Media and political pressure has been piling on Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, the Conservative Party co-chairman and minister-without-portfolio in the coalition government. Unpopular with the Tory Right, the guns have turned on her following the Conservative Party’s dismal electoral performance in last month’s local elections.
Lady Warsi is already being investigated by a parliamentary watchdog over reports she claimed accommodation allowance while staying with a friend rent-free. She has referred the allegations to Lords Commissioner for Standards Paul Kernaghan, but in the meantime is facing calls to quit cabinet. There is barely a week that goes by without someone, usually a Tory, calling for her head. The Labour Party has seized upon her plight and called for her to step down.
In the latest twist, Lady Warsi was alleged by a Sunday Telegraph article to have failed to declare that she and her business partner Abid Hussain, who was on a ministerial trip to Pakistan in 2010, had stakes in the same business firm. Lady Warsi has apologised to the prime minister for any “embarrassment to the government”. David Cameron spared no time to ask his independent adviser on ministerial interests to look into the case and ordered an inquiry into her foreign trip.
Lady Warsi is the UK’s most senior minority-ethnic politician. She was initially seen as a shining light in the Conservative Party, long-struggling to recruit from the black and minority ethnic (BME) communities. Is she going to be a scapegoat for the sliding unpopularity of the Conservative Party? Will Lady Warsi, the first Muslim woman to be a Cabinet minister, survive this political storm? Will David Cameron cave in to her powerful detractors?
These questions are not only being asked in the Westminster village, but in the minds of many across the BME communities. Some are asking whether there is something more sinister in this campaign to oust her. Her departure will be a loss to British politics, argues Simon Woolley of Operation Black Vote. Many, even her political opponents, are wary of the nature of attacks on her.
Lady Warsi is not a political maverick. She is sharp, charismatic and she speaks her mind. As such, she has brought a distinctive appeal to the Conservative Party, traditionally viewed as led by a white middle (or upper) class elite. As co-chairman of the party and with the wide-ranging government job of minister-without-portfolio, she has brought a breath of fresh air into frontline politics. She arrived at her first cabinet meeting in May 2010 dressed in a pink-and-gold shalwar qameez, distinct in look and dress.
But it appears she has made many enemies in the right-wing media and political spheres, after wading into the muddied waters of race and religion. In a wide-ranging interview with Mehdi Hasan in The New Statesman in October 2010 Baroness Warsi said: “If you have a pop at the British Muslim community in the media, then first of all it will sell a few papers; second, it doesn’t really matter; and third, it’s fair game.” She then added: “If you go back historically - [and] I was looking at some Evening Standard headlines, where there were things written about the British Jewish community less than 100 years ago - they have kind of replaced one with the other.”
Representing the Muslim community?
In a later speech at Leicester University in January 2011 she said that prejudice against Muslims had “passed the dinner-table test” and become socially acceptable in the UK. Peter Oborne, the Daily Telegraph’s chief political commentator, supported her saying that hatred of Muslims was one of the last bastions of British bigotry. Muslim individuals and groups which were known as beacons of moderation in modern Britain are now seen as “non-violent extremists”, thanks to a political shift in the UK which has seen neo-conservatives enter the ranks of government. There are many rumours about the battles that have taken place within the Coalition, regarding policy towards Muslims and British Muslim organisations. The Leveson Inquiry was told about this negative portrayal of Muslims in media last January. One wonders if Baroness Warsi has now herself fallen foul of these same powers.
Warsi is a politician, of course. She has not always been popular among some in the Muslim community. Recently she spoke out strongly about the Pakistani community. She has worked with Pakistan’s Ministry of Law on a project to fight forced marriage. Being a Muslim, she vehemently defends Christian values for Britain. Has this proved too much for the Tory hierarchy, or the right-wingers who are reportedly biting at their leader David Cameron’s heels right now?
Some are already comparing the prime minister’s over-enthusiasm in initiating an inquiry on Lady Warsi to his disinterest in doing the same on with his Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt and his over-close connections to the Murdoch family. Does this mean the first Muslim woman to sit in the Cabinet lacks friends among the Conservative high command, in a way Jeremy Hunt does not?
Whatever Lady Warsi is, or was, we need more Muslims represented in our political processes. With hundreds of local councillors and now quite a few parliamentarians in both houses of parliament, Muslims’ growing presence in politics is indeed encouraging - despite a continuous negative media portrayal on anything linked with Islam and Muslims, from halal slaughter, to forced marriage and sexual grooming. In his powerful article on halal hysteria last month, political commentator Mehdi Hasan said that the British “debate” about meat, animal cruelty and ritual slaughter has become “a proxy for deep fears about Muslims in our midst”.
Politics, the noble profession to serve people, has sadly become too short-termist at the expense of principles and values in our time. It has turned out to be a profession of the privileged who have failed to stand up for people, especially for white working class and BME communities. In the absence of a level playing field many people, particularly the youth, are apathetic about our democratic processes. The Warsi debacle is just another sign that politicians are getting it wrong when it comes to Muslims in the political sphere.
Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is a parenting consultant. He is a founding member of The East London Communities Organisation (TELCO), Chairman of the East London Mosque Trust and former Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain (2006-10).