When Munira Mirza, head of Boris Johnson’s Downing Street policy unit, appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Great Lives series in 2009 she chose Hannah Arendt, the 20th-century German political theorist, as her subject. “She was a very brave woman, brave in what she said and did,” Mirza explained. “She always did what she thought was the right thing rather than what was popular, what was safe… She always had integrity.”
Mirza, the slight, reserved daughter of Pakistani immigrants and the Prime Minister’s most trusted and influential aide after Dominic Cummings, has perhaps drawn inspiration from Arendt in recent months. That is because Mirza has suffered what she would call a “moral punishment beating” from the “race relations industry”. Her offence was to establish Johnson’s new Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities while simultaneously asserting that institutional racism in Britain is “a perception more than a reality”.
“Munira Mirza must go,” furious protesters chanted at Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrations sparked by George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis in May. The commission’s report would be “dead on arrival”, said Diane Abbott, the Labour MP. Mirza’s involvement “undermines [the commission’s] credibility from the very outset”, complained Dawn Butler, another black Labour MP. “Getting her to head up a review into institutional racism is like getting Richard Dawkins to do Easter Mass,” said Ash Sarkar, a political activist.
Mirza’s supporters responded in kind. Johnson said he was a “huge admirer” of the woman he calls “Dr Mirza” (she has a PhD), describing her as a “brilliant thinker” on racial issues. Brendan O’Neill, the editor of Spiked, wrote in the Spectator: “Nothing winds up the woke set more than an ethnic-minority person who refuses to sing from their hymn sheet.”
Johnson’s decision to set up a new commission in July was cynical. Before it, there had already been five investigations into issues of racial inequality in as many years, and few of their recommendations have yet been implemented.
Moreover, its announcement in two lines of an article that Johnson published behind the Telegraph’s paywall seemed designed to assuage BLM protesters without making real concessions that might upset the Tories’ new, culturally conservative working-class base in the north and Midlands.
David Lammy, the shadow justice secretary, said it appeared to have been “written on the back of a fag packet”. Baroness Warsi, a former Conservative minister who is also of Pakistani descent, was even blunter. The commission was “a complete nonsense”, she said. “It’s what’s politically known as kicking it into the long grass. It’s about not dealing with the problem right now, hoping it will go away.”
But the assault on Mirza herself is more problematic. Whether you applaud or abhor her views, she cannot be so easily dismissed.
“Rock solid” relationship: Munira Mirza and Boris Johnson at a BFI Film Festival reception in 2010. Credit: Ian Gavan/Getty Images
Those who know Mirza describe her as an independent thinker, intelligent, intellectually curious, reasoned, articulate and unflappable. Far from being a strident right-wing Tory, she once flirted with Marxism and is now a libertarian. Like Cummings, her fellow Downing Street iconoclast, she is not a Conservative Party member and is said to harbour no political ambitions of her own.
“She’s interested in making the world a better place, not promoting the Conservative Party,” said a Tory politician who knows her well. “She’s not political, not tribal. She’s far more interested in doing what she thinks is the right thing.”
She has abundant experience of racism, having grown up in Oldham in the 1980s, when that northern town crackled with racial tensions, and has spent much of her subsequent life studying and writing about racial issues.
Mirza does not deny that racism exists in Britain, but she argues that racial inequalities are the result of cultural and socio-economic factors more than institutional racism. She contends that efforts to promote racial equality through diversity programmes and “box-ticking multiculturalism” serve merely to deepen divisions, stoke tribalism and foster a “culture of grievance”. She rejects identity politics based on race and religion in favour of a universal humanity or “universalism”.
She accuses the left of stifling any dissenting views on racial issues, and would doubtless cite its portrayal of her as a racial heretic as evidence.
Perhaps Munira Mirza was lucky, or blessed with talents that made her an exception, but she never seems to have been affected by institutional racism herself. She has enjoyed a remarkable ascent from the humblest of backgrounds to one of the most influential positions in British government.
She was born in 1978, the youngest of four children. She grew up in Glodwick, a district of Oldham with a large Pakistani immigrant community. Her father worked in a factory. Her mother was a part-time Urdu teacher. She attended the poorly performing, predominantly Asian Breeze Hill comprehensive school before moving to Oldham Sixth Form College. “I did experience very explicit racism and I lived in a town which was extremely divided and remains quite divided and had very insulting racist incidents,” she told an audience at London’s Frontline Club in 2018.
Unlike some of her Muslim peers at the college, she wore Western clothes, did not cover her head and mixed with white students. Peter Roberts, who taught Mirza history and is now acting principal at Oldham, said he sensed she came from an “aspiring family”. He remembers her as “academically outstanding, very high-performing, very high-achieving, very motivated. She challenged teachers. She thought outside the box. It’s not surprising she’s gone on to challenge orthodoxies and the status quo.”
At college Mirza was pushed hard, developed “a love of history, ideas and politics”, and won a place at Mansfield College, Oxford, to read English. She reportedly joined the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), while a student, but if she did it was for a very brief time. The RCP was disbanded within months of her arrival at Oxford in 1996. Its founder, Frank Furedi, a University of Kent sociology professor, told me he doubted she was a member.
But Mirza was, by her own admission, “of the left”, and she was certainly one of a small group of Oxbridge students who attended events organised by LM, a successor to the RCP’s Living Marxism magazine that prided itself on championing free speech and challenging orthodoxy. Claire Fox, LM’s publisher and later a Brexit Party MEP, told me she remembered Mirza discussing identity politics and multiculturalism even then.
“They were very much attracted by the fact that what we offered was a fairly open-minded journey of discovery,” said Furedi. “We would have explained to someone like Munira and her friends that when you get involved with us it’s like an intellectual laboratory… there are no guarantees where you end up.”
After earning a first from Oxford Mirza studied for a PhD in sociology under Furedi’s supervision at Kent. “She was an ideal student… a real self-starter, very focused and very independent-minded,” he said. “I always knew she would get somewhere,” he added, but not even he could have predicted the road she would take.
After working for the Royal Society of Arts in London she was appointed, in 2006, development director at Policy Exchange (PX), then a relatively new centre-right think tank set up by Tory reformers wanting to reconnect their hidebound party with modern, diverse Britain.
It was quite a leap, but Mirza had grown disillusioned with her old stomping ground. “I realised very quickly in my twenties that the one thing the left… was not in favour of was free speech,” she said in 2018. “That there was an intolerance about different ideas and opinions, and that’s, I think, the real battle of the culture wars now.”
Through PX she published “Living Apart Together” (2007), a paper that argued multiculturalism had encouraged Islamic extremism in Britain by dividing people along ethnic, religious and cultural lines instead of promoting a national identity.
She spoke at events organised by Claire Fox’s libertarian Institute of Ideas (the Sunday Times, quoting senior Tory MPs, recently claimed that Mirza helped secure Fox’s controversial peerage in August despite her past apologies for the IRA).
Mirza also co-founded the Manifesto Club to campaign against “the hyper- regulation of public spaces”, and her dislike of the nanny state was doubtless reinforced by her marriage to Dougie Smith, a libertarian Conservative who had established an agency called “Fever Parties” that organised orgies for London’s fast set. Smith, with whom Mirza has a seven-year-old son, became David Cameron’s speechwriter and now works for Johnson in No 10, albeit in an ill-defined role. “They came as a package,” an insider said.
When Johnson was elected London’s mayor in 2008 he appointed Mirza as his cultural adviser on the recommendation of Nick Boles, the former Tory MP who had co-founded Policy Exchange and was Johnson’s acting chief-of-staff.
She was initially wary of Johnson, and made clear she was not a Conservative Party member. “I think she was intellectually suspicious about groupthink and gangs and had an aversion to operating as a tribe,” Guto Harri, Johnson’s first communications chief at City Hall, told me.
But Johnson in turn maintained a distance from David Cameron’s government, and came increasingly to trust and rely on his unconventional, publicity-averse aide. “She would take a vague Boris idea or dream and turn it into something tangible, robust and coherent,” said Harri. “Their working relationship took a while to take off but it evolved massively over time until it became rock solid.”
Mirza spent eight years at City Hall, latterly as Johnson’s £131,901-a-year deputy mayor for education and culture, and was able to put some of her universalist ideas into practice.
She helped create a £24m London Schools Excellence Fund to improve teaching in the capital – a role that introduced her to Michael Gove, then education secretary, and Cummings, then Gove’s special adviser. “She was a great champion for young people irrespective of their background. Her attitude was about levelling up rather than dumbing down, and I think that just runs through her like a name in a stick of rock,” Matthew Patten, who ran the Mayor’s Fund for London, told me.
Mirza organised a scheme for middle- class families to donate surplus musical instruments to poor children. She opposed the tailoring of arts programmes to children’s ethnic backgrounds, believing all children should be exposed to Shakespeare and classical music. “If you want to show them great art, broaden their horizons and show them the full range of it and make them feel it belongs to them too,” she said. “That was my experience when I was growing up. The books I loved reading weren’t by Asian women from Oldham, they were great writers.”
She supported pop-ups, buskers and skateboarders. She helped procure the ArcelorMittal Orbit tower at the Olympic Park. “I do love working for Boris because he never stops. He’s always fizzing with good ideas,” she once said.
After Johnson left City Hall in 2016 Mirza began writing prolifically for publications ranging from the Guardian, Telegraph and Spectator to Spiked, a libertarian online progeny of LM magazine, and All In Britain, a website that aims to promote “fresh thinking” on racial issues.
It was that frequently blunt and provocative output that makes her such a polarising figure today, though a friend insisted: “She’s not contrarian for the sake of being contrarian. She just says what she believes.”
She decried Britain’s “political self-flagellation regarding the subject of race”, arguing that the UK is “conspicuously fair and tolerant by any reasonable standard”.
She accused the left of “weaponising victimhood” and seizing on “any instance of racism as proof that Britain (and the British people) are stuck in some neo-imperialistic mindset”. She broadly supported stop and search, arguing that the main victims of rising crime rates after the police cut back on a practice that disproportionately targets young black males were ethnic minorities.
And so it went on. Workplace disparities reflected that many ethnic minorities were recent immigrants with poor English and few qualifications, she said. Positive discrimination schemes “put ethnicity before talent” and made the beneficiaries unofficial spokespeople for their communities. “No wonder these individuals then think there is racism in the sector they work, when they are so obviously treated as ‘the token ethnic’.”
In 2018 she blamed the Windrush scandal on malfunctioning bureaucracy, not racism. “Stories exist of foreign-born white people experiencing similar levels of Kafka-esque misery at the hands of the Home Office.” She defended Johnson’s infamous Telegraph column likening burka-clad Muslim women to “bank robbers” and “letter boxes”. The burka was a “symbol of gender inequality”, championed by Islamic extremists, opposed by Muslim moderates and designed to limit interaction, she said. “Johnson is the one treating Muslims as equals, expecting them to be part of the debate rather than left in the ghetto.”
She blamed the 2001 Oldham riots that led her hometown to be labelled Britain’s “race hate capital” on diversity programmes. “If white people are constantly told how culturally different their Asian neighbours are, and if Asians are told to be vigilant against white racism, both groups might conclude that they have little in common and much to fear from their neighbours.”
She took issue with David Lammy’s 2017 report – endorsed by Cameron, Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn – which asserted that ethnic minority defendants “still face bias, including overt discrimination, in parts of the justice system”. Again she claimed that socio-economic factors including poverty, single-parent families, school exclusions and distrust of lawyers were to blame for disparities in rates of conviction and imprisonment, not the system. “Differences in racial outcomes are not the same thing as institutional racism any more than the fact that far more men than women are incarcerated is evidence of institutional sexism.”
She said May’s 2017 audit of racial disparities, designed to address what the then prime minister described as “burning injustices”, actually “perpetuated what I thought was a very negative, inaccurate picture of British society. It reinforces this idea that ethnic minorities are being systematically oppressed, that there’s this sort of institutional problem, when in fact what we’ve seen in the last 20 years is a liberalisation.”
Mirza remained close to Johnson. A committed Brexiteer, she represented him when he could not attend campaign meetings during the 2016 referendum, and helped prepare leading Leavers before their television debates. “She asked searching questions,” one of them, Gisela Stuart, the chair of the Vote Leave Campaign Committee, told me. “Her challenges were the most difficult to respond to.”
Mirza is one of a very small circle of people that Johnson trusts implicitly. He calls her a “powerful nonsense detector”. He has named her as one of the five women who have had the most influence on his life. After he became Prime Minister in 2019 “it was never in doubt she was going to fill some senior role”, an insider told me, and within days he had hired her to lead his policy unit on an annual salary of more than £140,000.
Her appointment was “one of the most reassuring Boris made”, said Gisela Stuart, who was a Labour MP for 20 years until she stood down last December. “When he put her in charge of the policy unit I was greatly comforted.”
Mirza has a lower profile than Cummings, but is almost as influential. “There are two people in particular that Johnson trusts, and who trust each other, and that’s Dominic and Munira,” the insider said.
She was a principal author of the Tory party’s manifesto for the 2019 general election. As a northerner, like Cummings, she champions the idea of “levelling up”. There has been speculation, given her libertarianism, that she may have encouraged Johnson’s costly reluctance to impose the coronavirus lockdown last spring. True or not, she certainly would not have expected to be overseeing government interventionism on a scale unprecedented since the Second World War.
Downing Street’s announcement that Johnson’s new racial commission will also look at the plight of poor white children has Mirza’s fingerprints all over it, as does the selection of Tony Sewell, an educational consultant, to chair it. The two met at City Hall, and Sewell shares Mirza’s views on race. He has labelled evidence of institutional racism “flimsy”, and challenged the cult of black “victimhood and being under the cosh of oppression”. He told me the commission’s remit “does not deny structural racism but looks at other variables to explain disparities in outcomes”.
Mirza’s critics have good reason, there- fore, to fear that the commission will rebut the idea that Britain suffers from institutional racism. Understandably, that infuriates them.
“Why on earth should we have to constantly prove that institutional racism exists,” a spokesperson for the Institute of Race Relations told me. “From the Windrush scandal to stop and search, death in custody and school exclusions, not to mention the scaling back of anti-discrimination protections and the disproportionate effects of Covid-19 on BAME communities, structural racism is all-pervasive. To deny it, as Mirza does, reframes the parameters of what constitutes racism and sets back the anti-racist agenda.”
The commission’s report, due at the end of the year, seems likely to settle nothing.
The story of Munira Mirza is the story of two sides talking past each other. Mirza’s journey from the back streets of Oldham to the pinnacle of power shows it is possible for people of colour to prosper in Britain, and her success has doubtless informed her views on race and multiculturalism, and those of the Prime Minister. But her “lived reality” is one that also differs starkly from that of far too many other members of Britain’s ethnic minorities, and underscores the challenges of realising a truly multicultural Britain.
This article appears in the 30 Sep 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Twilight of the Union