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High Profile

Flying High

Huw Spanner

Sayeeda Warsi is the daughter of an immigrant bed-maker. Already a baroness, by next June she could be Britain's first Muslim Cabinet minister. Third Way had a private word at the House of Lords.


When you were named as the most powerful Muslim woman in Britain, back in March,1 you said: 'I'm sure my Pakistani origins, my strong faith and my Yorkshire upbringing have played a huge part.' Can you talk a little about the values that were instilled into you as a girl?
Probably the two strongest values were hard work and a sense of responsibility. I remember Dad saying when we were quite young: 'If I ever catch any of you signing on and not working, I'll never forgive you.' That was like the ultimate for him: if you can work, you should - don't care what you do, but you go out and you fend for yourself. He made us feel that if you didn't work, it was almost something to be deeply embarrassed about.

Dad did every job you could have imagined. He was a bus conductor, a bus driver, he worked in a bread factory. His work ethic was very, very strong.

Was that rooted in his Muslim faith or his working-class origins or…?

He came from a very, very poor family. His father died when he and some of his siblings were still quite young, and there was no social-security system in Pakistan and in effect the only thing they owned was the plot of land on which their small house stood. And so he came here to try to earn a better living. I think he was probably 16, 17 when he came here, with £2.50 in his pocket.

When was this?

In the early Sixties. I think it was a cousin or an uncle who was here already who said, 'Why don't you come here? There's lots of work in the Yorkshire mills.'

N09HP10.jpgHe was quite successful in the end, wasn't he?
He was! About 25 years ago, he was driving a taxi and he got banned; and there weren't any jobs going in the factories at the time, so he started a little business man­ufacturing beds in a converted three-bedroom house, and yeah, he turned it into a multi-million-pound bus­iness. But it was hard work in the early days, and my mum was working as well to make ends meet.

I think her sense of responsibility came from a different source. She had five girls and no boys, which in the Asian community was always quite stigmatised, I think, and I suppose she always felt she was lucky not to be bringing us up in poverty in some rural village in Pakistan - because the consequences of that could have been dire. I think my dad, too, felt very, very lucky.

Where were you in the pecking order?
Second. We're a bit like the girls of Pride and Prejudice, with Mum as Mrs Bennet. We all have our own temperaments. My elder sister is very responsible, always walked the straight path - whereas I think my mum has always felt that I've been more problematic!

N09HP2.jpgMrs Bennet's main ambition was to get her daughters married. Is that what your mother wanted for you?
Our upbringing was actually very traditional but it was also very progressive. They took the best of the culture. Religion played quite a large part, but they didn't go in for a dogmatic interpretation of it, and education, too, played a huge part in our upbringing. My mum came from quite a middle-class family and unusually she had had an education in Pakistan - she comes from a family of seven girls and her parents felt that education was vital to give them some sort of chance in life.


How would you characterise your own religious faith?
Faith was very much part of us growing up. You know, we ate halal, nobody smoked, alcohol was a complete no-no, we all observed the month of fasting every year, we were brought up to dress modestly and respect our elders and our neighbours, we were expected to give and to get involved in charity. But did I grow up praying five times a day? No, I didn't. So, were we deeply religious in terms of our practice? I don't think we were.

Was God real to you, or was it just a matter of outward observances?
I don't think I became aware of what God meant in my life until much, much later. I don't think you're old or mature enough to see the importance of - of - of God in your life [when you're a child]. I think I was probably in my twenties when I started thinking about my faith.


You don't wear a hijab…
No. My mum never wore a hijab and my grandmother never wore one, so again I just practised what they did.


How would you respond to Muslims who say that if you don't wear the hijab you're obviously not a true Muslim?
For me, the first thing about faith is that it's a very personal thing. I don't think it's for me to judge the faith of other people, and it's not for other people to judge my faith, either. But I've had my faith questioned on many, many occasions. There was a huge debate at the time of the 2005 election when people asked, you know: Was I a good Muslim? And if I wasn't, could I be a good political leader? And I used to say: I'm standing to be a Mem­ber of Parliament, not an imam!

You grew up in Dewsbury, didn't you?
Yes. The centre of the earth!


Do you have that sense that Yorkshire people are meant to have, that you are a nation within a nation?
Yeah, we are different. We're special.

I'm curious to know how you acquired your Yorkshireness. According to the press, the Muslim community and the white community in Dewsbury live very separate lives.
That's happened more over the last 10, 15 years, I think. We didn't grow up in a parallel community, and there wasn't a parallel community at school. We had a neighbour called Mr Pearson who owned the local sweetshop, who had an immaculate garden; and my mother aspired to have a garden like him. And on the other side we had the Goodlads, who were a typical, hard-working working-class family - really house-proud, grew tomatoes in a small greenhouse out the back. And my mum created a similar garden out the back where she grew vegetables as well. So, yeah, it was all around.


Were there tensions between the values of your home and the values of the wider society around you?
I think there were tensions, but not in terms of values, because those were very similar. My mum says there was very little conflict between what she believed and what she thought most of Britain believed 40, 50 years ago. Or even 20 years ago. But she's always saying that Britain's changed. My dad talks about the fact that when he was a taxi driver women wouldn't go to the pub on their own. The whole culture of drinking - he says you just never saw what we're now seeing on the streets.

You have said, 'I find it quite disturbing to be asked the question, "Are you British first or Muslim first?"' Surely, if ever there was a clash between your commitment to God and your commitment to this country, it would have to be your religious commitment that came first?
No, but if Britain decided it was going to wage war on all Muslims, would I fight for the Muslims or for Brit­ain? Well, I hope to God I could be in a position to persuade Britain not to go down such a stupid path.

So, I don't actually think - I think there is al­ways a middle ground. You know, what does British­ness mean to anybody? It's so personal to every individual. What does Islam mean to anybody, and being a Muslim? It's so personal. And the reason I find that question quite disturbing is because it's not asked in the way you might ask, say, your readers: 'Are you British first or Christian first?' It means 'Where do your loyalties lie?'

Do you find that your Pakistani - in fact, your Kashmiri - background gives you a different perspective on world affairs to people who are simply British?
I think there's always going to be an affiliation to your country of origin, but I think you belong to different communities at different times. I always say that I'm more English when I'm in Pakistan and more Pakistani when I'm in En­gland.


How would you fare with Lord Tebbit's cricket test?
Oh, I would fail it completely. Absolutely, yeah. I mean, you never have a dull moment when the Pakistanis are playing. There's just an excitement there which I think some other nations don't produce on the pitch.

People say that every language is like a different world, and I read that you are fluent in four. Do you find that your thought life is richer and subtler because you can think in languages other than English?
Oh yes. When you think in Urdu, you think much more politely. It's also much more expressive. I know that when I've done political speeches in Urdu they've come across as so much more flamboyant and passionate, because the words are there and you can manipulate the language much more - whereas English, I think, is much harsher and more straightforward.

There are also particular words - I mean, one of the words I use a lot is kismet, which basically means 'fate' (though it can mean so many different things). But then there are words that have transcended language barriers. I mean, insh'allah is used all the time, by so many of my friends who are not Muslim. 'God willing' sounds a little bit old-fashioned, whereas insh'allah sounds quite modern and happening.

Would the people who knew you when you were a girl have been surprised by what you have become in adult life? Or would they have seen the genesis of it?

I don't know what people would have thought, but in 2005 I [canvassed] somebody I went to school with and he said, 'I always knew you'd do this. It was obvious.' And then one of my younger sisters discovered her old textbooks from school and she'd written this essay when she was about 12 saying 'When my sister Sayeeda grows up, she's going to be Prime Minister'!

Is that because you were very politicised when you were young? Or was it just that you were argumentative?

Probably they would say the latter. I think I was far too young to have a political opinion, or a sense of social jus­tice, but at school I got into a fair few fights.


You started off as a solicitor, didn't you? Was that always going to be a temporary career?
It was my mum's choice. I loved language and literature and I had some wacky idea in my head that I was going to take some of the great British classics and put them on the stage - you know, like Bride and Prejudice.2 That's what I would have done. But Mum basically said no - she kind of mapped out professions for all of us.

Did you go into politics because it was a congenial career or was there some bigger thing driving you?

I never saw politics as a career. I fell into it - I don't think I ever stood back…

Post September 11 [2001], I was quite unsure about my own identity and what my place was in society. My legal practice was doing extremely well, and everything you would probably anticipate in your early twenties that you'd want - the nice house, the nice cars, the nice holidays, you know, the whole package - was there. But suddenly [in 2001] I felt that my whole identity was be­ing questioned. I just thought: What am I doing? You know, what's my role? Where do I stand? I actually felt a real hostility in Britain at that time, and I could start to see a defining of communities through religion.
And I sold my practice. It was quite a drastic move, but I felt it was what I needed to do. I didn't want a sabbatical, I didn't want a career break, I just felt I needed to change the direction in which my life was going. And so I left Britain to go and work in Pakistan.


Why didn't '9/11' impel you to become more involved in this country, to try to build bridges?
I don't know. I still don't know.

I was kind of saying: Having spent all these years trying to be really comfortable in my country, here I am all over again having to define who I am and what I stand for. And you know what? I can't be bothered.

I got involved with a lot of women's empowerment work [in Pakistan] and I thought I was making a pos­itive im­pact. It was only when I had spent nine months or so out there that I thought: 'You know what? This is all very good, but my first responsibility is to my own home.' I realised that what I had done was actually to run away, and I needed to be braver than that. I didn't quite know what I was going to do, but I came back.

And what prompted you to stand for Parliament?

So many people, completely unconnected, said: 'Have you ever thought about standing?' At [the 2003 Tory] party conference, Oliver Letwin took me aside and said that to me. It was one of those moments of kismet!

Were you always a Conservative? Were your parents?

My mum was. My dad voted Labour most of his life. I think he voted for Mrs Thatcher, and then Tony Blair.

But were you always clear that you were a Tory?
Oh God, no! Not when I was growing up. Not when I was at university. I remember going on the anti-poll-tax marches and the -

So, what changed?
I don't think I have ever been a hugely party-political person. I've always been an issues person - I'm quite happy to work alongside whoever I need to work with to get the job done. Rec­ently, I went up to Glasgow to raise funds for a project I'm involved in at the moment in Bosnia and there were people there from the SNP and people from Labour… I love that type of working, where people can get behind an issue and a project.

I think it's important to be clear about your own be­liefs, rather than a blind affiliation to a party.

N09HP7.jpgSo, when did you gravitate towards the Tories?
I think it was probably around 1999, 2000. I'd actually thought Tony Blair was going to be a good move, and I can't remember exactly what changed my mind; but very quickly I began to feel that something wasn't quite right. I thought the way they dealt with ethnic min­or­ities was quite wrong. I mean, not that the Tories had done it any better…

In 2004-05, Michael Howard was leading the party…

Yeah. We didn't agree on everything, but I got on with Michael very well because he was a man who was prepared to tackle tough issues and, secondly, I mean, he's so hugely intelligent. You know, I could lose an argument with him and come away thinking: 'Ac­tu­ally, I don't mind, because he's so bright.' It's like [the Shad­ow Justice Secretary,] Dominic Grieve: I can listen to him for hours.

Do you think that Britain is a broken society?
I think that there are parts of Britain where society has broken down, and I think Britain isn't entirely clear ab­out what its values are today. When people talk about 'rede­f­ining Britishness', we try to do it in terms of quite crude things, like flags and mottoes and anthems, but actually it's about values. When I talk about cohesion and Britishness, I think it's about us being brave en­ough as a nation to define our values. And those values actually are cross-cultural and cross-religious.

If we didn't ask God to bless our gracious Queen, what would we celebrate in a national anthem?

I always find it quite interesting that Britain is hugely respected in those countries that made up the Raj. We must have done something right, that when we came out of those countries we still had some standing. And I think it's about our values. My mum talks ab­out the values [she encountered] when she first came over here - the sense of fair play, the queueing, the cleaning up the gardens (as she calls it) - these very simple things that people did which she found typically British.

You know, I've always had quite a - you could say, quite an arrogant pride in our Britishness. When I've travelled around Europe I've always talked ab­out how we are so much more tolerant than the rest of Eur­ope, and so much more open to different practices and cul­tures, how we've managed to rub along quite well.

I think we're starting to lose some of that, though. I think the biggest thing I would say is that we have lost a sense of community. It's all about me, it's about now, it's about instant… And I think the current recession is in some ways challenging people to think about that all over again. You know, what is important to us?

N09HP8.jpg You are currently the youngest member of the House of Lords. Did you feel you deserved to be ennobled?

I think that being a member of the House of Lords is a great privilege, but it was actually a by-product of taking the Shadow Cabinet portfolio. I couldn't have done that if I hadn't been a member of either of the Houses, and I wasn't an MP.

But don't you think that devalues the whole currency of the honours system?

You know, when I look around the House at some of the people in there, do I think I deserve to be there? No, of course I don't. I mean, I'm among some extremely intelligent people who have reached the top of their pro­fessions and have accomplished a huge am­ount.

But I completely value me being there, and if I can add to those debates (and I hope that I do) and bring a different perspective, I think that strengthens the House of Lords. It certainly, I hope, strengthens our Shadow Cabinet, and our policy-making for - hopefully - the next government.