Mail on Sunday: Baroness Warsi: Maypoles, harvest festivals, Christmas carols… it’s time for the minorities to join in
By Simon Walters
Of all the rooms they could have given her, they chose one in the part of the FO still known as the old India Office. It was from here that the British ruled India, including the Warsi family’s native Pakistan before it became independent.
Her ministerial study is directly opposite the magnificent centrepiece of the India Office, the marble-floored Durbar Court with its three storeys of doric, ionic and corinthian columns.
Built when Queen Victoria was on the throne, it was modelled on Indian durbars – courts where native princes held receptions for visiting British dignitaries at the height of the Raj.
When I started our interview at the India Office by admiring Durbar Court, Sayeeda Warsi winced at my clunking Estuary English ‘der-baah’ pronunciation of the word.
‘It is drrr-ba,’ she said, lending an exotic musical flourish to the prolonged ‘drrr’ and clipped ‘ba’. I could almost hear sitars in the background. Born in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, the second of five daughters of Pakistani immigrants, she had a successful career in the law before being made a Tory peer.
She defies all stereotypes. She is as Eastern and refined as the Durbar Court, yet as down-to-earth and homely as Yorkshire pudding. She calls herself a working-class Northern mum, yet sends her children to private school. Her accent is half Pakistani and half Yorkshire, and she is fiercely proud of both.
After being appointed Britain’s first woman Muslim Cabinet Minister in 2010, Warsi came close to being humiliated when David Cameron moved her out of her job as Tory chairman in the September reshuffle.
Unnamed Conservative MPs ran a whispering campaign against her, claiming she wasn’t up to it and had been given the post only because the Prime Minister was desperate to break up the serried ranks of white and overwhelmingly male Tory faces around the Cabinet table.
Even more wounding, it was alleged that her brash successor as chairman, Grant Shapps, ran a successful campaign to grab the post from her.
When I mentioned Shapps’s troubles, a beatific smile spread across her face.
‘He’s had a real baptism of fire, it’s been awful,’ she said, archly. ‘He’s had the grief after a month that I had after a year.’ Ouch.
Shapps isn’t the only one to discover how Warsi fights like a tigress. When Cameron asked her to move to a more junior role at the FO, she faced being stripped of her Cabinet place.
Warsi had other ideas. She made three demands: a new title, that of Senior Minister of State, adding the ‘senior’ to signal she was Foreign Secretary William Hague’s deputy, at least in name; the retention of her Cabinet seat; and the additional role of Minister for Faith and Communities, Whitehall jargon for Race Relations Minister.
She got all three.
Only the canniest of politicians get to the top of ethnic politics in Britain. Warsi is no exception. She is barely 5ft tall, yet her warmth and presence more than fill her palatial office, with its towering 30ft ceiling.
With Conservative support among black and Asian voters pathetically low, Cameron could hardly risk having a woman – and a Muslim to boot – walking out on him.
And which white Tory could possibly tackle thorny issues, such as the grooming of vulnerable young white girls by Pakistani men in Northern towns like Rochdale, with her courage and credibility?
£140M A YEAR LOST IN TRANSLATION
More than 800,000 schoolchildren – one in eight – do not speak English as their mother tongue.
Critics say schools’ resources are being stretched as heads are forced to recruit foreign language assistants to help migrant children.
Some 240 different languages are spoken in England’s schools including Punjabi, Baroness Warsi’s native Urdu, Bengali, Somali and Polish. In some schools, more than 50 languages are spoken.
Taxpayers foot an annual £140 million bill for translation services, including £64,000 a day in the NHS – a 17 per cent rise since 2007. NHS trusts translate pamphlets into 120 different languages.
Many public bodies provide translations but the legal obligation to do so is not clear.
The Human Rights Act only requires translations if someone is arrested or charged with a crime, while the Race Relations Act says all parts of the community should have access to services.
‘A small minority of Pakistani, Afghani and Bangladeshi men think Asian women are second-class citizens and white girls are third-class citizens,’ Warsi told me.
When we met last week, she had just arrived back from a whirlwind trip to Pakistan in her role as Foreign Office Minister for the region.
But we have met to talk about her domestic ministerial role, that of Minister for Faith and the Communities. In a wide-ranging interview on the eve of a speech on integration, she insisted there was no contradiction between being a devout Muslim and celebrating Christmas.
‘Being brought up — before the politically correct brigade got going — on harvest festivals, maypoles, Nativity plays, Christmas carols and the Lord’s Prayer, made me much more sure about my own identity,’ she said. ‘I didn’t feel it was all watered down to the lowest common denominator.’
Baroness Warsi fondly recalled how she and her four sisters persuaded their father, Safdar, and mother, Hafeeza, to celebrate Christmas – mainly as an excuse to get presents from Santa Claus.
‘Our house was small and because Mum and Dad took out the chimney-breast, like everyone was doing in the North in those days, we thought Santa couldn’t come to our house – so my sister left the back door unlocked.
‘He still didn’t arrive! My dad said “We don’t do Christmas,” so one of my sisters said to him, “December 25 is the birthday of Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. He is really important.” ’
Warsi bursts into laughter at the memory. ‘We introduced turkey, crackers, hats, a tree and tinsel. It became more and more Christmassy every year.’
Did she do turkey with all the trimmings? ‘I have spiced turkey!’
Warsi loves Christmas carols – her favourite is Good King Wenceslas. And while retaining her Muslim faith, she has continued the Christmas tradition with her own children, especially 14-year-old daughter Aamna.
‘Every Christmas, she just had to be Mary,’ she grins.
In her first Christmas as Conservative Party chairman, Warsi was horrified to discover the proposed official chairman’s card had no mention of Christianity – so she binned it and replaced it with a ‘proper traditional card, with Merry Christmas on it’.
She added defiantly: ‘It took the confidence of a British Muslim to do that.’
And she wants other ethnic minorities to follow her lead.
‘Why not? White people celebrate Diwali and Eid. And we all enjoy Bonfire Night.’
And Warsi says the proliferation of multilingual forms available for non-English speakers at hospitals, welfare offices and elsewhere merely encourages people not to bother to learn English and hinders their chances of integrating and getting good jobs.
She takes the same no-nonsense approach to other issues, such as drugs. Wary of treading on ethnic toes, Home Secretary Theresa May has not responded to calls to ban the legal plant-based drug khat, which is used mainly by minorities. But not blunt Warsi.
‘I have been pushing the Home Secretary to get on with it. We cannot say, “Because it’s Somalian and Ethiopian boys who take this, it’s part of their recreational activity, hey-ho, we will just let them take it.” We would not legitimise marijuana to please the Rasta community, so why do that with khat?’
Are you listening, Theresa?
With only six weeks to go before Christmas, I could not resist asking Warsi if she had drawn up her Christmas card list. Would she be sending one to Grant Shapps – or Michael Green perhaps?
‘I’ll send him a Christmas card addressed to the chairman of the Conservative Party,’ she replied.
And the twinkle in her eye could illuminate an entire Christmas tree.
SHARING WILL HELP WARM THE MELTING POT
What Baroness Warsi says is brave, creditable and straightforwardly good. Her suggestions would be wise whoever made them, but the fact that a British Muslim of Asian ancestry has said these things is important and heartening.
For far too long our official and political classes have, in practice, supported a well-intentioned but disastrous multiculturalism which has encouraged some communities to turn in on themselves.
No melting pot can function unless it is heated by the warmth of human contact – above all, by a shared language but also, as Sayeeda Warsi urges, by as much shared culture as possible.
The idea that Muslims should celebrate Christmas is a particularly happy one – as it happens, the birth of Jesus to the Virgin Mary is recorded in the Koran. If we were less embarrassed about our own faith and culture, many of our newer citizens might well find it easier, not harder, to fit in.