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4 April 2017updated 01 Aug 2021 7:29am

Theresa May must not “write off Britain’s Muslims”, says Tory peer Sayeeda Warsi

The former cabinet minister on our “dangerous” counter-terrorism policy, the Tories’ lurch to the right, and why the Prime Minister should deny Donald Trump a state visit.

By Anoosh Chakelian

“I just hope a terrorist attack doesn’t happen in London,” Baroness Warsi remarks as I leave the House of Lords at the end of our interview. A few hours later, a man armed with a car and a knife will attack the very same building, killing a policeman guarding Parliament’s entrance and three pedestrians on Westminster Bridge.

The Conservative peer’s grimly poignant aside came after we were discussing her new book, The Enemy Within: A Tale of Muslim Britain. Part political memoir, part policy brief, it’s an uncompromising condemnation of successive UK governments’ counter-terrorism policy.

It’s a subject she knows all too well. As the first Muslim woman in cabinet, Sayeeda Warsi served both as minister for faith and communities and foreign office minister under David Cameron from 2012-14, and as shadow community cohesion minister in 2007-10 – a job that preceded two years co-chairing the Tory party.

She saw on the inside how policy was formed in the climate of global terrorism, and how her party approached the UK’s Muslim community. And she didn’t like what she saw.

“We, on the right of politics, can create the climate, the swamp, within which the racist feels comfortable,” she writes.

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 “What radicalised me was the colour of my skin”

I meet her in a House of Lords sideroom as pokey in size as it is grand in decoration. Wooden-panelled with an intricate stone arch over the doorway, decked out in rose-patterned wallpaper and thick red carpet, it hosts little but a table, four portcullis-emblazoned chairs and a loudly ticking clock.

Such surroundings were not the obvious place for Warsi to end up. There aren’t many working-class Muslim women prowling these corridors. The second of five sisters born to Pakistani immigrant parents, Warsi grew up in the West Yorkshire mill town of Dewsbury, which has seen BNP councillors and EDL marches in recent years. Her father worked in mills and as a bus driver, before starting up a bed manufacturing company there; her parents still live in the area.

Warsi entered the House of Lords in 2007, after a career as a solicitor and a stint as former Tory leader Michael Howard’s special adviser. The first Muslim woman to be selected by the Conservatives for a parliamentary seat, she failed to be elected MP for Dewsbury in 2005.

It was a white, working-class community with a significant minority Muslim presence when she lived there. “I grew up in a space where overt racism was kind of what you put up with, being called ‘Paki’, being called various other names,” she recalls, sitting across from me. She is wearing a scarlet cardigan and black dress, bluetooth headpiece unclipped for a break from the day’s work. “I would say what radicalised me was the colour of my skin – I think what radicalises other people now is the faith they belong to.”

Warsi outside No 10 in 2010. Photo: Getty

Warsi says government attitudes towards British Asians have become divisive and counter-productive, sometimes producing “dangerous policy-making” over the past 15 years.

In particular, she laments New Labour’s authoritarianism, David Cameron’s abandonment of inclusivity in his later years in government, the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act of 2015, and the Prevent programme.

The heart of the shift, for her, is a narrow focus on extremist ideology, rather than analysing other drivers of violent extremism. The rise of global terrorism and extremist Islamist groups has created a “pushback against multiculturalism” in Britain that she sees as damaging, causing Asian communities to feel defined by Islam rather than a hotchpotch of identities.

“Certainly my generation – you had your little Asian bit, you had your Pakistani bit, and you had your bits of Muslim, your school version, and your English version,” she says, pinching different parts of her arms to demonstrate. “It’s much more polarising now, when you’re constantly challenged to assert your Britishness.”

“Our policy-making was going the way of the White House’s current agenda” 

Warsi was brought into the fold by Cameron in 2007, but then resigned from his cabinet in 2014 over the government’s policy on the Gaza crisis. She tells me she was “baffled” by Cameron’s change in rhetoric on Islam between 2007 and 2016 – recalling how his celebration of multiculturalism and “inspiring” people to be British gave way to “muscular liberalism” and “Christian values”. She feels the former Prime Minister “lost his way”.

“Policy-making became increasingly corrosive and I couldn’t understand why,” she recalls. “We found ourselves saying more and more extreme things, excluding more and more Muslim communities from the debate.”

She adds: “Rather than trying to make insiders of outsiders, we were increasingly making outsiders of insiders, and therefore I felt that the whole policy was counter-productive.”

Warsi blames the Tory party for being “dragged off further to the right”, and Cameron for being impressionable. “If we have to give credit to anybody for this, it would have to be Michael Gove,” she says. “He was hugely influential in this area, and I think that David was quite taken with him and his views; they didn’t just have a professional relationship, they had a personal relationship . . . On issues this serious, you shouldn’t be influenced by the fact your mate thinks in a certain way.”

Warsi clashed with Gove in cabinet, slamming him in her book for considering “himself a bit of an expert on ‘the Muslims’, despite his minimal contact with Muslims in Britain and almost non-existent experience in the Muslim world”.

Warsi saw a “shameless, bare-faced agenda” within government, accusing some of her then colleagues of wanting to pursue the agenda “we now see in the White House”. “Left unchecked, we end up with the kind of White House we’ve got now,” she says. “Left unchecked, this is where I think our policy-making was going.”

She is damning of Theresa May’s response to Donald Trump. “Not having him for a state visit would be the right message,” she says. “There are lots of people we all work with who we don’t like, but we don’t invite them round for tea.

“I absolutely loathe the fact we’re going to roll out the red carpet, her majesty, our state banqueting rooms . . . Do you think we should be bestowing honours upon this man? That’s not who Britain should be. We’re better than that.”

 “Tory divide-and-rule behaviour of the colonial past has got to stop”

Warsi also urges the Prime Minister to review Prevent, the notoriously crass programme aimed at nipping “extremism” in the bud among young people (such as the four-year-old referred to a de-radicalisation programme after saying the word “cucumber” – nursery staff heard “cooker bomb”).

“Prevent as a brand is definitely broken,” says Warsi. “Is it a counter-terrorism strategy? Is it a counter-extremism strategy? The government finds it difficult to define ‘extremism’ itself; it’s still struggling with that . . . it won’t publish who we fund to do Prevent training, the number of referrals, the outcomes: why are we so cloak-and-dagger about this stuff?”

Warsi witnessed a “paranoid state” within government, and writes in her book that May’s “approach appears to be the same” – though she believes the PM has the capacity to change course, “if she can get off the Brexit bus”.

Warsi wryly recalls causing outrage by saying Islamophobia had “passed the dinner table test” in a 2011 speech, noting how “bland” those words would seem now. “Political discourse has greenlighted a lot of the bigots,” she tells me. “The election of Trump has almost given Islamophobia an air of respectability . . . it’s when the reasonable and respectable rationalise racism when we get into a really dangerous space.”

Warsi laments that her party’s policy towards Muslims has “a political element”, as it does not rely on Muslim voters. “Unfortunately politics determines who you think is worth fighting for, and who you think it’s OK to vilify and get away with it,” she says, warning her party not to “write off Britain’s Muslims”.

In particular, she condemns the Conservative politician Zac Goldsmith’s dogwhistle campaign for London mayor last year as “divide-and-rule – it’s a behaviour of colonial past and it’s got to stop”, and believes relations between the Conservative party and Muslims are “tarnished”.

“We don’t turn into a very nice party when we don’t have strong opposition,” she warns. “What I’d caution against is continuing to lurch to the right.”

For someone who once chaired the party, and had a seat at the cabinet table, she must be itching to regain a position of influence. “I would never say never,” she reveals. “Because it’s a real privilege to serve your country – I just say not now.”

However, she says she is “open to working closely with government to make sure we get the policy on this right”, and sent an advance copy of her book to the Prime Minister, Home Secretary and other ministers.

As the government focuses on counter-terrorism in the aftermath of the Westminster attack, let’s hope Theresa May has had a chance to read it.

“The Enemy Within: A Tale of Muslim Britain” by Sayeeda Warsi, published by Allen Lane, is out 30 March 2017.

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