Tuesday 3 August 2010

Sayeeda Warsi: 'What I find amazing is the media's obsession with having to define me'

In all the fuss preceding Nick Griffin's appearance on Question Time last October, the great debate was about whether the programme would – as Griffin was gleefully predicting – promote the BNP to "the big time". As usual, Griffin turned out to be wrong. On the night, the star performance came from Baroness Sayeeda Warsi – a little known Tory peer, and relative newcomer to national politics, whose consummate demolition of the BNP leader made Jack Straw and Chris Huhne look like amateurs. If anyone joined the big time that night, it was Warsi.

To give Griffin his due, he was right about one thing. The show was indeed a golden opportunity to transform public perceptions of a party widely regarded as racist, anti-immigrant and resoundingly white. But it was the Conservatives who seized it – for there on our screens was a confident, likable, modern Muslim woman, the antithesis of a stereotypical Tory and apparently proof that David Cameron's Conservatives were no longer the nasty party.

Eight months on – and only eight years into her political career – at 39 Warsi is now one of the most powerful women in the country. Chair of her party, with a seat in cabinet as minister without portfolio, Warsi has been given a wide-ranging brief to work across government. As the former shadow minister for community cohesion and social action, she will be expected to focus foremost on social cohesion, and on the elusive matter of mending "broken Britain".

Her admirers make much of her down-to-earth appeal – her lack of airs and graces, her common touch, her common sense – all of which are apparent as soon as we meet. Over a KitKat and a cup of tea, she chats about motherhood, reapplies a quick dab of her daughter's Boots No 17 lip gloss, and poses for photos with a businesslike air of let's-get-on-with-it.

Warsi's brisk manner is that peculiarly Yorkshire blend of cheerful and grumpy – and she certainly wants you to know that's where she's from, for she references her Yorkshire roots with somewhat tiresome frequency. "There are parts of West Yorkshire," she points out proudly, "that I can reach, which maybe if you were from a different part of the country with a different accent it would be harder to reach."

She does indeed have a Yorkshire accent – but then, so do William Hague and Eric Pickles, so this could hardly be described as her USP. In terms of perspective and personal identity, surely what she brings to the cabinet table is gender, faith and ethnicity; Cameron has said as much himself, as have other colleagues, so you'd think this was pretty self-evident. Yet strangely, the only person who doesn't seem to agree is Warsi. In fact, she gets quite angry with me for suggesting such a thing – and by the time I leave, the interview has more or less descended into a row.

Warsi wouldn't disagree that her views are an interesting mixture of traditional and modern. An outspoken opponent of the Iraq war, she has called for dialogue with hardline Muslim groups, argued for asylum seekers to be granted the right to work, and criticised anti-terror legislation for radicalising Muslim youths. She would definitely, she has joked, fail Norman Tebbit's cricket test; when England play Pakistan, her loyalty lies firmly with with the latter. When Cameron made her a peer in 2007, Conservative Home ran an article by officials from the Margaret Thatcher Centre For Freedom, condemning her appointment as "the wrong signal at a time when Britain is fighting a global war against Islamic terrorism and extremism".

Warsi has also, however, said that BNP supporters have "some very legitimate views", described immigration as "out of control", and criticised the Archbishop of Canterbury for suggesting that sharia law in parts of Britain could foster social cohesion. In Luton last year she was pelted with eggs by Muslim protestors, who accused her of not being "a proper Muslim". Warsi had an arranged marriage at 19, but divorced in her early 30s, and was a single mum (her daughter, 13, goes to a convent school) before recently remarrying, to a Muslim divorcee. The extremist preacher Anjem Choudary has warned that "she is in danger", for "betraying Allah" and becoming "a 'coconut' – brown on the outside but white on the inside".

Exactly where Warsi sits in the whole debate about multiculturalism versus integration is not obvious, so I ask her to define her position. "Well I think there's a difference between multiculturalism per se, and state multiculturalism, where the state intervenes and says, 'You will do this, you will do that.'" For example, she offers, "When the state says 'We'll have winterfest instead of Christmas, so everyone feels included.' That's wrong."

But surely it's the state's decision either way? Whether schools call it winterfest or Christmas, it's still the state's decision. She disagrees: "A school should have the freedom to decide. If you have a school in the middle of a diverse society with lots of ethnic communities, then the head teacher in their professional judgment should know the best way to make everyone feel included. It's not for the state to say. 'You will teach A, B and C.'" That sounds like an objection to state centralisation rather than an argument specifically about multiculturalism. "Yes but it's also to do with state multiculturalism. For example, there was a county court that didn't put tinsel on its public desk because they thought it would offend! You see, that's the state intervening, saying you can't have tinsel there."

If she disapproves of state intervention so much, presumably she doesn't support the government's recent decision to make it a condition of entry for immigrants coming to join their spouses in Britain that they must learn to speak English first.

"No, not at all, I do support it. If you're saying, are you a multiculturalist or an integrationist, I'm an absolute believer in multiculturalism per se, where people have the right in their private lives to do what they want – as long as when it comes to the public sphere there is an acceptance of what the mainstream culture is, and our values and principles are. And our values and principles are about giving everyone an equal opportunity to improve their lives through economic involvement. They will not be able to do that if they don't speak the language of the land. We have to be quite clear about what people are joining here, and that includes having to join the language."

For Warsi, however, it doesn't include having to show your face in public, and she is vehemently opposed to a ban on the burka. "Why should we tell women what to wear? What it boils down to is choice. If women don't have a choice over what to wear then they are oppressed. But if a woman has a choice, and she chooses to wear whatever she chooses to wear, then she's not oppressed, is she? She's choosing what she wants."

I'm not sure why a woman can choose to wear what she wants, but not choose to speak what she wants. "Well just because a woman wears the burka, it doesn't mean she can't engage in everyday life." Some would argue, on the contrary, that in this country it does; that the burka alienates and disturbs to an extent that it creates a barrier between the wearer and the western world around her. "But there are women who wear the burka who run extremely successful businesses – internet businesses, which don't actually require you to be there face to face," she retorts. Which may well be true – but would only support Warsi's argument if what she really objects to is immigrants not earning money, rather than being ghettoised.

I'm sure Warsi does care about more than money. I'm just trying, I say, to identify your consistent principle which says no to banning the burka, but yes to making immigrants speak English. "The principle," she says, looking increasingly exasperated, "is one of equality and opportunity!"

Warsi talks passionately about the isolation and abuse of immigrant women without English, unable to understand their rights in this country or ask for help. It's unfortunate that the Pakistani ex-wife of Warsi's new husband recently claimed that she cannot speak or read English, so didn't understand he was divorcing her, and mistook the decree nisi for a utilities bill. The family row has been played out in the pages of a Sunday tabloid paper, and Warsi understandably refuses to discuss it.

But she must understand better than most the difficulty for many poor women in remote rural countries to access education and learn English. Far from giving them an equal opportunity, the government is arguably denying them the opportunity to come here at all – where it could ensure that they learned English – by making them stay in a country where it has no influence at all over their access to education. And what about spouses who have no intention of working in this country, but legitimately wish to lead a quiet and private domestic life?

"No, but coming to Britain is a privilege," she says flatly. "It's not an automatic right."

Warsi's own father arrived in Yorkshire from Pakistan in 1960, with £2.50 to his name, and she credits his work ethic – "the belief that if you work hard you can achieve anything" – as the guiding political philosophy of her life. The second of five sisters, she grew up in a working class, Labour-voting household – until her father started his own furniture business, became rich and joined the Conservative party. Educated at comprehensive school and Leeds University, Warsi became a lawyer and set up her own practice in Dewsbury. It was only in 2002 that she became involved in politics – and when Oliver Letwin heard her speak at a party conference fringe meeting the following year he suggested she stand for parliament in Dewsbury in 2005. She lost, but was made a peer two years later, and appointed to the shadow cabinet.

Her core political values, she has often said, are belief in the free market and individual liberty. But she also said in the past that what made her at Tory, more than anything else, was Labour's attitude to ethnic minorities. She said once that when she heard Alan Johnson refer to "leaders of the Muslim community", she thought, "I couldn't sit in a cabinet of people who still think like that; that somehow there are these alien groups in our nation, each of them represented by a leader who talked to the government on their behalf. It's almost the kind of approach of 'we know what's best for you brown people.' I find that patronising."

When I suggest that Johnson was perhaps just describing pluralism, she snaps: "That's not pluralism! You can't divide people on that basis." But it sounds as if her real anger was towards the "self-appointed religious leaders – men, you know, in beards" claiming to speak on her behalf – and she tells me she got involved in politics because, "I just felt, post 9/11, that the national voices weren't necessarily the voices of what ordinary people thought. That wasn't what the majority of British Muslims were feeling. I've always been confident in my identity, and I thought the whole debate needed to be had from the perspective of someone who was confident."

That sounds like a reasonable desire to offer herself as an alternative representative – a role not unlike the one she got so angry with Johnson for describing. Now she starts to look really annoyed.

"When I'm here at Central Office I'm identified by the fact that I'm part of the Conservative family. Why should I be identified on the grounds of my race or religion? What I find amazing is the media's obsession with having to define me."

But it's not the media, I point out – it's her leader. "She is the first Muslim in a cabinet or shadow cabinet," was Cameron's proud boast on The Andrew Marr Show within days of her appointment in 2007 – a view echoed by her colleague Andrew Mitchell, who declared, "She clearly has a reach within and outside the party which others of us don't have." Another hailed her as "a bridge builder – a thoroughly modern British Muslim woman."

If she doesn't like these labels, I ask, why did she accept an award last year from the Equality and Human Rights Commission as Britain's most powerful Muslim woman? "You should listen to the acceptance speech I made," she huffs. I did, I say, and quote it: "I hope in five years we don't have this award, because actually we should be taking it for granted that British Muslim woman are powerful."

It sounded like a sensible acknowledgement that we're not there yet, and a hope that her success might help us in that direction. To have a female Muslim cabinet minister is so clearly a cause for celebration that her reluctance now to acknowledge it makes little sense. It makes a bit more sense when she adds, "For someone like me, from 2005 to now, there have always been people on the sidelines who wondered if I'm a token appointment, if I'm being used. Am I going to spend the rest of my life trying to convince them otherwise? No of course not. I can't be bothered."

But it's hard to escape the impression of Warsi wanting to have her cake and eat it. If she's happy for her party to present her as the poster girl for the newly inclusive Conservatives, it seems a bit rich to object when anyone else talks about her in such terms. "I'm actually bored of these interviews, with all due respect," she says crossly. "And with this constant obsession with who are you, what's your identity, what is it that you stand for?"

Then, for a moment, the mood seems to lighten. "It's about," she says, "bringing additional value to the table. Your race, your ethnicity, your origin, your background – they all bring additional value." Finally, we seem to have arrived at a point of agreement. So when she says, "Did David want me to do Question Time because I was a brown woman? Or did David think she was a bloody solid media performer?" The answer seems obvious. Doesn't she think it was both?

"No, I don't!" she snaps. "I absolutely think it's the second one."

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