Table Talk with David Cameron (from March 2007)
Issue 68 May 2010
This article was first printed in the March 2007 issue of emel Magazine (issue 30)
David Cameron has made a fair few headlines recently. His comparison of extremist Muslim groups with the British National Party, his memorial service for multi-culturalism and his pronouncements on Britishness have kept the media focus on Muslims. Sarah Joseph meets him to find out what he really understands of the Muslim community.
David Cameron likes lines and boxes. They crop up a lot in our conversation as he details the struggle to find appropriate categories for Muslims. Finding the right box in which to fit him, however, is not easy either. He wants a new “compassionate Conservative Party”, but he is surrounded by “new” Conservatives of the “neo” kind. He says he is not a deeply ideological person, but there are plenty of ideologues around him. He says he’s not a Thatcherite, but Thatcher remains one of his role models.
So what is it to be? The kind, liberal front man of a centre ground conservatism, or a closet right-winger – “a rightwing wolf in compassionate sheep’s clothing”, as he has been called?
As I sit in the back of his Lexus racing from Brighton to Horsham and then London – two legs of a bustling round of speeches and hand shakes, meeting the local Conservatives, I ask if he is leading a government in waiting, “We’ve definitely turned a corner.” Indeed even if Labour spin the current opinion polls around and scrape that historic fourth election victory, the Conservatives will surely hold onto David Cameron. One must surely recognise the prospect that he will one day lead them to power.
So he’s a face that will be around for a long time. Which means it is important that he gets things right for the sake of the country in general, and, given the current climate, for Muslims in particular. He seems to want that too, and for Cameron getting things right is about, “teaching English to new arrivals; teaching a shared history; a National school leaver programme that brings together people from all walks of life; taking down barriers; inner city education.”
“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” he reminds me. “It will take time. And it’s about setting the direction of travel.” Which could be interpreted to mean that cultures, even British cultures, are not static or uniform; they reinvent, they regenerate – sometimes because of external influences, sometimes painfully, and Cameron wants to set the direction for a new British culture and take everyone with him: “You cannot bully people into feeling British, you have to inspire them,” he said in his Birmingham speech. But, some might say, can’t people be British in the way they want to be? Do they have to be cajoled into following Cameron’s way?
Perhaps not; for a recent visit to Bradford may have allowed him to overcome certain stereotypes, allowing for a new multiculturalism. He describes a recent trip to Feversham College, a voluntary aided school for Muslim girls in Bradford, “When you first walk in as a white British man and you see the pupils in their jilbabs you do think, ‘Is this right?’ But the more I talked to the children the more I got the sense that this school is turning out really strong British citizens who are proud of their faith and proud of the national identity.”
This brings us to the part of his speech on his perceived failures of multiculturalism and the promotion of Britishness. He readily admits that Britishness is a woolly term. For him multiculturalism has failed, not because he wants to create a monolithic white Christian Britain, but because it has promoted difference over commonality. Of his five “Berlin walls of division,” the first is extremism, and the extremism of “those who seek a Sharia state, or special treatment and a separate law for British Muslims.” They are, in his opinion, “the mirror image of the BNP.”
This regressive view of the Sharia is misconceived, and I expected better from someone who aspires to be Prime Minister of a country that has a long tradition of interaction with Muslim peoples. Someone close to Cameron needs to quickly inform him that the ideals of the Sharia, far from being a threat to the British nation, can have a positive influence. Indeed, in the past these ideals have inspired many aspects of the English common law, including that hallowed institution of trial by jury. In this regard, Cameron would do well to heed his own advice about multiculturalism and highlight the commonality between Islamic values and the values he would espouse for a modern Britain.
After a few jokes about stoning the adulterer and chopping off the thief’s hand, it becomes patently obvious that Cameron’s understanding of Sharia is reduced to a few ancient stereotypes of punishments. When I point out that the Economic Secretary, Ed Balls, had just announced a plan to make the UK a global centre for Islamic finance which revolves around Sharia and is worth £40billion, the jokes stop and we begin to look more closely at what the word means. Cameron has a first class degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from Oxford University, but it is evident he has not had sufficient exposure to Islamic political discourse or legal traditions to get beyond two dimensional cardboard cut-outs of Sharia. If he is to have a constructive impact on the debate that will have to change.We move on to who he thinks is the mirror image of the BNP and here four things collide: his speech, his reference to the Policy Review report, media spin and the Muslim response.
If listened to in isolation, his Birmingham speech made a number of fair points. Indeed, the comparison of the far right to extremists is one that I have made myself in the past. Both sides want to deny that one can be authentically Muslim and authentically British. But he does not name the extremists in his speech. On this he says, “I am not an expert, I was more referencing a way of thinking than any group.” However, the Policy Review does name some groups, and this is where one has to despair and even question whether there is a genuine change. One might not agree with everything they do but one has to find it bizarre that it is the Muslim Council of Britain, the Islamic Society of Britain, the Federation of Student Islamic Societies, etc. that are singled out as being problems, whilst there is no mention of groups like Al Ghurabaa or The Saviour Sect. Only the late Dr Zaki Badawi and the newly formed Sufi Muslim Council are favourably referred to.
I ask him whether he supports the Review and he is initially upbeat, “Yes I do. It was written by Pauline Neville-Jones. I think she has done a good job. It has some clear thinking and good recommendations. I am favourably inclined towards it and its recommendations, but we will want to think through what to put in the manifesto.” Does he not think it strange that a former head of the Joint Intelligence Committee was writing a report on cohesion? Doesn’t that say that Muslims are a security issue? “Yes, I think that’s a very fair point. When you set up Policy Review Groups they don’t always fit neatly into the subject headings you want. The ‘cohesion heading’ didn’t fit neatly into other boxes. But Pauline wanted to do this and had researchers ready. We have both said however that cohesion is not just about Muslims in Britain and it’s not just about terrorism. But I do totally respect the view that it is slightly awkward, the report coming out of a national and international security policy group. That makes it sound like it is all about security, but it isn’t.”
This is a welcome statement as Muslim groups such as the ones named in the report have, for a long time, been making the point that cohesion is not all about Muslims and security. However, despite these assurances from Cameron, the Policy Review tells a different story; every chapter of the Review references Islam and Muslims within its text. Topics include, ‘Political Islam’, ‘The Battle for the Allegiance of British Muslims’, ‘Attitudes Among the Non-Muslim Majority’, ‘The Social Condition of British Muslims’, ‘Demographic Data for Muslim Women and families’ and it all makes for rather grim reading.
The Review also introduces a completely new term, “Qaradawist Ideology.” I ask Cameron what on earth this is. “One of the things that I was trying to do, well I wasn’t as I didn’t write the report, but one of the things that all of us in this space are trying to do is find the right way through the language issue. I try not to use phrases like ‘Islamist terrorist’ because I think British Muslims read that and think, ‘He just means me.’ So we are all trying to find a way through this language issue.” But are they merely looking for boxes to fit people in? “Well, we’re looking for boxes that are more accurate than those that were used in the past.” A tough job awaits him, but the issues are not just about language. I suggest to Cameron that there is a particular outlook that is being advocated by some who are close to him which propounds that a politically involved Islam is a threat to the world we live in and that what is desired is a neutered form of the faith. “I did not write the report,” he repeats, “although I was involved with some of the conversations... I think the chapter headings, the title ‘Political Islam’, was intended to separate it, trying to get away from this problem of British Muslims feeling targeted. That was the aim. If we haven’t got it right, then we will try harder.” A firm pledge and one which needs to be pursued, especially by those within and close to the party, as the report still uses the very terminologies that Cameron avowedly dislikes.
I ask Cameron if he felt the press and TV coverage was sensationalist in their reporting on this issue, and he does feel that they “overcooked the whole thing.” He feels that his speech was mixed up with parts of the report which are “critical but constructive about the MCB,” and that the result was “rather sloppy journalism.” I hear the point, though I couldn’t find anything constructive about the MCB in the report, which seems to be ideologically motivated, but it is very difficult to disentangle the speech of the leader of the Conservatives and a Policy Review prepared for the Conservatives. The timing with the publication of the speech, the Policy Review and the right wing Policy Exchange report did not seem coincidental. Whether it is true, as Cameron believes that, “the press slightly over interpreted” his next point reveals that he is at least concerned. “It can be very frustrating. We have to be very careful with our words and try and get this right.”
Cameron, although not seemingly driven by faith personally, is not anti-faith. He has no problems with faith schools, just “bad schools,” and believes that faith does have a role to play in politics. “Yes, I think it does. I don’t think you can draw an entirely separate line between religion and politics, faith and politics. Politicians have to make moral choices. Faith organisations have strong moral views. The two will intertwine from time to time and we should be relaxed about that but try and have an honest debate. We shouldn’t be frightened that different faiths have different moral views and that politicians have to make moral decisions.”
I suggest to Cameron that “the Muslim issue” is going to be with us for a long time and if they are truly a government in waiting then they have to engage with the issues full on. He is very open to this, “I’m a learner. We all are, and we do want to get this right.” When I put to him that focus groups show that being hard on Muslims is a vote winner his response is unequivocal. “Our responsibility as politicians is to get it right not to follow focus groups.”
If one looks just at Cameron’s speech on multiculturalism or his Observer comment on the same theme, then one has to accept that he has made attempts to be reasoned and calm. Indeed, many of the points he has made have been propounded by Muslim groups for a long time, even by groups criticised in the Policy Review. However, the same Review promotes policies that will alienate the Muslim community still further. Is this down to Cameron? He did reiterate a number of times that he did not write the report; it was written by others around him.
Worryingly, this seems to be the system: policy gets written by anonymous researchers lurking in the shadows and politicians take either the glory or the flack. Cameron agrees that “the Muslim issue” needs dealing with. It is the front page, headline grabbing politics that is going to be with us for a while yet. His promise to get it right means that if he is true to his word he will take a long hard look at the Review and gather round him not ideologues, but a group of people who have deep knowledge of Muslims and have some genuine understanding of Islamic values and cultures. Cameron is trying to be a politician of the future, not of the past; the new compassionate Conservatives, not the nasty party. We discuss the future of politics and he feels there will be a “huge shift in power from the elites to the people.” Despite his desire to make the Conservatives “open to everyone”, the balance is not there yet. And he certainly needs more help to give him a truer picture about Britain’s diverse and dynamic Muslims, if for any other reason than the politically selfish one that many Muslims might just consider voting Tory.