Paul Richards was a special adviser to Hazel Blears during the last Labour Government, and writes a weekly column for Progress and LabourList.
There are some issues which transcend party rancour and demand a collective approach across the democratic divide. This higher national purpose is what motivated Attlee to serve as Churchill’s deputy, or Iain Duncan Smith to back Tony Blair over Iraq. It is in this spirit that I write this article, with a due sense of Daniel in the lions’ den. I have read David Cameron’s speech to the international security conference in Munich more than once, and I believe it deserves to be taken extremely seriously. It raises issues that deserve serious analysis, and stakes out positions with which I agree profoundly.
As a ministerial speech-writer in the last government I have seen all too often how the 'top-line" of a speech – the section that the spin doctors hope will resonate and be reported – can be ignored by the media in favour of some other line. Cameron’s speech contains the vital insight that you can’t tackle violent extremism (with suicide bombing as the in extremis example) without tackling non-violent extremism.
Every Al-Qaeda suicide bomber has been on a journey, starting with exposure to Islamist politics, books, speeches, demonstrations, and sermons, and ending in a world-view so warped that suicide and murder seem like a legitimate political tactic. Of course only a tiny minority of those exposed to Islamist ideology become bombers. But every bomber, and the people egging them on and supplying the kit, has been part of Islamist politics first. Many of the British bombers have been recent converts to a radical, political distortion of Islam. Therefore, as Cameron made clear, the way to tackle terrorism, alongside security activity, is to tackle the extremist ideology that spawns it. It’s about causes as well as symptoms.
This insight has profound implications for public policy, for the police and security services, for local authorities and for the civil service. It raises all manner of questions about how, why, and to what degree the British state should engage with extremist Islamist organisations. Engagement might mean a Minister sharing a platform with speakers who deny the Holocaust, support attacks on British troops in Afghanistan, or applaud suicide bombers on the West Bank, or it might mean police officers meeting with representatives of Hizb-ut-Tehrir to discuss the route of a demo. The calibration of such engagement caused rows within the last Labour government, and causes rows within the current Conservative-led one. It seems to me that Cameron tilted the balance very firmly, and correctly, in one direction.
Yet this "top-line" was largely ignored in favour of the line that "multiculturalism is dead". This opened the space for David Cameron’s opponents on the left to cry "racist' and for some extremely unsavoury figures on the far-right to express their (unhelpful) support. "Multiculturalism" is a Rorschach test of a word, devoid of meaning, other than that which we choose to project upon it. Cameron’s detractors made it a synonym for "multi-racial" or "multi-ethnic", suggesting that Cameron was opposed to a Britain with many different faiths, races and ethnic minorities.
As well as being ahistoric, unrealisable and undesirable, this is plainly not what Cameron meant. He was at pains to define "multiculturalism" as "separateness". This idea, of closed communities with little free flow of ideas, cultural exchange, and where stifling cultural practices can fester, should be anathema to the liberal-left, no matter where they are found. A culture separate from the mainstream of British society, where a victim mentality can be fostered, and perceived grievances can grow, is where Islamism can take hold. It is also an environment where domestic violence can flourish, women can be subjugated, and lesbians and gay men oppressed.
Cameron was also at great pains to distinguish Islamism from Islam: the former a political ideology with many variants but core components; the latter a religion practiced by many British citizens. Cameron’s language was no different from that which Tony Blair could have used at a Labour Party conference.
That Cameron’s references to Islamism where deliberately interpreted as an attack on Islam raises the question: cui bono? For Islamists, it feeds the myth of a single Muslim identity and nationhood to show that democratic leaders are attacking Islam, even if it isn’t true. For some on the left, it suits a larger narrative that Cameron is elitist and out of touch, or even, as some on my side suggested, slightly racist.
This is disingenuous nonsense, and does those arguing this case little credit. The harsh truth is that for some left-wing politicians, schooled in the politics of the late 1960s and 1970s, there is a belief that some Islamist groups are ‘on the left’ or even part of a broader movement of anti-imperialism. You used to hear this in the context of the IRA and PLO; today it’s heard in the context of groups opposing the coalition forces in Iraq, or Israel’s presence in the territories occupied in the 1967 war. In today’s Labour Party this view gets short shrift, but is present nonetheless. It is the stock-in-trade of the far-left groups beyond Labour’s borders.
So what should the proper response to Cameron’s speech be? Firstly, it deserves to be understood for what it says, not what others pretend it says. Secondly, it should be taken seriously across the political divide, because the ideas it contains are more important than which colour rosette we pin to our lapels. Thirdly it should serve as a benchmark for what the government, and all its agencies, does next. The days when Cameron could simply provide political commentary and talking points in his speeches ended when the Queen asked him to form a government. After Munich comes the real work: changing the activities and culture within Whitehall, the Metropolitan Police, and elsewhere, to reflect the clear policy direction Cameron has set. As any Blairite will tell you, that’s the difficult bit.