Baroness Warsi is a former Party Chairman, and a former Senior Minister of State at the Foreign Office and the Department of Communities & Local Government.
This General Election delivered a more united government and a more cohesive Conservative Party, but a more divided United Kingdom. It was therefore heartening to hear the new Government’s commitment to bringing forward policies that would help bring us closer together as a nation, would try to eradicate the “us ” and “them” mentality, and allow us to congregate around the noble cause of shared British values.
Heartening, that was, until one read the small print of the proposals on British values.
This could have been a moment at which to raise our eyes to the sunny uplands of a future united cohesive nation, in which the opportunities that this country has to offer are available to all. A very Conservative vision.
Instead, the plans felt like an attack on the very values we were professing to promote.
And this has been the pattern of policy-making since the Blair years. More and more, authoritarian counter-terrorism strategies have undermined our values, yet not made us feel any safer.
We’re told that our protection and our freedoms can only be secured by the curtailment of freedoms. And the battle of ideas is not fought and won by bigger and better ideas but by banning, silencing through legislation and securitising communities.
The UK’s Counter-Terrorism policy, known as Contest, consists of four elements: Pursue, Protect, Prevent and Prepare.
The Counter-Extremism policy development has been much more piecemeal ,mainly because of well-documented differences of opinions between Conservative colleagues and others about whether the aim of policy should be to tackle violent extremism alone, or also include non-violent extremism. I’ve always believed we should focus on the former through the Prevent programme, and tackle the latter as part of a broader programme, which for years I have called Promote.
Definitions are important. Indeed, the Home Secretary struggled yesterday to both define extremism and give examples of it.
Let me attempt to define what I call Promote.
Every citizen in the United Kingdom should genuinely believe that he or she has an equal stake in the rights and responsibilities that come with making the country their home; that their opportunities are not limited in any way because of their race, religion, gender, sexuality or disability – and that they can pursue these opportunities with a wider sense of collective well being.
To do this we must:
First, have a shared language.
Second, possess a deep-rooted sense of our history; both the good and bad chapters.
Third, support and create the spaces, places and opportunities for people to come together and experience the different communities and cultures that make up Britain.
Fourth, ensure that British values are inclusive, not exclusive – that we focus on keeping people in Big Tent Britain rather than on defining them out of it.
Fifth, and most importantly, that we live by the British values we define. That is, we do what we say.
This is a very Conservative approach – a hand up, an invitation to join, a demand to play by the rules – and one led by society, not the state.
Leaving Government has had many benefits, but one I didn’t predict was just how honestly, frankly and freely I can now engage, debate and challenge people on the issue of extremism. I now meet who I want, when I want – and discuss what I want. And from these encounters I’ve received two very powerful messages.
First, British Muslim communities are in a transition phase in defining themselves, and are struggling to get this right. And, next, there is a deeply-held view amongst them that successive Governments have pursued Cold War-style policies against them.
Neither of these messages make easy listening to but, if we are serious about winning the battle for a more cohesive country, then listen we must. As Churchill said, it takes courage “to sit down and listen”.
As a British Muslim woman who has faced her fair share of misogyny and bigotry from both Muslim communities and others, these issues, for me, are not just issues of policy – they’re about principle; and it’s personal.
Unless we relentlessly advocate for a definition of Promote, backed by political commitment and properly funded programmes, we will lose not only a generation of British Muslims but others, too, who will neither feel that they belong, nor that they have a stake in, a diverse and changing Britain.
And unless those of us who are deeply connected to British Muslim communities are prepared to challenge, debate and relentlessly pursue a very British Islam – one which develops to take its characteristics and manifestations from the country it has made its home – we will not only lose a generation of British Muslims to a tormented identity crisis, but also a religion that Britain is not currently at ease with.
As the General Election results came in overnight last Thursday and Friday, the decisions that the electorate delivered in South Thanet and in Bradford West made me deeply proud of our democracy. A democracy that not only defeats extreme ideas and views through the ballot box, but allows people with extreme views to contest elections, too.
So, yes, let us make clear what we perceive to be unsavoury extreme views – but let us also have the confidence in our own values to advocate these, and let’s not legislate for tolerance by being intolerant.
The ultimate defence of freedom is freedom itself, and that’s not something we can take for granted. To quote Ronald Reagan: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for protected and handed on for them to do the same”.