In defence of Baroness Warsi: the sequel

The Tory peer is spot on about bigotry and Islamophobia.

In my last post on Sayeeda Warsi, the Conservative Party chair and peer, I wrote:

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.

But let me be clear in this post: I am delighted by her latest intervention precisely because I share her faith and am a co-religionist. Why wouldn't I be? Like every other Muslim I know, I've been waiting years for a leading politician to speak out against the growing, depressing and nasty anti-Muslim bigotry that has disfigured our public and private discourse. If that politician happens to be a Muslim herself, as Warsi is, then so be it. (And there's a lesson here for British Muslims of the Hizb ut-Tahrir/segregationist variety, who argue that Muslims should stay out of politics and public roles. The words "ostriches", "head" and "sand" come to mind.)

So what will Warsi be saying, in her speech at Leicester University tonight? From the Telegraph:

Islamophobia has "passed the dinner-table test" and is seen by many as normal and uncontroversial, Baroness Warsi will say in a speech on Thursday.

The minister without portfolio will also warn that describing Muslims as either "moderate" or "extremist" fosters growing prejudice.

. . . Lady Warsi will blame "the patronising, superficial way faith is discussed in certain quarters, including the media". The peer will describe how prejudice against Muslims has grown along with their numbers, partly because of the way they are often portrayed.

The notion that all followers of Islam can be described either as "moderate" or "extremist" can fuel misunderstanding and intolerance, she will say.

"It's not a big leap of imagination to predict where the talk of 'moderate' Muslims leads; in the factory, where they've just hired a Muslim worker, the boss says to his employees: 'Not to worry, he's only fairly Muslim.'

"In the school, the kids say: 'The family next door are Muslim but they're not too bad.'

"And in the road, as a woman walks past wearing a burka, the passers-by think: 'That woman's either oppressed or is making a political statement.'"

The baroness will also be offering some "home truths" to sections of the Muslim community:

. . . she will also suggest that some Muslim communities must do more to make clear to extremists that their beliefs and actions are not acceptable.

"Those who commit criminal acts of terrorism in our country need to be dealt with not just by the full force of the law," she will say.

"They also should face social rejection and alienation across society and their acts must not be used as an opportunity to tar all Muslims."

On a side note, I'm amused that her comments have attracted such headlines -- it was the lead story on the Today programme, no less! -- when she made exactly the same points to me in an interview in the New Statesman last year:

She is surprisingly frank and forthright about the rise of Islamophobia in Britain. Citing the conservative commentator and columnist Peter Oborne, who has written extensively about the demonisation of Muslim communities, she tells me: "When Peter says that anti-Islamic sentiment is the last socially acceptable form of bigotry in Britain today, that's absolutely true." She adds: "If you have a pop at the British Muslim community in the media, first of all it will sell a few papers; second, it doesn't really matter; and third, it's fair game.

"If you go back historically -- [and] I was looking at some Evening Standard headlines, where there were things written about the British Jewish community less than 100 years ago -- they have kind of replaced one with the other."

But I couldn't resist blogging on her latest comments for one very simple reason. Prove me -- and her -- wrong. Prove that there isn't Islamophobia or anti-Muslim bigotry by keeping the comments below the line, on this particular post, civil, tolerant and non-bigoted. I suspect the trolls won't be able to. And, in doing so, they'll prove Warsi's point. How deliciously ironic . . .

Ready, steady, GO!

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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Two referendums have revived the Tories and undone Labour

The Scottish vote enabled the Conservatives' rebirth as the party of the Union; the Brexit vote has gifted Theresa May a project to reunite a fragmented right.

In the final week of the Scottish independence referendum campaign, as the Union appeared in peril, David Cameron pleaded with voters to punish his party rather than Scotland. “If you are fed up with the effing Tories, give them a kick,” he said. Cameron’s language reflected a settled view: the Conservatives were irredeemably loathed by Scots. For nearly two decades, the party had no more than one MP north of the border. Changing the party’s name for devolved contests was discussed.

Since becoming Conservative leader, Theresa May has pursued a hard – she prefers “clean” – Brexit strategy that Scots voted against and the Conservatives have achieved a UK-wide poll lead of 20 points.

Yet rather than regressing, the Scottish Conservatives have resurged. On 22 April, a Panelbase poll put them on 33 per cent in Scotland (a rise of 18 points since 2015). A favoured Labour barb used to be that there were more pandas (two) in Scotland than Tory MPs (one). The poll would leave the Tories with 12 seats and Corbyn’s party with none. Tory aides confess that they were surprised by the figures but declare there are “no limits to our ambitions” in Scotland.

The roots of this recovery lie in the 2014 independence referendum. The vote, and the SNP’s subsequent landslide victory in the 2015 general election, realigned Scottish politics along unionist and nationalist lines. Led by Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservatives have ably exploited the opportunity. “We said No. We meant it,” the party’s official slogan declares of Nicola Sturgeon’s demand for a second referendum. Under Ruth Davidson, the Tories have already become the official opposition at Holyrood.

Labour is torn between retaining unionists and winning back nationalists. It has been punished for its equivocation, as it is being punished over its confused response to Brexit. In April 2016, the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, said that it was “not inconceivable” that she could back independence if the UK voted to leave the EU (and earlier suggested that MPs and MSPs could be given a free vote). Jeremy Corbyn recently stated that he was “absolutely fine” with a second referendum being held.

“For us it’s a badge of honour but there are some people in Scottish Labour who are quite queasy about that word [unionist] and I think Jeremy Corbyn would be very queasy about it,” Adam Tomkins, a Conservative MSP for Glasgow and public law professor, told me. “Don’t forget the Northern Ireland dimension; we’ve all seen the photos of him rubbing shoulders with leading republicans. The Scottish Union is very different to the Irish Union but the word migrates.”

The irony is that Corbyn allies believed his anti-austerity, anti-Trident platform would allow Labour to recover in Scotland. Yet the pre-eminence of the national question has left it in a political no-man’s land.

In contrast to the rest of the UK, Scots backed Remain by 62 per cent to 38 per cent. Far from protecting EU membership, as David Cameron had promised in the referendum campaign, the preservation of the Union now threatened it. Theresa May has since yielded no ground, denying Scotland both a second independence referendum on terms dictated by the SNP and single market membership. But polls show no rise in support for independence.

Conservative aides believe that Sturgeon miscalculated by immediately raising the prospect of a second referendum following the Leave vote last June. Families and communities were riven by the 2014 contest. Most had little desire to disrupt the uneasy peace that has prevailed since.

Nor are the politics of Brexit as uncomplicated as some assume. Thirty-six per cent of SNP supporters voted Leave and more than a third of this bloc have since turned against independence. As elsewhere, some Remainers have accepted the result and fear the instability that secession would cause. Scotland’s trade with the UK is worth four times as much as that with the EU. Davidson, who was one of the most forceful advocates for Remain, says that pursuing independence to counter the effects of Brexit would be “stubbing your toe to then amputate your foot”.

Theresa May, who spoke of the “precious” Union when she became Prime Minister, has devoted great attention to Scotland. Cabinet ministers are instructed to develop a “Scottish plan” when they formulate policy; buildings funded by the UK government now bear its insignia. Davidson’s influence was crucial to May’s decision to retain the 0.7 per cent foreign aid commitment – an emblem of compassionate conservatism.

After a decade of SNP rule, Tory aides believe that their rival’s poor domestic record, most notably on education, is “catching up with them”. More than a year has elapsed since the Scottish Parliament passed new legislation. “We’ve got a government that simply isn’t very interested in governing,” Tomkins said. “I thought that Nicola [Sturgeon] would change that. I was wrong.” What preoccupies the SNP is the constitutional question.

Shortly after the remarkable Scottish polls, a new survey showed the Tories on course to win the most seats in Wales for the first time since 1859. For some former Labour supporters, voting Ukip is proving a gateway drug to voting Conservative.

Two referendums have now realigned politics in the Tories’ favour. The Scottish vote enabled their rebirth as the party of the Union; the Brexit vote has gifted May a project to reunite a fragmented right.

Before the 2015 general election, Labour derided the Tories as a southern English force unworthy of their official name: the Conservative and Unionist Party. Partly through accident and partly through design, May and Davidson are now reclaiming it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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