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Guardian: Sayeeda Warsi on forced marriages, immigration and Pakistan

By Decca Aitkenhead

'What radicalised me was the colour of my skin' …Sayeeda Warsi.

‘What radicalised me was the colour of my skin’ … Sayeeda Warsi. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

The last time Sayeeda Warsi and I met, we didn’t hit it off. It was the summer of 2010, when the coalition was still in its honeymoon and the new Conservative co-chair was the poster girl for David Cameron’s newly inclusive party – Britain’s first female Muslim cabinet minister, as he never tired of boasting.

Two and a half years on, Baroness Warsi is no longer a cabinet minister. Having spent much of this year under investigation over disputed expenses and other minor irregularities, she was cleared last month of all serious allegations, but had already been replaced by Grant Shapps in September’s reshuffle. The demotion came as little surprise, given all the rumours of No 10’s grumbles about her, and a Conservative Home pollthat found her the single most unpopular Tory minister.

No longer Cameron’s golden girl, she is now the senior minister for foreign and commonwealth affairs, and minister for faith and communities; by special dispensation, she can still attend cabinet. But she had to fight for her life to even get that, according to some reports, and the desperation of her demands were rather “undignified”.

Warsi says that’s utter rubbish. “I feel like when I wake up in the morning, this is exactly where I need to use my strengths. I think this role – Afghanistan, Pakistan, the UN, human rights, freedom of religion internationally, communities and faith domestically – I feel like a round peg in a round hole.” Exactly what was said during the reshuffle only she and the prime minister can know, but having spent an hour with her I would say two things. Warsi is deeply wounded and shaken by the events of the past year. And she is infinitely more likable.

To what extent the two are related is of course impossible to know. Maybe we just caught each other on a bad day last time. Maybe it was only inexperience that made her seem so unsympathetic – chippy, charmless, alienating. Today I get the distinct impression that she has made a conscious decision to be lovely – and she sticks to it heroically, showering warm smiles and compliments, solicitous with a studied air of friendly complicity. It may be a charm offensive, but it is charming all the same, and she chatters away as if we were old friends.

“In one way it was quite nice because the pressure wasn’t there,” she says, when I mention that I didn’t see her at party conference this year. “Party conference as party chairman is really intense, you literally collapse at the end of it cos you do such, such long days. So it was nice to be able to enjoy it. But there was also a kind of – a tinge of sadness really.” She becomes girlishly wistful. “I kept meeting lots of people who said: ‘Oh, you’re not here any more!’ And I mean, of course, you know, I was pleased about the new job – but it’s still quite sad to see people. I spent a lot of my time as party chairman touring the country so I know a lot of the voluntary party, you know, the real stalwarts, the blue-rinse brigade who go out and do all the hard stuff for us – they kept coming up and giving big hugs and saying: ‘Oh, we’re really going to miss you!’ and I was really choked up.”

Warsi with the coalition cabinet, May 2010.

Warsi with the coalition cabinet, May 2010. Photograph: Phil Hannaford

She giggles bashfully. “I know it probably sounds like an odd thing but Iloved the voluntary party. I really felt it was a big thing of what I did as chairman, to bring that respect agenda back to the voluntary party, not just see them as an awkward part of the party but actually have that open conversation.

“Because they’re your foot soldiers, aren’t they? You can have a great strategy and great parliamentarian representatives, but elections are won by your foot soldiers, and if we didn’t have those foot soldiers going out day after day and keeping the associations going … Being from Yorkshire in the late 90s and early 2000s: we were decimated, I saw how hard it was to keep the show on the road, and it was that voluntary party that kept that show on the road.”

She breaks off abruptly with a brisk little laugh. “But anyway, I’m not going to spend the whole interview talking about my last job!”

In her new job Warsi has already made some characteristically bold statements. The recent cases of Asian men grooming vulnerable white teenage girls for sex raised sensitivities about racial stereotyping, but not for Warsi. “There is a small minority of Pakistani men who believe that white girls are fair game,” she told a newspaper. “This small minority who see women as second-class citizens, and white women probably as third-class citizens, are to be spoken out against.” Has she suffered any backlash for her comments?

“I don’t have the baggage of racism and colonialism hanging over me that people might feel they could throw at others in the party. I don’t fall for any of that. What gave me comfort was the number of people who supported me for raising this issue. And for me personally it was a really important moment. Going from 2005, when I stood [for parliament, unsuccessfully] and it was a great novelty, from the Daily Mail right through to the ethnic community – ‘God, a Muslim Asian woman of working-class background wanting to stand as a parliamentary candidate, how novel!’ – to in 2012, seven years later, which is not a long time, where you can stand up and show some real leadership on a tough issue, and have people coming alongside you – from the rightwing press, right through to the Asian community, managing to unite them all, is quite a big moment.”

She thinks her background also plays an important part in international relations, and even refers to herself as “the minister for Pakistan”.

“I’m not the kind of minister who goes and has meetings in Islamabad and then leaves. I spend a lot of time with civil society, I know the real Pakistan, I know what people think, I hear real views, I spend a lot of time engaging with media at all levels. And I know that the relationship between Pakistan and Britain is probably the strongest it’s ever been.”

But a recent poll found 82% of Pakistanis felt extremely negative towards Britain.

“Look, I can’t predict what happened during those polls, but I can give you, like I said, my own real-life experience. I still have a lot of family, friends, deep connections politically and with civil society, and yes, of course, we have conversations about policy, but I know this relationship has never been as strong as it is now.”

Another issue Warsi says was ignored for too long by politicians afraid of looking culturally insensitive is forced marriage. Having campaigned against it for many years, she draws a parallel with domestic violence; for a long time there was no political will to take action, but now the government is criminalising it. “I came in for criticism from the home secretary when we were in opposition and I was saying forced marriages should be criminalised. ‘You can’t say things like that!’ But now they will be.”

But recently she ventured into much more contentious territory, calling for hospitals and other public services to phase out the use of multilingual forms and translation services. I don’t doubt the sincerity of her commitment to improving immigrants’ prospects, nor the importance of language to integration. I’m just not sure how this could work. Leaving aside any ethical misgivings, wouldn’t the money saved on forms be wiped out by the cost of correcting medical mistakes caused by miscommunication?

“Doctors would not take advice or give advice if they felt that the patient they were speaking to couldn’t understand what they were saying.” But that’s the logical conclusion of the policy, isn’t it? “No, what I’m saying is the country has to decide which direction it’s going in. Is it going to spend many, many years to come, translating and interpreting? Or the alternative is that we invest in our common language. This is where our immigration policy completely differs from the last Labour government. We say there’s a language in this country which is a common language and everybody should have the opportunity to be part of it, and the role of government is to create that opportunity.”

She talks passionately about extending the provision of English language education, and it sounds wonderful. But if that’s what she’s really talking about, why not announce that her government will move heaven and earth to help everyone in the country learn English? Why frighten immigrants with the threat of a health service that won’t treat them in an emergency unless they know how to say “cardiac arrest” in English?

“Because it’s about working out which direction we’re going in.”

Warsi in the House of Lords, 2009.

Warsi in the House of Lords, 2009. Photograph: Oli Scarff

One could say this is simply a difference of emphasis, but I think it’s more telling, for it underlines the importance of symbolism in Warsi’s political identity. Born in Dewsbury, Yorkshire, in 1971 to a Punjabi mill worker who arrived in Britain with £2.50, she says: “When I was growing up, what radicalised me was the colour of my skin. It wasn’t a very comfortable time and at the end of term ‘Paki-bashing’ was a part of what happened.” After a comprehensive-school education she studied law, set up her own practice, had an arranged marriage and a daughter, now 14, and became a Tory activist. After failing to get elected in 2005, she was made a peer in 2007, and became a Tory role model for emancipated modern Muslim womanhood.

Warsi has occupied an important if precarious position in race relations, on the one hand campaigning against abusive traditions and radical fundamentalism within the Muslim community, and on the other accusing the country of sliding towards a casual Islamophobia, which had “passed the dinner party test” and become socially acceptable. Her first marriage ended in divorce after 17 years, but her second in 2009 was also arranged – to a fellow Muslim divorcee, and father of four boys – and is by all accounts blissfully happy. Her daughter attends a convent school, but is raised as a Muslim. I got a hint of the price she has paid for her ambidextrous approach to cultural identify after her last interview was published, when a shocking number of British Pakistani men got in touch to denounce her as a shameful infidel. For herself, she has always rejected any suggestion of tokenism, but seemed perfectly happy to signify her party’s modernisation under Cameron.

But now she occupies a different symbolic position, one no longer quite as helpful to her leader. “There is a very grey area between my personal and professional life,” she points out. “I am rooted in my communities and the people that I work with. I don’t live in some detached world as a politician where I come to Westminster and then go away and speak anecdotally occasionally. I am deeply rooted in the communities.”

That’s interesting, I say, because the allegation levelled against many of her colleagues – mostly male, and exclusively white – is that they are not. They didn’t spend the 90s knocking on doors in the north. A broad smile of gratified delight begins to spread across her face

“I’m not a career politician. I never have been, never will be. I’m a real person.” Presumably, then, she thinks personal background counts for a lot. It certainly counts a lot for voters, many of whom worry that too many of her colleagues arrived in parliament without ever having left the Westminster postcode.

“Yeah,” she agrees, grinning. “Look, there’s a real challenge in relation to career politicians. It’s across all political parties and to be fair as much of a concern in other parties. I’ve had long discussions with people like Hazel Blears and others about what percentage of politicians now come though the route of university, think-tank, spad, party HQ, and I think that’s a real challenge. I occasionally meet very young people who say: ‘I want to be a member of parliament.’ And I think: ‘You can’t be 16 and want to be a member of parliament!’

“Politics is such a ruthless place, why would you be in a job where you do not see your family all week, you have every inch of your life hauled over by the press, you work 90 hours a week on average and you earn probably much less than you would ever have earned in the private sector, for a job you aren’t absolutely passionate about? It’s not a career choice, is it? So what motivates people to do that? Something must happen in your life that so moves you that you think right, I’m prepared to have this quality of life.”

But we both know that’s not true of all her colleagues, don’t we?

“Well it should be!” she flashes back. “It should be.”

Warsi may have a less prestigious job than the one she had last time we met, but her symbolic power will be trickier to reshuffle, and she allows a glimpse of her contempt for the party’s fashionable elites when I ask why she polled so badly among members. “Conservative Home doesn’t speak for the grassroots,” she snaps. “If someone said to me, the only way that your voluntary party expresses its views is by turning on a computer, logging on, creating an ID, getting on to Conservative Home, and starting a blog – well, that doesn’t really fit the type of most of the voluntary party that I know.”

As things stand, Warsi remains a loyal member of the government, a million miles away from the dangerous disenchantment of, say, Nadine Dorries. But I get the feeling that would change pretty fast if she felt she was perceived as useful, rather than valuable, to the leadership.

Afterwards, I think about why we have got on so much better this time round. The charm went a long way, but it was more the air of mischievous complicity, which was familiar but took a while to place. It wasn’t like interviewing a member of the government, I realised. It was more like meeting a member of the opposition.

I can’t think of any other minister who would answer my parting question as she did. Why is Ukip beating her party in her own backyard?

“You’re going to have to ask the party chairman.” Her eyes twinkle, and she laughs. But what’s her explanation? “I’m not the party chairman.”

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