Syed Kamall is a Muslim Conservative whose father used to drive the 73 bus. Even in an age of greater diversity, this makes him an unusual contender to be Tory candidate for Mayor of London.
But for the past decade Kamall has served as a London MEP, he now leads the Conservative MEPs and the 70-strong AECR group in the European Parliament, and he says he is not worried that Zac Goldsmith has become the early favourite in the London Mayoral race.
In this interview Kamall regrets that the party may be intent on next Saturday drawing up a shortlist of only three candidates. He expresses his support for a new London airport paid for by private investors, who should be encouraged to take the initiative and say where they want to build it.
And in connection with David Cameron’s speech this week on extremism, Kamall says sermons in mosques should be delivered in English, by imams who understand what it means to be British. He also warns that neither Cameron nor Whitehall generally must suppose the answers to extremism can be imposed from the centre.
ConHome: “How worried are you by Zac?”
Kamall: “I’m not worried. If I was worried, I wouldn’t be throwing my hat in the ring.
“If you look at lots and lots of elections, there are always early favourites, and the early favourites don’t always win. When Cameron became leader, he was supposedly in fourth place.”
ConHome: “The conventional wisdom was that David Davis was going to get it.”
Kamall: “I’m looking forward to the hustings, I’m looking forward to good robust debate, I’m starting to lay out my agenda just in a few words. I suppose for me it’s Ambition, Opportunity and Enterprise.”
ConHome: “What do you think about the selection process? You’re being interviewed on Saturday, after which a shortlist will be put to an open primary.”
Kamall: “Look, we have processes. We have this for parliamentary seats.”
ConHome: “It should be an open primary, shouldn’t it?”
Kamall: “I’m relaxed about it. I would prefer people to have a choice, personally. I don’t see why we need a shortlist. But the party decided on a shortlist, that’s the way it’s going to be.
“I’ve been a member of the party since ’87, I know the way the party works at times, it works in mysterious ways for its own reasons.”
ConHome: “But Iain Dale, on ConHome, said it was North Korean. It does annoy people.”
Kamall: “I hope the selection committee make the decision to extend it to what they see as reasonable candidates. I hope that.
“And actually some of the people who I think are going to be on the selection committee are going to try to be open-minded about it, to be fair. Unless there’s an edict that comes down in the morning that says you shall only have three people, or five people.
“The rumours are, there are always rumours in politics, they’re going to pick three.”
ConHome: “That would be very unfair.”
Kamall. “Yeah. I think you should give party members the choice, is my personal view.”
ConHome: “Why do you want to be the next Mayor of London?”
Kamall: “A lot of people were saying to me, Syed, we need a candidate for Mayor of London, you’re very different from our typical Tory, you can reach out beyond the typical Tory base, you’re not the stereotypical Conservative and you should go for it, you’ve got energy and lots of ideas and you bring people together.
“One of my passions is social mobility and going to schools and youth clubs and talking to the kids about, look, if I can do it, you can do it, and trying to inspire them.
“You have to give people self-belief. My self-belief comes from my parents. My parents used to tell me you can do anything you want.”
Kamall’s father arrived from Guyana in the 1950s: “He came first to work on the railways. He was a fireman [shovelling coal into steam engines] – he claims he was on the Flying Scotsman once – he was a guard, and then he went on the buses, drove buses until the early 1990s. I’ve got photographs of him with his 73 bus.”
ConHome: “Does he have any advice for you about buses?”
Kamall: “Yes, he’s had lots of advice for me about buses. He’s quite proud of me for going for this now, because he used to say to me, when you grow up I don’t want you to work for London Transport, I want you to run London Transport.
“And I said Dad, you do realise if I win this thing, I won’t run London Transport, I’ll be the boss of the person who runs London Transport.”
ConHome: “You’re in favour of a new airport for London, not ‘sticking plasters at Gatwick or Heathrow’. Where would you put this new airport?”
Kamall: “People say is it the Isle of Grain, is it what now is called Boris Island? I think we’ve got to take a step back and be more ambitious. I want Londoners to be ambitious. I think we’ve got to start trusting the private sector again to come up with ideas for us.”
In Kamall’s view, if the Government begins by deciding where and how it wants a new airport to be built, the private investors who are keen to back the venture will decide this version of the project is not for them.
ConHome: What do you think about the big speech Cameron is delivering today on extremism [the interview was carried out on Monday]?
Kamall: “I haven’t seen the detail, but I’ve done a lot of thinking about this over time. In fact I wrote a WSJ op-ed about this.
“There is no silver bullet about this. There are lots and lots of different causes you’ve got to tackle. But there are some fantastic projects that are actually tackling extremism at the community level.
“How is it that they’ve developed a warped view of Islam, that thinks it’s perfectly acceptable to kill innocent people?
“One of the factors is that there’s an identity crisis, where maybe you’re brought up, maybe you’re in a community where one of your parents is not from Britain, and maybe you’re brought up not to believe you’re British, and then you go to the village or town of your forefathers, and you think you’re Pakistani or Bengali or something, and then the kids start teasing you and saying, ‘Oh, little Englishman.’
“When I went to Guyana in the 1970s, playing cricket with the kids on the street, I was eight at the time, and everyone called me an Englishman.
“Then people say, ‘We’ve got an identity for you – it’s Islam’. And then some mosques don’t preach in English.
“The study circles are given stuff in English and say ‘Come to our study circle’. Then they wind them up and show them about Muslims being killed in the middle east.
“Then they say, Islam is simply a journey in life. At the end of your life, are your good deeds heavier than your bad deeds on the scales? Simple as that.
“There are verses in the Koran that say you live a pleasant life or you will be flung to the hellfire or whatever. And sometimes what happens to impressionable kids, they’re told you can’t live a good life in the West, it’s all this decadence, look at the adverts, look at the alcohol, and they’re killing many of our people, but don’t worry, we’ve got a short cut for you.
“Some of the people who understand this are tackling it at community level and I think we should be learning a lot more from these projects that are actually tackling it at the coal face, as opposed to Whitehall or some think tank thinking they’ve got the solution.
“My slight concern about this is if Cameron is going to rely too much on Whitehall and say ‘We know the solution’, rather than actually look at mosques and other groups that have worked and tackled this problem at local community level.
“I encouraged Quilliam to do a bit of research into how many mosques preach in English, as simple as that, and what are kids being taught in mosques. And sometimes I go to a mosque, it depends on the preacher on the Friday, sometimes some of the preachers are incredibly brilliant, and they talk about how to lead your life as a Muslim in a very modern context, and think about issues that Muslims might have in modern Britain.
“And others actually are very poor, give a very long sermon in Arabic, or sometimes in Urdu or Bengali, and then you may not get anything in English, or you may get five minutes, which is ‘Be good, live a good life’. Well great, thank you.
“If you are young, impressionable and in search of knowledge, and someone outside the mosque is handing you leaflets saying ‘Come to our study circle’ – I’m not saying all study circles are extremist – it’s a very easy way to recruit people. That film Four Lions, it was funny, but actually there were elements of truth in it.”
ConHome: “When I interviewed Peter Golds, he said he was in favour of compulsory integration.”
Kamall: “It’s tough. I think it’s really tough. If you’re someone who doesn’t want too much of a coercive state, I’m against a coercive state, things like this challenge you.
“Can we encourage more organisations like the Markfield Institute and others which are talking about British-trained imams? Because when you haven’t got an imam, and there’s a demand, where do you go?
“They get an imam from a village in a country that has no idea what it’s like to be British. And what we need are imams who understand the context of British life.
“I think that some of the best mosques I go to are in America. My parents live in America, I go there, and they give fantastic sermons.
“I do like going to mosques in America. I find it a better sermon, as it were, in American mosques, and I wonder how long it’ll be before we’re there.
“I’ve been to Regent’s Park mosque at times, and sometimes it’s a very, very long sermon in Arabic and five minutes in English, and other times you get a really good sermon. This is Britain. We should be giving sermons in English.
“You can give it in Arabic as well. That’s fine. The best mosques do both. But the thing is, how do you do that, how do you enforce that?”
ConHome: “It’s difficult, because there isn’t a hierarchy.”
Kamall: “Exactly. I remember talking to some of my Irish friends about this and they said, ‘Don’t forget, we had the same issue in the Catholic Church with giving stuff in Latin.’”
ConHome: “And indeed with terrorism. The Gunpowder Plot was pretty serious.”
Kamall warned repeatedly that not only extremism, but problems of deprivation and poverty, cannot be solved just by Government devising solutions.
Kamall: “My caution here is let’s be very careful that it’s not someone in Whitehall who can solve these problems. And I think there are projects in many of these communities that are solving these problems, and I think we have to learn from those.
“I think that in many ways, both the Left and the Right have failed the poor. I think the Left have failed because they think you pass it in Whitehall or in the local council, and you go to many left-wing areas, and you see social deprivation and breakdown.
“The Right fail I think because we say ‘Cut taxes, and everything will be fine.’ But the people who live in many of these communities are not the rational economic agents you read about in textbooks.”