BBC Radio 2: Good Morning Sunday
Clare Balding, presenter: This is Good Morning Sunday and my guest this morning is Baroness Warsi, senior Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and Minister for Faith and Communities. She’s also a businesswoman, a lawyer, campaigner, and the first Muslim to sit in the British Cabinet. But Sayeeda Warsi didn’t start life as a member of the establishment. She’s one of five daughters born to immigrant parents from Pakistan, and I began by asking her how it was growing up as a Muslim in Yorkshire in the 1970s.
Baroness Warsi, Foreign Office Minister and Faith and Communities Minister: I think there were so many different influences in my life: faith was one of them. But also, growing up in a strong, working-class home was another big influence. Growing up in an all-female family was, again, incredibly interesting, and growing up with an incredibly opinionated father, a completely focused and driven mother, I think all these things played into the person that I became.
CB: And so what were they like? What did your father and mother do?
BW: My mum was a traditional housewife; she ran everybody’s lives. I mean, when they say ‘housewife’, it meant she dealt with everything from the finances to the school runs. And dad just worked all the hours that he had, so he… when we were very young he was working in the mills. Probably my clearest memories are when he was a bus driver, because his bus used to come and stop at the top of the road. I’m sure it’s against every health and safety rule but we used to walk up to give him his lunch but he used to let us get on the bus and then drop us off on the way back. And that was an adventure when we were growing up.
CB: And is he still alive, your father?
BW: Yeah, he’s still alive.
CB: So he saw you become Baroness Warsi?
BW: Yeah. I mean, it’s been an amazing journey for him, arriving when he was about 15 or 16 with literally the clothes on his back, and coming to work in the Yorkshire mill towns. Because he came from an incredibly poor family –his father died when they were relatively young, there’s no system of benefits or a safety net – and going from that, really, within a generation to bringing his girls up – and five girls – each of whom have been successful in their own ways.
CB: And so why did he make that journey, and how? Do you know? Did he ever tell you how he got on?
BW: He had to leave to work, he had to leave to provide, and he had the opportunity to come and work in Britain.
CB: And has he been back to Pakistan much?
BW: Oh he… we used to travel to the ‘old home’ quite regularly when we were children. He would take us back to this home, which didn’t have many facilities; it didn’t have electricity when we first started visiting, and the water was taken from a well. And I think in a way that shaped us, because he would, at the end of that visit, say, ‘and always remember where you came from and never get ahead of yourself and above your station’. I think it’s kept us grounded throughout our life; even when he… you know, dad subsequently went on to set up a business and made it an incredibly successful business and gave us all a very comfortable lifestyle as a result of it, but he constantly reminds us where we came from.
CB: And what was the religious structure of your childhood? Were you celebrating the different festivals, were you regularly going to the mosque?
BW: We had a really interesting Muslim upbringing in the sense that neither of my parents are theologically driven to a single strand of Islam. They’re very pluralistic in their approach and basically said, like… you know, ‘it’s for the Almighty to decide who’s right and who’s wrong; what you can do is try and be a good human being’. And I think from that stemmed our interest in other religions. There are many ways in which people can worship; there are many ways in which people can be good human beings.
CB: Which means it makes absolute entire sense that you should be Minister for Faith and Communities as well as the senior Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; that you have an incredibly broad experience and you maybe have a way of looking at religious differences and religious similarities just a little bit individually, you know, that you kind of get it.
BW: I think sometimes the debate around religion can become incredibly polarised and I know, from my own exchanges on social networking and Twitter, people are incredibly vociferous – you know, you have to be one or the other. And I’ve always been clear that faith is important, that it’s an important informer of the debate, it’s not an exclusive voice, and that we should be as tolerant of people of faith as we are of people of no faith. For me freedom of religion and belief – which is a big part of my portfolio in human rights in the Foreign Office – means the freedom to have a faith, the freedom not to have a faith, the freedom to change your faith, the freedom to manifest your faith. And to me it’s all about tolerance and acceptance of others. But I think sometimes, both from a faith perspective and a non-faith perspective, people get incredibly polarised in that view.
CB: You talk about the polarisation of religion and, obviously, there are events that occur that inflame that feeling, you know, that people are not the same. The most recent horrific crime – murder – in Woolwich of Drummer Lee Rigby. How do you think that has affected the Muslim community; that those that did it were doing it, they said, for religious reasons, to defend their faith and what they felt was the crimes that were being committed against them?
BW: I think you’re absolutely right; we’re not the same as them. And when I say “we”, I mean all of us in Britain of whatever faith, and of no faith. And what I think has been positive in the midst of all this tragedy is the way in which the British Muslim community have been so unequivocal and unified in their condemnation of what happened. And if you listen to the words of these extremists, it’s very clear that they weren’t out just to destroy and end one person’s life, they were out to destroy the ease between our communities as well. It was about dividing us as a nation, and the strongest way we can defeat that is by saying clearly – all of us, including British Muslims – ‘yeah, you’re not like us, you don’t have the same values and principles as us’; and even more than that, to go further and say, ‘and don’t use my faith as a way of justifying that’. Because I think, as the Prime Minister said, this is as much of a betrayal of the faith of Islam as it was a betrayal of our nation. And what we must do is now harness the togetherness that came out post-Woolwich and make sure that we continue to alienate and isolate these extremists and say to them, you know, ‘not in the name of our nation’, but certainly ‘not in the name of my faith either’.
CB: And I assume that you think that is true as well, from the extremists that have responded very aggressively, you know – whatever they call themselves – of what they see as fighting back.
BW: Well, they need each other. They need each other to survive. And the strongest way we can win is by saying, ‘you are two peas in a pod, you are there to divide and preach hate, and the majority of people in this country do not want any place in your world’.
CB: I’m speaking this morning to Baroness Warsi, and we have an awful lot more to discuss. We’ll do so after your choice of music, which is LeAnn Rimes with Amazing Grace.
LeAnn Rimes and her version of Amazing Grace – the choice of Baroness Warsi, who as well as being a businesswoman, a campaigner, a lawyer, is the first Muslim woman to have served in a British Cabinet and is currently the senior Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and Minister for Faith and Communities.
Why did you choose that?
BW: It’s haunting. I mean, it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, and it represents so much about faith, about campaigning, about striving. I can listen to that and be calmed and uplifted at the same time.
CB: And what you manage to do very well – and this may be partly your legal training, but it may just be you and having this ability to use grace, for want of a better word; picking up off the song – you manage to argue things through reason and logic and, where possible, try not to get overemotional. Do you think sometimes emotion can cloud the issue?
BW: I think passion sustains you, certainly in politics. I mean, it’s a pretty tough, soul-destroying place most days and you have to have something in the pit of your stomach which so drives you to live the crazy lifestyle and world that we live in politics. But politics is the art of reason and practical outcomes based upon those passions. So I think, yes, you have to be driven by passion but you have to present in a logical way, because, you know, people can’t be persuaded by just huge arguments, there has to be a reason behind it.
CB: And how did you end up in politics? Was this something you’d wanted to do from an early age, or did it rather happen by accident?
BW: Well, I wanted to end up in theatre, I wanted to interpret the old English classics and bring them onto the stage, but my mother decided that I had to either be a lawyer or an accountant or an engineer. So I opted for law. And then, really, I suppose, was involved in volunteering and campaigning. But I think the turning point – certainly came for me – was September 11. Having spent most of my life campaigning on the issues of racial equality and getting to the point where, despite the challenges that still existed, I was incredibly comfortable being Asian and British, I woke up after September 11 and realised I was no longer Asian and British, I was now Muslim and British, and there was a whole new battle to fight. I left Britain and spent about nine months away, and then realised I’d taken the easy route and that if I really felt that things could be better then I needed to come back.
CB: And when did you have that epiphany? When you were away? And where did you go? Did you suddenly realise, ‘I’m, sort of, opting out here’?
BW: I had a bit of a midlife crisis, I think, and… there was this amazing moment where all this was going on in the background and I was looking at an Auto Trader and looking at this classic car and I thought, ‘I actually need to get off the wheel and I need to go and find what really matters in life’. And so I went to the Punjab, where my parents originated from, and spent nine months working in the field – pretty, kind of, awful conditions – set up a charity specifically for women, run by women, which works with widows and divorcees and orphan girls, the most marginalised people in Pakistani society, and, touch wood, it’s still running today.
CB: That’s amazing. I never knew you’d done that. And then you came back and thought, ‘right, what’s my next challenge?’
BW: When I was in Pakistan I realised that this was the place where my parents had… were born and raised, and although I understood the language and I enjoyed the food… you know, I was intrigued by the culture and I loved the music, but I needed to come back home and I needed to come back and play my part so that my kids would grow up in a home which was much more comfortable. When people say to me, you know,’ you talk so vociferously about how awful it is sometimes to be in politics’, and ‘why do you do politics?’ and I say, ‘so that my kids don’t have to’.
CB: We spoke earlier about education, the importance of education and people understanding different faiths. You’re also very, very strong on the education of women.
BW: The single issue that changed my life and the lives of my sisters was the fact that my parents were committed to an education, and I think that, you know, if the daughter of an immigrant mill worker ended up at the Cabinet table it’s because she got an education. And I think it’s the single most empowering thing that you can give to a woman. For me, I suppose, that came into the fore as Minister with responsibility for Pakistan. We saw young Malala Yousafzai escape death in the end purely because she wanted to have an education. I think she was probably the biggest iconic way of explaining how important it is for us to carry on doing the work that we do in terms of international development and supporting the education of girls in places like Pakistan.
CB: Who do you admire within our political system right now? Who are the people that you think, ’oh, so and so’s speaking, I must listen, that’ll be interesting’?
BW: The House of Lords is phenomenal for clever people who make these huge arguments in such an eloquent way. I mean, the equal marriage Bill that’s going through the House of Lords now, just listening to some of the arguments on both sides is just fantastic. I mean, it’s Parliament at its best.
CB: And you abstained on that vote, and your argument is that, legally, you don’t think that that Bill is watertight?
BW: I have concerns about some of the protections that are being put in place for faith communities; just as strongly as I believe that faith communities should not be forced to do something that they’re not comfortable with, I am just as strong to say faith communities should not force their will upon other people as well. And I think it’s, therefore, important that we strike the balance right, so that when this legislation does come into play that it’s workable and that we don’t end up with years of legal challenge thereafter, which I think will sour anything that we’re trying to achieve.
CB: You are Britain’s first-ever Minister for Faith. There will be others who follow you. How do you want to see that role develop, and what do you personally want to achieve in it?
BW: It was something that I was incredibly passionate about, and I do sincerely hope that future governments keep the role. The importance of it is that, I think, on one level it normalises the concept of faith communities and what they stand for. The last Archbishop of Canterbury put it incredibly well when he said, you know, ‘faith seems to be about oddities, minorities and foreigners’. And it’s not; it’s an important informer of the debate and it’s important that those voices are heard in decision-making in Government. From a Foreign Office perspective, I’ve seen many, many occasions where being a British minister of the Muslim faith, there are many barriers that come down in our conversations with other countries, and there are many debates, especially around human rights and others, which are sometimes seen as slightly sensitive, which I’m prepared to go further on and be bolder on and we achieve more on, because I don’t feel I carry any baggage or I don’t have to justify myself as ‘the West’. My faith, in many ways, you know, gives me the equivalent of that beer which allows me as a minister to reach the parts that maybe some of my colleagues can’t.
CB: Well, I wish you well in your continued adventure, and I hope that the next challenge you take on is equally satisfying and that you’re as good at it. Baroness Warsi, thank you.
BW: Thank you.