Just over a week ago, on August 5th 2014, Baroness Warsi resigned from government. A predictable uproar ensued, which involved much speculation about her timing, motives and so forth, but this unsurprising tumult in the media was in essence no different to all those that have preceded it when any politician from any party makes the headlines by leaving government, of their own volition or otherwise.
However, a number of aspects made this particular resignation and the subsequent fallout unusual, if not unique. I’m not concerned here with the point of principle on which Lady Warsi left government, because people have resigned their posts or else have been dismissed for a variety of reasons over the years. However, she was the first female Muslim member of a British cabinet and she enjoys a reputation as the western world’s foremost Muslim politician, so the unprecedented nature of her appointment and her singular standing must inevitably be considered as part of the proceedings.
The internet has long been a safe haven for all manner of distasteful comments made about public figures and private individuals, but I was taken aback by some of the unpleasantness I saw directed towards Lady Warsi on some parts of social media, although I do not include the criticism of her in the mainstream media by some of her former colleagues in this shameful collection. My personal perception of her is the opposite of some of the descriptions I’ve read over the past ten days or so, but rather than confining myself to stating that I disagree with her detractors, I’ll explain as best I can why I admire her, why I’m grateful to her and why I think her departure from government is a loss to everyone, government included.
Like many other people in Britain, I long ago became utterly disenchanted with politicians, having grown weary of talk of expenses, bold ideas, reshuffles, sound bites, polls, manifesto promises, endless bickering, lobbyists, fact-finding missions, photo opportunities, focus groups, rebranding, ‘blue-sky thinking’, spin doctors and the other dreary manifestations of modern British politics. At the risk of sounding simplistic and even selfish, I only want to know whether or not our politicians can make us all more prosperous and our country more peaceful and secure.
When I consider these matters, I now do so from a different perspective because my views on politicians have mellowed over the past few years. There was a time when I was deeply cynical about them and dismissive of their efforts, but I’ve come to see them as human beings like myself who risk being overwhelmed by the nature and scale of the problems they face, and who at the same time are subject to relentless scrutiny from our continuous news coverage. I generally give them the benefit of the doubt by assuming that they’re doing their best, which is all any of us can really hope to do.
So, when I see Lady Warsi being subjected to such tirades, I ask myself if my life is more prosperous as a result of the efforts of this Muslim woman, or if it is somehow more peaceful. I’m not a forensic political commentator, merely an interested onlooker, so as I can’t immediately see any connection between Lady Warsi and the economy, I turn instead to any contributions she might have made towards making my life and the lives of my family, friends and neighbours more peaceable and secure.
In July 2007, Lady Warsi was appointed as the Shadow Minister for Community Cohesion, so someone must have believed that this post suited her talents and in turn, I believe this decision showed foresight and sound judgement. In December of that year, she travelled to Sudan with the Labour peer Lord Ahmed to meet with the president of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, to mediate in a blasphemy case involving a British citizen, Gillian Gibbons, who was then granted a presidential pardon and allowed to return home to Britain. This might not have directly affected me, but it would be churlish to deny it was a positive outcome on the international stage for everyone concerned.
Otherwise, there’s a great deal about Lady Warsi’s achievements on her personal site and elsewhere on the internet. From what I can see, most of her work involved dealing with faith and community leaders to promote religious tolerance, not just in this country, but abroad as well. She was well-received by the Pope and by many other high profile dignitaries around the world; without reproducing the minutiae of all her many engagements, it seems to me that she must have performed her duties in what must at the very least have been a satisfactory fashion, in what everyone acknowledges can be a delicate field. This Muslim lady is on record as having spoken passionately and eloquently against anti-Semitism, as well as in defence of Christianity, while the simple record of her engagements shows that she was working hard to fulfil her brief.
These matters are by their very nature extraordinarily difficult to quantify, because it’s nigh-on impossible to report an interfaith meeting or one involving community cohesion, then to point to a tangible and beneficial result immediately afterwards, as opposed to a meeting involving trade, for example, where another minster could return home triumphantly flourishing a lucrative contract for British workers. I’m left to ask myself whether or not Lady Warsi’s efforts on the international stage made me safer, so to give her the benefit of any doubt, I would say ‘yes’ without hesitation, while I cannot for the life of me see any way in which she made me less safe than I was before.
As for her work at home, I’ve seen her amicably engaging with all sectors of society in a wide variety of settings, but while this might sound somewhat vague, it is most assuredly not damning her with faint praise. She has repeatedly argued the case for religion playing a prominent and important part of our lives, while she’s obviously made every attempt – as a Muslim – to act on behalf of people of various faiths. It’s a matter of historical fact that she’s vigorously applied herself to the area of interfaith relations, something that’s evidently an extremely serious business because for a number of years, the concern that our public figures and institutions have expressed over community relations, radicalisation and the rise of far right political groups has been a recurring and notable feature of mainstream news reports.
I recognise that many highly intelligent and well-meaning people have applied themselves to these subjects in recent times, while I also recognise that any progress made as a result of their patient efforts may well be gradual in nature and not something that the media could report as headline news on the front page on any given day. All the same, Lady Warsi has diligently applied herself to these matters, arguing her case on television and in the press in what I’ve always thought was a calm and even-handed manner that’s earned her approbation elsewhere.
It strikes me that her community and interfaith work was something for which she was admirably suited, so I sincerely hope that she continues with this because it is something that can only benefit us all, while as a white, Welsh, male non-Muslim, it’s simply the truth for me to say that I trust Lady Warsi to work on behalf of us all as much as I’d trust anyone. Here in Britain, we live on a small island, so we’ve all got to learn to get along; no one has yet come up with a solution to the various problems we face, but as a casual observer, I think it’s mere justice to fully credit Lady Warsi with having tried as hard as anyone, over a considerable period of time, to find one.
British politicians are regularly heckled and confronted in public, regardless of which party or policy they represent, and Lady Warsi has received her fair share of this kind of thing during her time as a public figure. I’ve seen quite a few of her appearances on television, but one stands out for me on account of the setting and the people involved. I can’t recall which year it was, but I clearly remember seeing her being interviewed on the BBC’s Newsnight programme late one evening, where she appeared on screen in the studio from some cold, dark outdoors setting outside London.
She was being interrogated by Jeremy Paxman, a man not noted for giving politicians an easy time, while there was a Muslim gentleman in the studio with Paxman who was vigorously taking Lady Warsi to task because in his view, she wasn’t speaking or comporting herself in the fashion he would expect from a Muslim woman. I cannot for the life of me remember any other details of her appearance that night, nor is it for me to say whose case was right and whose was wrong, but I have this image in my mind of an embattled individual standing her ground and arguing her case in the face of vocal opposition from two articulate, animated men and from the elements themselves.
It’s human nature for anyone with deep convictions to assert themselves in the face of criticism on live television, so I wouldn’t want to dwell on this episode, because I feel it takes even greater strength of character for someone to devote themselves over the course of years to working in a diligent and patient fashion in the broad areas of community and interfaith relations, where the rewards in terms of favourable, high profile media exposure are few and far between, but where a slip of the tongue or an ill-chosen expression can be broadcast instantly around the world and invite a deluge of condemnation.
So, I would admire her for this, as I would admire anyone – let alone a politician – who determinedly marches to a different drumbeat, regardless of whether or not I happen to agree with every last one of their views. I’m not in the business of making predictions, but all the evidence I’ve seen tells me that Lady Warsi will continue to benefit us all if she continues with her good works in the fields of interfaith and community relations, regardless of whether she does that after being invited back into government or else through pursuing her own initiatives.
“What is the use of living, if it be not to strive for noble causes and to make this muddled world a better place for those who will live in it after we are gone?”