Politics is a tribal business. It is a strange world where you can virulently disagree with somebody in private, but because they are ‘one of us’, to coin one of Margaret Thatcher’s favourite expressions, you would not be able to get a fag-paper’s worth of difference in opinion when expressed publicly. This nether-world also means that there are those who will instantly dismiss the opinions of anyone who doesn’t share their own particular political hue.
‘He’s Labour – typical bleeding-heart, nanny-state wet-nurse, doesn’t understand business or the real world’.
‘I don’t know how she can date a Tory, isn’t she always claiming to be sooo left-wing? What a sell-out,’ they will pronounce.
‘You know he’s a Lib Dem? There are two things about him I can’t stand.’
‘What are they?’
That sort of thing.
So it has been interesting to see the fallout from Baroness Sayeeda Warsi’s resignation from government over Middle East policy. It is a rare thing for a modern-day politician to resign on a point of principle, especially after they have had the chance to grow accustomed to the perks, the ministerial car, the invitations, foreign trips, the media interest. So there is now unquestionably a large degree of previously-untapped admiration for Baroness Warsi, not only for her act, but for the uncompromising way in which she gave her reasons for doing so. To call government policy over Gaza ‘morally indefensible’, ‘detrimental’ to the national interest and risked radicalising young Muslims both here and abroad, meant that for many of us this was the first time someone from the government benches reflected our feelings on the current outrage. Unfortunately she had to resign to do so.
Make no mistake, this is a massive blow to a Conservative Party at pains to suggest that it is becoming more representative of modern Britain. As the Yorkshire-born daughter of Pakistani parents, and a Muslim to boot, opportunities were never missed to wheel Warsi out as the poster-girl of the new Conservative Party, diverse, inclusive. No longer ‘pale, stale and male.’ And dressed in a traditional South Asian salwar-kameez as she entered 10 Downing Street to attend her first Cabinet meeting, the image was certainly striking and, I daresay, a source of great pride to many in this country – particularly those who share similar backgrounds.
Now she has gone, many of those same people who were happy to praise her when a TV camera was close – ‘a great asset in building our reputation overseas and representing the British Government’, the Prime Minister said in 2012 – are equally quick to question her competence and criticise her for doing what appears to be that rare thing – resigning from office on a point of principle.
’A disappointing and frankly unnecessary decision’, Chancellor George Osborne calls her resignation, dispensing with the usual niceties present at such moments. ‘Over-promoted, incapable, incompetent.’…’has form on Hamas’…among descriptions used by Conservative-leaning commentators. We can all see what’s happening here.
As a result, we have the strange spectacle of her defence being mounted primarily by previously-opposed Labour politicians. ‘Principled’, ‘Capable’, ‘My brave friend’ among the terms used to describe her.
Now, I am no fan of Baroness Warsi. I disagree with her on many, probably most, things – whether campaigning against the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools or saying the BNP had ‘some very legitimate views’ and numerous other issues. I’ve often wondered where she has been when this government has been dismantling equalities legislation. But disagreement should be expected to some degree. It is fanciful and unrealistic to think that because a politician shares similar characteristics to us – race, faith, gender or whatever it may be – that they will share all our views and will instinctively do our bidding above all others.
Moreover, disagreeing with her doesn’t mean that her resignation should not be seen as a cause for regret amongst those of us that value diversity in public life. In the early days of her rise within the Conservative Party, Warsi had genuine influence on policy and saying what others would not – for example, within months of entering Government, it was Warsi publicly stating that Islamophobia had ‘passed the dinner-table test’ and become socially acceptable in Britain and condemning the rise of religious hate crime around the world.
More recently she bemoaned the ‘Eton Mess’ of a preponderance of public school boys at the heart of government. Very few people in this wretched government – a government that is supposed to represent all of us, let’s not forget – was speaking like this, despite the inevitable unpopularity it would bring.
It should always be the case in politics that what you do must out-rank what you say. Some of this will be public, some not so. But as someone who has been fortunate at times to be able to engage directly with government ministers, MPs, councillors and others on matters of public policy, one thing I do know is that by simply being in the room, you can change the discourse. The way people think, what they say, what they do. Lobbying has its place, but to see it through and make sure change happens – we need to be in the room, or at the very least, have access. Otherwise we are just another voice shouting from the scaffold.
Because our presence and engagement forces others to think in a way that they would not if we were not there. This is the same if you are a professional politician, an office politician, a school governor or any other walk of life. Some battles will be won and others lost. But if we’re not even on the pitch, how can we influence the outcome? And given that we are stuck with this bland, colourless, government for another nine months at least, Baroness Warsi – for all her faults – should be seen as someone we can ill-afford to lose. Because we need all our political parties to not only look like we do – symbolism is important after all – but to have people in them that are capable of thinking, talking and acting like we do.
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David Wood writes and speaks on issues of Politics, Faith, Community, Race, Education, and occasionally, sport in Britain, whilst retaining an interest in the politics of the US and the Caribbean. And Croydon. He is a member of the First Martin Luther King Twelve and a School Governor, and has worked extensively on education issues surrounding black boys, community engagement, serious youth violence and interfaith relations. He is Chair of his Trade Union branch, a local political activist and a cricketer and goalkeeper. Find him on Twitter: @WoodyDave39
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