David Cameron on his mosque visit in 2013. Photo: Getty
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Leader: The challenge to British Islamists

Too often, David Cameron has failed to engage with all aspects of Britain’s Muslim community so: he has visited a mosque only once in five years.

In the decade since the London terrorist attacks of 7 July 2005, the British government’s response to the threats posed by Islamist extremism has too often been haphazard and disjointed. These failings – as well as what David Cameron called the “failures of integration” in a speech in Birmingham on 20 July – have contributed to many hundreds of Muslim Britons, young and old, travelling to Iraq and Syria to live under the self-declared Islamic State (IS), perhaps the most malignant force in the world today. Something is seriously wrong if British citizens would rather join IS than live in an open, plural society.

In opposition, Mr Cameron gave an important speech to the Community Security Trust in which he first identified the dangers of non-violent extremism. He reiterated this in his speech in Birmingham but went much further. If “non-violent” extremists – preachers, teachers, community leaders – create the moral imperatives for violence, he said, government must engage in the “battle of ideas” informing their world-views. Too many politicians have shied away from doing so, considering it a problem that only Muslims could deal with. There is some truth in this – after all, Muslim liberals and reformers will have to take the lead in confronting extremist interpretations of their faith. Yet the Prime Minister is right to offer them his explicit backing and support.

Because these Islamist extremists are British and their narratives of grievance and struggle are informed by this country’s policies, the Prime Minister is correct to argue that the government cannot be a passive onlooker as British Muslims contest the varying constructions of their faith.

Mr Cameron’s rhetoric about a “five-year plan” has been backed up by what has the makings of a coherent and nuanced strategy, countering “warped” extremist ideology and radicalisation by empowering the government to take ­action against individuals or groups considered to be espousing such views. Accompanying this strident approach will be attempts to address the “drowning out” of moderate voices, aiming to isolate extremists from the overwhelming majority of peaceful Muslims in Britain. It is a powerful and necessary step forward in the UK’s anti-extremism strategy. Perhaps most significant is the promise to adopt an “inclusive” approach to the problem: working with British Muslims rather than alienating them. “The extremists are the ones who have the money, the leaders, the iconography and the propagandamachines,” Mr Cameron said. “We have to back those who share our values.”

As the Muslim Council of Britain stressed, it is now incumbent on the Prime Minister to engage with “all sections of the community, including mainstream Muslim organisations and those who have differing views”. Too often, Mr Cameron has failed to do so: he has visited a mosque only once in five years in office. Now would be a good time to rectify that lamentable record. He should also pay heed to the review by the civil servant Louise Casey into boosting opportunities and integration for minority groups.

When Mr Cameron refers to Islamic extremism as the “struggle of our generation”, it is hard to accuse him of hyperbole. The urgency is undoubtedly overdue and brings with it the promise of mending the government’s fraught relationship with significant sections of the Muslim community.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Labour went mad for Jeremy Corbyn

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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”