Wednesday 5 May 2010

Now Tories confirm Warsi story - while claiming to deny it

"God – why did I phrase it like that? What was I on?'"
- Sayeeda Warsi on her 2005 general election literature (to The Guardian)

The Guardian website reports what sounds like a classic non-denial denial strategy from Tory frontbencher Baroness Warsi, who seems to be refusing to admit that she made a mistake in arguing publicly against the idea of more Muslims entering politics and Parliament.

The report says:

The Conservatives today denied reports that its shadow cabinet member for social cohesion, Lady Warsi, made disparaging comments about Muslim MPs in which she questioned their fitness to stand for parliament.

The Conservatives said Lady Warsi's comments were made in Urdu and she had been misinterpreted.

The Guardian attributes the reported comments to Next Left, which this morning revealed that The Times had spiked its news story on Warsi's speech.

Yet, curiously, The Guardian reports a slightly different version of the transcript to that published on Next Left, or indeed that not published in The Times.

Warsi is reported as saying: "I would actually disagree with that because one of the lessons we have learned in the last five years in politics is that Muslims that go to parliament don't have any morals or principles. Not everyone is [former Labour peer] Lord Ahmed, not everyone puts their community before their own career."

This final sentence did not appear in Next Left's account of the comments (given by The Guardian as their source). Nor was Lord Ahmed identified (and so excluded from Warsi's more general slander of Muslim politicians) by name in the unpublished Times report, which did go on to include the community/career line.

So what is the source of the quotation? In fact, this is the transcript which the Conservative Party have today been supplying in relationship to inquiries about the story. Most reasonable observers would think that this confirms the story, rather than denies it.

But wait. The Conservatives do wish to argue the remarks - which seem perfectly clear in their natural meaning - have been "misinterpreted". There is, in fact, only one point they have been seeking to clarify on the interpretation. It seems to me a rather minor detail, separate from the main thrust of the remarks, but let us bring the facts into the light for readers to decide. The issue is whether Warsi should be correctly reported as saying Muslim MPs and Peers are without "morals and principles" or simply "principles".

The Conservatives say the latter. Apparently, this hangs on the correct interpretation of the Urdu word "asool". Next Left lacks Urdu fluency, but accepts expert advice that Warsi's comments accuse Muslim politicians of lacking "principles" rather than "morals" - and that she was therefore opposing calls to have more Muslim MPs or peers in general on the basis that they have shown themselves to be unprincipled.

Does that help? We no longer have any dispute about translation. Clearly, Warsi does not deny making the stupid comment about opposing the idea of more Muslim MPs or peers, or generalising about Muslims as a group in an absurd fashion.

Yet the Guardian reports that Waris "said" (here, she means "meant to say") something quite different.

Warsi said in a statement: "I said that the definition of a good MP is someone that stands up for their constituents and who understands the communities they represent, not necessarily someone that ticks a particular ethnic box. People of every background feel let down by parliament and what is needed are MPs that can represent and empathise with their communities."

It is perfectly possible to believe that she intended to make some more intelligent or cogent point along these lines - and so that she does not, on reflection, quite mean what she said. But Warsi should surely hold her hands up, withdraw and apologise for the absurd and gross generalisation on all current or potential Muslim politicians.

(My local MP is the disgraced Derek Conway - but I would never dream of assumng that all Geordies or Anglicans are to be held responsible for his misdeeds; nor would anybody else offer such a stupid comment. Such generalisations appear to be reserved for either minority MPs or for women).

Warsi's own failed attempt at being elected to the House of Commons in 2005 saw her accused of running an unprincipled campaign, when it turned out she was running very different messages to different communities. Stonewall challenged her leaflets (aimed specifically at the Muslim community in the constituency) as "homophobic" since she claimed that the equal age of consent "allowed schoolchildren to be propositioned for homosexual relationships".

In her leaflet Mrs Warsi, the Conservatives' first female Muslim candidate, says: "Labour has scrapped section 28 which was introduced by the Conservatives to stop schools promoting alternative sexual lifestyles such as homosexuality to children as young as seven years old... now schools are allowed and do promote homosexuality and other alternative sexual lifestyles to your children.

"Labour reduced the age of consent for homosexuality from 18 to 16 allowing school children to be propositioned for homosexual relationships."

Later in her leaflet Mrs Warsi is quoted saying: "I will campaign strongly for an end to sex education at seven years and the promotion of homosexuality that undermines family life."

She later told The Guardian she regretted the leaflets' wording

"I look back at lots of my election leaflets and think, 'God – why did I phrase it like that? What was I on?'" she told the paper.

"There was a whole team that was involved in my election leaflets.

"People used to kind of draft little bits together, and we'd throw it together and send it off to the printers.

"Looking back on it, maybe I could have used much better language than that."

However, the local party reused the controversial literature in fighting the local election campaign in 2006 for another candidate.


Newmania said...

Hmm ,not sure how I would feel if one of my boys was sodomized by an older man whilst going his O levels.
Is this an important freedom ?

LabMike said...

It sounds a bit farfetched doesn't it? It's much more likely that she just meant that Muslim MPs weren't necessarily better at representing their communities than non-Muslim MPs.

Disclaimer: First thing tomorrow I'm going to vote for Labour, I think the Tories would be a disaster. This isn't a party political opinion- she should be given the benefit of the doubt when we're talking about a translation that she's highly unlikely to have meant.

Sunder Katwala said...


I take your point. But she said it quite clearly. Beyond the stupid generalisation, its quite a nasty and specific personal attack on a small group of Muslim parliamentarians, for which there is little cause.

Warsi likes to present herself as outspoken, and I am quite prepared to accept that the comment was much more thoughtless opportunism than anything else. She should apologise and withdraw (or say who she means specifically) and others should then accept that.

And of course she can and should make broader valid point about MPs needing to represent everybody. (Though, in context, on this occasion she seems to be talking more about what it takes for MPs to more genuinely represent a specific community: I have heard her previously make somewhat conflicting arguments on that broad theme: I strongly prefer the former approach that BME or Muslim MPs are not "community representatives" in that narrow sense.