"There is no doubt that the word 'sharia' carries huge challenges in relation to public relations," declares the UK's most senior Muslim minister, Baroness Warsi. "If you talk about anything [related to] 'sharia', the first vision people get is chopping off of people’s hands, having four wives and all sorts of unusual practices which, in today’s world, are not compatible with the values which we live by."
I meet the Tory peer in the rather grand surroundings of Lancaster House, round the corner from Buckingham Palace. Warsi, senior minister of state at the Foreign Office and also minister for faith at the Communities Department, is in the middle of hosting a high-level meeting on sharia-compliant finance in her capacity as chair of the prime minister's Global Islamic Finance and Investment Group. Attendees include central bank governors from Muslim-majority countries such as Malaysia, Bahrain and Qatar, and the chief executives of Islamic banks from countries as diverse as Brunei, South Africa and, yes, the UK.
Warsi hosting the Global Islamic Finance and Investment Group at Lancaster House
In a high-ceilinged room overlooking St James Park, Warsi sits across the table from me waxing lyrical about the government's progress on sharia finance-related issues. "Britain is the word’s leading financial centre and we should also be one of the world’s leading centres on Islamic finance. This is a huge market worth trillions of dollars. Why, therefore, shouldn’t we be using the legal, financial and academic expertise that we have to set our stall out?"
She doesn't deny that it has been a challenge to get a sharia-related issue onto the political agenda. "It wasn’t easy.. We had to, over time, convince the Treasury and the prime minister that there is a good business case for it.. This is a huge market. Out of the 25 largest growing economies, 10 of them are in the Muslim world with large middle-class communities."
The PM is now fully onboard: in his October 2013 speech to the World Islamic Economic Forum in London - the first time the event has been held outside the Islamic world - David Cameron pointed out that "Islamic finance is growing 50% faster than traditional banking" and "global Islamic investments are set to grow to £1.3 trillion by 2014". Later this year, Warsi tells me, the UK will issue its first sovereign sukuk - or Islamic bond - worth up to £200 million.
FIGHTING THE PHOBES
Given her work on Islamic finance issues, does she see herself as a Muslim minister, an advocate on behalf of Muslims within the government? "I am a British minister in the British cabinet who happens to be of the Muslim faith. I am not elected, as I keep being reminded by many right-wing blogs. I therefore don’t represent a constituency and I certainly don’t represent the British Muslim community.
Irrespective of her religion, she adds, "I hope I am a politician who understands the needs and concerns of British Muslim communities.. I grew up when, actually, no one cared about somebody’s religion; race was the issue that defined you." But now, she says, "religion is the new race".
For Warsi, Islamophobia isn't an abstract or theoretical issue. "Some of my colleagues wouldn’t get [the problem of Islamophobia] because they don’t have to live with it. This is personal to me." Within nine months of entering government, in January 2011, Warsi delivered a headline-grabbing speech in which she controversially claimed that Islamophobia had "passed the dinner-table test" and become socially acceptable in the UK.
The Tory peer says Islamophobia is 'personal' and has 'passed the dinner table test'
She tells me now that she would have preferred that speech "to have been made by one of my colleagues". Well, why wasn't it? "I came into government when there was no acknowledgment that Islamophobia existed, no acknowledgment that we should do anything about it, no statistical evidence that it was out there."
And now? "Now, we have Acpo [Association of Chief Police Officers] who are disaggregating religious hate crimes so we have a much clearer picture.. we co-funded a project called TellMama, which monitors anti-Muslim attacks.. we’re ensuring that this issue is brought into the training of officials." Civil service officials? "Yes, we’ve now got a cross-government working group on anti-Muslim hatred."
How much resistance did she meet? "I had to fight the battle to set up the working group," she admits. "I was pleased that I had colleagues who supported me in the end: people like [Home Secretary] Theresa May and [Communities Secretary] Eric Pickles, who felt that this was a positive step."
What about Michael Gove? Didn't the education secretary oppose the setting up of the working group? The baroness doesn't pull any punches. "There is no secret to the fact that Michael and I have very differing views on this agenda, both on in relation to what the problem is but also in relation to what the solutions are." There's a long pause. "We both want to deal with the causes of extremism and keep people safe... The good thing about the prime minister is that he actually does enjoy debate and there are moments where he thinks Michael and I are having Second Reading debates on these issues."
I mention Maajid Nawaz, the former member radical Islamist group, Hizb-ut-Tahrir, who now runs the controversial counter-extremism thinktank, the Quilliam Foundation, and is said to have helped draft the prime minister's speeches on extremism.
Should people such as Nawaz - who have been criticized by fellow Muslims for lacking grassroots support - have such influence on government policy? "It would be a worrying sign if government policies on extremism were informed by ex-extremists rather than those who'd never been extremists," she responds. "Let's not reward those who who created the problem in the first place."
So is Nawaz - who is now a Lib Dem parliamentary candidate - the right man to be offering advice to the PM on extremism? "For me what matters is, if you are advising the government, you have to be connected to the community that you try and talk about, you gave to be respected by the community that you are talking of and I think you have to be credible within that community." Given the Quilliam boss meets none of these criteria, is she saying Cameron should no longer listen to what he has to say? "I'm not going to comment on individuals," is all the peer will say, proving she can be diplomatic when she wants to.
Her main job, of course, involves a great deal of diplomacy. Her FCO brief covers some of the world's hot spots, from Afghanistan to central Asia; from Pakistan to Bangladesh. In Afghanistan, the British government is preparing to draw down its troops after a blood-stained, 13-year deployment in that country. Warsi recently returned from Kabul, where she met with the president, Hamid Karzai, and admits that the UK is leaving Afghanistan "not having achieved what we said we would achieve over a decade and a half ago, but leaving it a much better country than we found".
Warsi meeting with President Karzai of Afghanistan in Kabul
The relationship between Pakistan and the UK, meanwhile, is "the strongest relationship between the two countries that we’ve ever had," she tells me. Her personal role in strengthening the ties, as a British Muslim of Pakistani heritage who speaks Urdu, can't be underestimated - an FCO source refers to Warsi's "Heineken diplomacy", reaching the parts of the Muslim-majority world that her fellow ministers cannot.
The peer was also the driving force inside government behind 2013's Srebrenica Memorial Day, which commemorated the killing of 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in July 1995. The John Major government, it has been alleged, turned a blind eye to the Bosnia genocide.
"It was because we were a Tory government that we had to commemorate it," she exclaims in response, acknowledging how, in the 1990s, she was part of "a political party which made the wrong judgement" on the Balkans. The Tory peer has also championed a range of other headline-grabbing initiatives - from establishing the Whitehall Internship Scheme, as part of the coalition's social mobility drive; to leading the largest ever ministerial delegation to the Vatican in February 2012; to pushing for the criminalisation of forced marriage. On a recent visit to Washington DC, she spoke out against the persecution of Christians by Muslim extremists in the Middle East - and met with former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
As minister for faith, she sees her role as speaking up for faith communities - even if it upsets the UK's growing population of atheists. In an article for the Daily Telegraph in February 2012, Warsi claimed the UK was under threat from a rising tide of "militant secularisation" - which prompted scientist and atheist Richard Dawkins to denounce her.
Warsi doesn't try to apologise for this remark; she doubles down. "The most aggressive post I get is from people who are secular fundamentalists," she tells me.
But how would the minister for faith define a "secular fundamentalist"? "For me, what I define as a secular fundamentalist is somebody who says that there should be no public space for faith."
Isn't that exactly what Dawkins and fellow 'new atheists' such as the philosopher AC Grayling call for? "That's why they’re so fundamentalist in their [secular] beliefs."
Warsi says the unsayable and doesn't mind who she offends or upsets in the process. Like Kenneth Clarke and Boris Johnson, she stands out from most of her fellow Tories as a plain-speaking, no-nonsense parliamentarian.
LOONIES , FRUITCAKES AND RACISTS
In May 2012, for instance, she credited the rise of Nigel Farage's UK Independence Party (Ukip) to a decline in support for the far-right British National Party (BNP) - which resulted in a Ukip spokesman calling her a "bitch" on Twitter (for which he later apologised). Does she regret making the link between Ukip and BNP voters?
Warsi is defiant. "Statistics have subsequently showed that I was right." She becomes more animated. "If you look at their [voter] breakdown… I wasn’t entirely incorrect when I said what I did."
Does she still believe BNP voters are defecting to Ukip? The Ukip vote, she tells me, "comes from the Tory Party [and] the Labour Party but I do think there’s a chunk of it that comes from the far-right".
Reminding me of the forthcoming European parliamentary elections, on 22 May, Warsi says "we’re all being much more restrained and much more diplomatic about [Ukip]," before adding: "But I don’t think I could have put it any better than the way the prime minister put it when he described them many years ago."
It's a potentially explosive remark from the baroness - in 2006, David Cameron famously referred to Ukip as a party of "fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists".
When I point out to the minister that her leader has since distanced himself from that provocative description, she leans back and grins. Later in the interview, however, Warsi concedes that "Nigel Farage is trying to change his party and how successful he is in that will determine whether the label the prime minister gave [Ukip], all those years ago, sticks."
Does Nigel Farage run a party of 'loonies, fruitcakes and closet racists'?
What would she be advocating the Tories do or say, to tackle the Ukip threat, if she was still party chair? Some on the right of her party have suggested getting even tougher on immigration and picking more fights with the EU in order win back disillusioned Tory voters. Warsi isn't a supporter of such a strategy. "The one thing that no party can do is out-Ukip Ukip to win those voters back."
Could she imagine sitting in a coalition cabinet with Nigel Farage and Ukip after the next general election? The Tory peer won't play ball. "It’s above my pay grade." But she can't then resist adding: "To be part of a coalition government, you’ve got to be a serious party that wins enough seats." Ouch. Take that, Nigel.
The Conservatives may need to do another coalition deal in 2015, if they again fail to win a Commons majority. Back in September 2010, when I first interviewed the then party chairman for the New Statesman, Warsi claimed electoral fraud had contributed to the Tories' failure to secure an overall majority while Labour had "absolutely" benefited from the alleged fraud. "[There were] at least three seats where we lost, where we didn't gain the seat, based on electoral fraud," she told me then, adding: "It is predominantly within the Asian community."
Four years on, does she think the threat of electoral fraud has gone away? "No it hasn’t." So she's still worried about the same alleged problem? "I am," she replies. "There are reforms we have put in place.. and I think some of them will help but there is a real issue in the way in which postal votes are used." Does she have any regrets for highlighting the alleged ethnic dimension? She fixes an intense stare on me. "No, I don’t." And it's still "predominantly within the Asian community", in her view? The communities minister nods. " "I’ve never minced my words. If you don’t define what a problem is accurately you’re never going to resolve it."
She certainly wasn't mincing her words when she appeared on ITV1's The Agenda on 17 March and backed Michael Gove's earlier description of the number of old Etonians in the prime minister's inner circle as "ridiculous; the peer held up a mock front page with the headline "Number 10 takes Eton Mess off the menu".
Warsi grabbed the headlines with her gag on ITV1's The Agenda in March
Was her intervention over the Eton row a 'gaffe'? She pauses and leans back. "Let me put it in another way: a colleague of mine once said to me, 'Sayeeda, you’ve got to be careful and not drop a ball.' And I replied: 'I know, but what you fail to understand is that when you think I’ve dropped a ball, I’m usually bouncing it.'" There is a big grin on her face.
For Warsi, humour is how she tackles "what people are thinking" - a not-so-subtle acknowledgment of the Tories' 'posh boy' problem. But did she get into trouble with Number 10 for her "humour" on The Agenda? "If I told you that, I’d have to kill you." She laughs. Loudly. And then: "The prime minister took it in good faith." What about Gove? "Michael found it quite interesting that I came out firing, all guns blazing, defending him."
Warsi says she isn't a "tribal politician": "I am a practical politician who has passionate beliefs."
Her appeal does indeed seem to cross the party political divide. Baroness Hussein-Ece, the Lib Dem peer, says Warsi is "very impressive" despite not having had "an easy time" with the press or her own party. "[Warsi] has grown in stature in the House of Lords and on foreign affairs," she tells me. " She is on top of her brief and responds comprehensively to questions."
Lord Wood, the shadow cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband, tells me that "Sayeeda has overcome scepticism and some degree of snobbishness from her own Tory benches in the Lords, to become an engaging and impressive frontbench spokesperson for the government. I've found her to be open and engaging with people from all sides of the House." He adds: "I like the fact that she speaks her mind".
I try and get her to speak her mind on the Tories' 'posh boy' problem. "Politics has to be made up of all sorts of people," declares Warsi. Yes, but how? The cabinet she attends is stuffed with millionaire ex-public schoolboys. The peer shakes her head. "There's a huge difference between inheriting wealth and going out and working damn hard." She cites her own father who, after starting off as a mill worker in Yorkshire, now operates a bed manufacturing company with a multi-million-pound turnover: "He would say: 'Yes I am wealthy because I worked damn hard to get what I got.' We shouldn't just have envy towards people who are wealthy and successful."
She continues: "The question is: in politics, do we want people who have had a range of experiences? You need a mix around the table." I repeat my original question: how?
"You get that mix," she replies, "by surrounding yourself by people from lots of different backgrounds."
Have the prime minister and the chancellor done that? There's a long pause as she searches in her mind for the correct form of words. "I would like to think they do." Then, silence. It isn't exactly the most robust defence of the Cameron or Osborne inner circles.
Does she consider herself working-class, I wonder, despite her millionaire father? "Yeah I do. My dad made it when I was well into my teens."
So, as a working-class person, what did she make of current Tory chairman Grant Shapps' 'beer and bingo' poster? I can't help but chuckle at her instant response: "Well it certainly wasn’t going after the Muslim vote, was it?"
The controversial poster tweeted out by Tory chairman Grant Shapps after the Budget
But was it patronising to working-class people, as a whole host of senior Labour and Lib Dem figures have argued?
"There will always be moments when things can be interpreted in a different way." There is no love lost between Warsi and her successor so I'm surprised to hear her defend Shapps: "The chairman of the party is at the top of a very big organisation and there's lots of stuff that's done in the chairman's name which the whole organisation has been part of."
She continues: "I think some of the attacks on Grant Shapps have been incredibly unfair because he's been made to carry the can of decisions which probably involved a whole load of other people before that poster came out."
Is she referring here to the chancellor? "Well, I don’t know that…but I’m not convinced [Shapps] should carry the can for this."
The Conservative Party is accused of lacking gender diversity, as well as social diversity. Does she accept that her party has a 'women problem'? "I think politics has a women problem."
Warsi with the cabinet in May 2010. She was later demoted but still attends.
Yet, out of the 33 people who attend Cameron's cabinet, just five are women. Is that acceptable? Warsi - who was demoted from full cabinet status in the reshuffle of September 2012 - is blunt in her response: "I think it needs to increase."
Three days after we meet, the Spectator suggests Warsi could be sacked from the government in the next cabinet reshuffle, quoting an unnamed minister as saying: "She should be dropped down a hole and a lid put on the top." The report claims the Prime Minister is being lobbied to remove the senior minister of state from her post, because of "her decision to wave about a front page on the ‘Eton Mess’ in Number 10 on ITV’s The Agenda".
This is bizarre. First, why sack Warsi, not Gove? It was the education secretary who first identified the "ridiculous" number of Old Etonians around Cameron in his FT interview. Second, would it be wise for Tory high command to respond to light-hearted criticisms of elitism by a state-educated, non-white, northern Tory woman from a working-class background by then removing her from government and making the cabinet even more male, white and elitist? Really?
"Some people in the party have been playing this same old record for years," a friend of Warsi's tells me. "Sayeeda's record - and background - speaks for itself. The only victor in this kind of speculation is Ed Miliband."
The peer herself doesn't seem bothered by the brickbats. "Politics is a pretty ruthless place and it's not the kind of place which you’d choose for a good work-life balance," she tells me, with a shrug of her shoulders, during our chat at Lancaster House. "If you're going to come into politics and try not to upset anybody, and stand on the sidelines, then you might as well go off and be an accountant. I came into politics to make a difference."
Whatever your view of the baroness or her politics, it is difficult to dispute that she's made a difference. An accountant she isn't.
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