the Kurdish conflict, Turkey’s ambiguous position and Russian bombs, it is difficult to see how airstrikes will solve anything.

Finally, it is crucial that Isil is seen as a direct result of the Iraq war. The American-led invasion destroyed the institutions, giving the Shia majority power almost overnight, creating deep dissatisfaction in the Sunni regions of Iraq. On top of this thousands of foreign fighters flooded Iraq to fight the invaders, attracting disenfranchised and angry Sunnis. The result is that since 2003, Iraq has been embroiled in a sectarian civil war.  It is in civil war, inherently connected to the Iraq War, that you find the roots of Isil. As even the Prime Minister concedes that ground troops are necessary, albeit it regional ground troops with its own set of problems, it is important to consider what further monster can arise from the ashes of another ill-thought out military intervention in the Middle East.
We have had decades of military intervention in the Middle East with disastrous consequences. Airstrikes represent business as usual, when what we actually need is a radically new approach. Who is funding Isil? Who is buying its oil? How to curb Isil’s recruitment drives? What can be done about the refugees? How to end the conflict in Syria? What happens to Assad? These are questions hopefully being addressed in talks recently held in Vienna with Russian, Ira, the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states. Airstrikes do not answer any of these questions. What airstrikes do is give Isil exactly what it is asking for. Surely this is reason enough not to bomb Syria. 

Maria W. Norris is a PhD candidate and a teacher at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her PhD is on the UK counter-terrorism strategy since 9/11 and its relationship with identity. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.