UK politics ‘feels like a stalemate right now’, says Baroness Warsi
On a crisp December afternoon, the House of Lords teems with men: the kind of men who are nearly always white, RP-accented and erring towards ancient.
So when the diminutive Yorkshire-born Muslim Baroness Sayeeda Warsi bounds up to me – offering a generous smile and firm handshake – it’s clear to see why this straight-talking former minister has often been described as a ‘breath of fresh air’.
Stuff the standard button-lipped PR chaperon – it’s just the two of us and she’d like to get a cup of tea. “That alright?” she asks in her Northern ‘I am what I am’ accent.
I notice that Warsi sounds breathless, as if she is literally running from appointment to appointment. “I like that feeling of being very, very busy,” she says as we make our way to Lords’ tearoom. “I’m a woman that’s obsessed with lists. I’ve got list-OCD and that’s not a good thing,” she says with an uproarious laugh.
I feel dizzy as Warsi lists her typical day, which is a back-to-back fiesta of over-achievement, including making business calls, attending staff meetings, checking in on various parliamentary groups, attending debates and boards, giving talks, hosting her radio show and, finally, feeding her ferocious-looking German Shepherd dog. “We got him because I was on an Islamic State ‘kill list’,” she says. “No one in their right mind would cross the line with him at the door.”
The huge dog (she shows me a photo – I’d run a mile) is yet more evidence that Warsi is not your run-of-the-mill baroness. The former minister’s career is flecked with outspoken moments that, more often than not, have dominated British headlines.
Warsi, 47, who has held the posts of Conservative co-chair, Minister for Faith and Communities and Minister for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, is not one to hold back.
She famously criticised Zac Goldsmith’s divisive London mayoral campaign, branded the campaign to leave the EU ‘xenophobic’ and most recently said former British foreign secretary Boris Johnson was a ‘bigot’ for comparing women in burkas to ‘letterboxes’.
Does she think Johnson is fit to lead Theresa May’s flailing British Conservative party? Warsi’s light demeanour noticeably darkens for a second: “Aww, you can’t ask me that,” she says. “Well, people saw how he acted as foreign secretary. I’m sure they can make their own minds up based on that,” the consummate politician adds.
She is slightly more voluble on the subject of the potential promotion of Sajid Javid to UK Prime Minister, which would make the current Home Secretary Britain’s first Muslim leader.
“I’m not sure if Sajid would define himself as a Muslim leader… he has made it clear at times that is a part of his heritage but not a part of his life. We have to be careful how we couch him and how we frame him. He has got to be allowed to do that for himself.”
Warsi adds: “The Conservative party doesn’t care if someone is brown or has a Muslim name; it’s more about the kind of Muslim you are. If they are non-practising, I don’t think that will be an issue for anyone, but if it frames who they are then, of course it would be an issue.
“It’s like saying ‘is the political party ready for a woman leader’. Well, what kind of woman is she? Is she a woman’s woman or a man’s woman? Is she a woman who behaves like a man? There are so many different types of people.”
For her own part, Warsi is the proud owner of many ‘first’ moments. She was the first Muslim woman to be selected to stand for Parliament by the Conservatives, unsuccessfully contesting Dewsbury in 2005. She was the first Muslim woman to enter Cabinet, appointed by David Cameron as minister without portfolio. When she was raised to the Lords, in 2007, she became its youngest member. She is also the first Muslim woman to resign from the government – in 2014, over Conservative policy on Israel-Palestine. She’s still not yet 50 years old.
One of five daughters, born in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, to immigrant parents from Pakistan, she practised as a solicitor before working her way up through the ranks of the Conservative Party, all the way to the House of Lords.
“I wanted to be in theatre, but my mother vetoed it,” says Warsi. “She said I could be a lawyer, an engineer or a doctor – I said ‘fine, I’ll be a lawyer’. At least that way I could be a bit theatrical – no chance of that with the engineer or doctor option,” she laughs.
That’s the thing about Warsi; she giggles a lot; she is funny. It’s easy to like her. But there’s also a deadly serious side to this hyper-focused businesswoman. Out of all the parts of what she terms a ‘portfolio’ career, she dislikes politics the most. She rolls her eyes and says politics is “traumatic and toxic” at the moment.
“The ministers who were jostling for May’s job were acting against the national interest,” she says. “I like any parts of my job where I feel like I’m making a real difference. Right now, politics feels like stalemate. I keep being asked by people who are connected to business what’s going to happen with Brexit, and I don’t think anybody knows any more. They are all unknown unknowns.”
Warsi is based in London three days of the week on peer duty. The rest of the time she’s based in Wakefield with her second husband – and the ferocious German shepherd. She works from around 6am to 11pm, often chipping in with her husband’s successful business, which sells food ingredients and beds.
She says: “As a lawyer, you’re trained to think in really short sharp bursts. I think the ability to pick up a case, learn it, present it and move on to the next job is something that is part of the training I had. I have this ability to do lots and lots of things back to back.”
No matter how busy her life, Warsi says she will always make time for the causes she cares for – particularly the plight of Muslims in British society and stemming the UK’s alarming rise in Islamophobic hate crimes.
The baroness welcomes the new working definition of Islamophobia that was put forward in November by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims. The definition is the culmination of almost two years of evidence gathering and takes into account the views of different organisations, politicians, faith leaders, academics and communities from across the country. It also takes into account the views of victims of hate crime.
Warsi says: “It’s a good start. How can you start to fix something if you cannot even define it? It’s appalling that we still do not have a (government-ratified) definition for Islamophobia when the growing number of attacks against Muslims shows just how much it is needed.”
She says the term Islamophobia is increasingly ‘broad’. “It’s rooted in racism. There has been everything from murder to people who have their hijab pulled to people who are beaten up. Then there are Muslims who are overlooked for jobs even though they have brilliant CVs and declined for tenancies. We need a definition of the Islamophobia that is broad enough to take all this in.”
Warsi says a change in public policy is needed to make sure the appropriate solutions are in place to protect those who need it, but she also says it’s about changing what society thinks is acceptable.
“You wouldn’t use the ‘P’ word or the ‘N’ word in public because it’s considered to be socially unacceptable, just like anti-Semitic terms and jokes are deemed unacceptable. Yet Islamophobia seems to be fair game. It’s our blind spot. Even mainstream and socially respectable people are quite happy to use Islamophobic jokes and language because they feel that society will tolerate it.”
Warsi says she wants to see a Britain where ‘Islamophobia is as unacceptable as homophobia or anti-Semitism.’ It’s not long before she takes aim at leaders who ‘green light’ Islamophobia from the top. “Of course, Boris’s [letterbox] comment was bigotry. I don’t like the [burka] garment and it’s not something I have ever worn. I don’t think the garment is for modern times, but as long as women are choosing to wear it, they can wear it.
“Men need to stay out of our wardrobes. I will not have men using what women wear as a convenient battleground to enhance their poll ratings. Boris said that to get himself in the news again and get some attention.”
Warsi has no immediate plans to step back into politics but let’s say she could rule the world for just one day, what would this fearless baroness do?
“I would get international agreement on climate change – one that they can never ever step away from. I would put in place policies that mean no person goes hungry – we have enough resources in the world for everyone to enjoy the fruits of success. Finally, I would get rid of all nuclear armament in the world and when we all wake up no one could ever use it again!” she laughs.
Before she departs, Baroness Warsi lets me into a secret: despite her quick sense of humour, she says she finds ‘fun’ hard to do.
“Work is fun to me, because I love what I do. My kids tell me I’m not very good at downtime. But I do love cooking and those spa holidays – you know the ones where you sit in your nightgown for three days and order room service and more room service. Yeah, those.”