Why David Cameron is wrong about radicalisation and multiculturalism

Under the pernicious influence of Michael Gove and other neoconservatives, the Prime Minister is sin

Michael Gove has won. Late last month, writing in the Spectator, the Telegraph's chief political commentator, Peter Oborne, drew our attention to the "neconservative" faction inside the Conservative-led government:

This section of the coalition also takes a hard line on domestic security arrangements, supporting control orders and the divisive Prevent strategy for confronting its special interpretation of the Islamic terror threat. Its key cabinet supporters include George Osborne, Liam Fox, Oliver Letwin, Michael Gove (whose book Celsius 7/7 sought to define the domestic war on terror with astonishing success) and, crucially, the Home Secretary, Theresa May. Baroness Neville-Jones, the one-time Whitehall spook who sits on the fancily named Security Council, is another well-placed though bone-headed supporter.

Oborne singled out Nick Clegg, the Conservative Party chairman, Sayeeda Warsi, and the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, as members of a smaller, rival faction of "One-Nation Tories and ineffectual Liberal Democrats". I would add Ken Clarke to this list.

But where does David Cameron, the Prime Minister, fit into all this? There have been reports over the years that the Tory leader has been torn between the neocons and the One-Nation types. In a much-discussed speech in September 2008, Cameron described himself as a "liberal Conservative, not a neoconservative". And a year and a half earlier, writing in the Observer of 13 May 2007 (in a piece entitled "What I learned from my stay with a Muslim family"), the then leader of the opposition rejected the Gove-esque obsession with "Islamism" and warned against the dangers of reckless rhetoric:

We must also be careful about the language we use . . . Our efforts are not helped by lazy use of language. Indeed, by using the word "Islamist" to describe the threat, we actually help do the terrorist ideologues' work for them.

But this morning's speech to the Munich Security Conference suggests that Gove has won the battle for the Prime Minister's heart and mind. In the middle of a speech that addressed segregation, radicalisation and "the doctrine of state multiculturalism", Cameron declared:

We need to be absolutely clear on where the origins of these terrorist attacks lie – and that is the existence of an ideology, "Islamist extremism".

He went on to argue:

Frankly, we need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and much more active, muscular liberalism.

Strong stuff. To be honest, the content of Cameron's speech should have come as no surprise to us, as it has been trailed for weeks. And in recent days, I'm told, the Prime Minister has had meetings with Maajid Nawaz, the director of the "counter-extremism think tank" the Quilliam Foundation, which takes a hard line on engaging with so-called Islamists. (On a side note, Nawaz has a piece in this week's New Statesman on the revolt in Egypt and his own experiences as a prisoner in Hosni Mubarak's jails.)

Here are some of my thoughts on the speech, in no particular order:

1) How is this new, original or different? As I said, much of the Cameron speech fits in with a pre-existing, long-standing Gove/Quilliam/neoconservative agenda. And how is the "muscular liberalism" approach any different from the Tony Blair/John Reid/Charles Clarke/Hazel Blears approach? Cameron, for example, condemns those "soft-left" groups that "lump all Muslims together, compiling a list of grievances and arguing if only governments addressed them, this terrorism would stop". But so, too, did Blair. The former PM was as keen to hector Muslim groups about "integration" and "British values" as the current PM.

2) Perhaps Warsi should have a word with her party leader. Her recent speech on this subject may have been shown to No 10 in advance and Cameron's speech may have been shown in advance to the Conservative Party chair but Warsi and Cameron are now on different sides of this debate. The Tory peer, for example, condemned the media for dividing Muslims into "moderate" and "extremist" camps; the Prime Minister's provocative speech prompted this particularly odious headline in the Telegraph: "Muslims must embrace our British values, David Cameron says". (Why "odious"? Because it implies that the majority of Muslims don't embrace basic "British values" and aren't integrated, which, as Cameron knows, and I can attest, isn't true.)

3) We can have a debate on another day about whether a "doctrine of state multiculturalism" even exists, let alone whether or not it has "failed", but the key point here is to stress that the debate over multiculturalism has little to do with the debate over extremism and radicalisation. The two should be kept separate. Terrorism is a political problem; not a cultural problem. Extremists, violent or otherwise, come in all shapes and sizes, all colours and creeds. The English Defence League (see point five, below) is, in my view, made up of violent extremists and yet they are not a product of "multiculturalism", failed or otherwise. Some of the most high-profile terrorists in recent years have been "integrated" Muslims. Take Mohammad Sidique Khan, the ringleader of the London bombings in July 2005. He was a teaching assistant who impressed parents, colleagues and pupils at the school where he worked. As a teenager, he called himself "Sid" and spent most of his time playing football with white kids. Then there are the white, British-born people who convert to Islam and become terrorists, like Nicky Reilly or Oliver Savant – are they unaware of, or unfamiliar with, British values? Would teaching them to speak English help secure our airports or railway stations?

4) Cameron supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and, as Prime Minister, is overseeing an ongoing, futile and brutal war in Afghanistan. He has said little about the devastating Israeli/Egyptian blockade of Gaza. These foreign policy issues tend to be drivers of extremism and radicalisation. Don't believe me? As I pointed out on the Guardian's Comment Is Free site last July:

At the 12th and final public hearing of the 9/11 commission on 16 June 2004 in Washington, DC, a phalanx of senior law-enforcement and intelligence officials from the US government arrived to offer their testimonies. "You've looked [at] and examined the lives of these people as closely as anybody . . . What have you found out about why these men did what they did?" asked Lee Hamilton, the former congressman and vice-chair of the commission. "What motivated them to do it?"

The answers to these questions were provided by supervisory special agent James Fitzgerald of the FBI. "I believe they feel a sense of outrage against the United States," he said. "They identify with the Palestinian problem, they identify with people who oppose repressive regimes and I believe they tend to focus their anger on the United States."

No mention of religion. No mention of Islam. No mention of virgins in heaven, 72 or otherwise. For the lead investigators into the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, politics, not faith, was the key motivating factor. Terrorism, as even that notorious Islamist-baiter Martin Amis once conceded, "is political communication by other means".

5) The timing of Cameron's speech is awful. It comes on a day on which the far-right English Defence League is marching in Luton in protest against Islam. As Nick Lowles, editor of Searchlight, writes, "What began as a street movement to oppose Islamic fundamentalism has broadened its target to the religion itself." He adds: "The EDL protest is likely to further alienate the Muslim community. Many Muslims will be more nervous; others are likely to be attracted by the extremist message peddled by Anjem Choudary and his Islam4UK group."

Yet Cameron did not spare a single one of the 2,476 words in his speech for the EDL – or for other far-right groups such as the BNP. He mentioned the word "Islamophobia" just once and that, too, in passing. As Mohammed Shafiq of the Ramadan Foundation points out:

On the day we see fascists marching in Luton, we have seen no similar condemnation or leadership shown from the government.

Muslims and Muslim organisations, as the former Met police officer Robert Lambert argues on the Staggers blog, have a crucial role to play in the struggle against home-grown extremism and in the battle for the hearts and minds of young, angry, alienated Muslims. Cameron's simplistic speech has done more harm than good, and so have the predictable and depressing newspaper headlines that it provoked. It is a step backward rather than forward.

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.

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses