Friday, January 21, 2011

The Tory right turns on Baroness Warsi

I am on the electronic mailing lists for public events held by the University of Leicester. When, a few days ago, I heard that Baroness Warsi would be giving a lecture, I asked for a ticket.

I never dreamed that this event would be the lead story on the seven o'clock news on the morning it took place.

For some reason the Daily Telegraph decided to splash on some unremarkable remarks by Warsi as though there was something startling about them:
Islamophobia has “passed the dinner-table test” and is seen by many as normal and uncontroversial, Baroness Warsi will say in a speech on Thursday.

The minister without portfolio will also warn that describing Muslims as either “moderate” or “extremist” fosters growing prejudice.

Lady Warsi, the first Muslim woman to attend Cabinet, has pledged to use her position to wage an “ongoing battle against bigotry”.
Then during the day the Spectator announced:
EXCLUSIVE: Warsi did not clear speech with No. 10
And Tim Montgomerie chipped in on Twitter:
BREAKING at @Spectator_CH The accident prone Sayeeda Warsi did NOT clear her speech on Islam
Note in particular the snide "accident prone".

Having attended her lecture, I can report that this campaign by right-wing elements in the Tory part represented a ridiculous overselling of rather a mundane lecture. As Warsi herself said, there was nothing in the Telegraph that she has not said in public before. And does No. 10 have to clear academic lectures anyway?

Why is the Tory right was out to get Sayeeda Warsi? No doubt there are those among it who cannot cope with seeing a Muslim woman from a humble background in the cabinet. But I suspect the less Blimpish among them are out for revenge for her remarks after the Oldham East & Saddleworth by-election.

She told the BBC in the aftermath of the declaration:
"We had many many, members of Parliament turning up, we had some who made much comment about the fact that we weren't fighting a strong enough campaign but interestingly didn't turn up to campaign.

"I would say to those who are critical: 'Unless you were here, unless you were out delivering and unless you were knocking on doors, you really don't have a right to complain about us not being vigorous enough'."
I don't suppose she has been forgiven for that.

Besides, to the Tory right she is just another Cameroon who is preventing the party from adopting the hard-line policies that would sweep them to power (much as they did in 2001 and 2005).

But what was the speech like?

I did not find Warsi's claim that Britain is facing "a rising tide of anti-religious bigotry" convincing. In fact she hardly tried to prove it at all.

There was some good stuff, notably the parallels she drew with the position of Muslims in Britain today and the struggles over Catholic Emancipation two centuries ago. But the speech in general lacked a coherent overarching argument.

And though the term is widely used, I am not convinced by talk of "islamophobia". Opposition to Muslims or any other group does not necessarily arise out of fear: more often it arises from distaste or even envy. Besides it is easy to deploy such concepts in an attempt to rule out legitimate criticism of religion.

Her responses to the questions were far more impressive than the speech itself. She was scathing about the previous government's Prevent programme, which failed to tackle extremism, annoyed the mainstream Muslim community and suggested to other people that those Muslims were receiving preferential treatment.

She was also critical of what she termed "state multiculturalism", which tended to emphasise people's difference rather than what we have in common and could see different ethnic groups competing for the same funds to build a community centre.

And though a question blaming British foreign policy for Muslim hostility won applause from the audience (some of it seemed to come from me) she was having none of it. Her defence of British values would have melted the hearts of the Tory right if she had heard it.

I was part of a typical multiracial, multi-faith Leicester audience - I found myself sitting next to a Jewish Dawkinsite of my acquaintance.

In front of me was a young man with a blue pen who wrote out a long, critical question about the campaign Warsi fought as Conservative candidate in Dewsbury in 2005. The word "homophobia" - another phobia - featured prominently. He made no effort to ask it, but perhaps he felt better for writing it.

That campaign was later described by Pink News as follows:
Her leaflets claimed children were being “propositioned” for gay relationships.

They said: “Labour has scrapped Section 28, which was introduced by the Conservatives to stop schools promoting alternative sexual lifestyles such as homosexuality to children as young as seven years old.

“Labour reduced the age of consent for homosexuality from 18 to 16, allowing schoolchildren to be propositioned for homosexual relationships.”
All deeply reprehensible, though Pink News reports that she later thought better of these claims. And I distrust the style of argument that seeks to pin a label ("racist", "homophobe") on an opponent and uses it as an excuse to ignore anything they say about anything else.

I have often argued that the divides within the two Coalition parties are more significant than the divide between the parties. Warsi is in the half of the Conservative Party that I am comfortable being associated with - her opponents are in the half I do not care for.

And how will this row affect her? She said she came from a working-class background and had spent much of her professional career as a defence solicitor in prisons and police cells. "It takes more than a few blogs to upset me."

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2 comments:

Niles said...

Is there something Not Quite Right in the para


"I found Warsi claim that Britain is facing "a rising tide of anti-religious bigotry" at all convincing. In fact she hardly tried to prove it."

?

Jonathan said...

Fixed.