Profile: Grant Shapps, the blandly implausible Cabinet star who is taking on the RMT

24 Jun

When Grant Shapps was 13 he declared: “My name is Grant, I’m from Pinner, and my ambition is to be a Conservative Cabinet minister.”

Simon Johnson, now Chair of the Rugby Football League, heard him say this when they were both in BBYO, the Jewish youth organisation, and remarks: “At the height of Thatcherism in the 1980s that was a very brave thing for him to say – it exposed him to a lot of mickey-taking.”

Shapps is now a Conservative Cabinet minister. As Secretary of State for Transport, he is in the front line of the rail dispute, but well before that he was one of the few people trusted by Downing Street to put the Government’s case on the morning media round.

He continues to be exposed to a lot of mickey-taking, but mingled with that is a note of respect. As one former minister remarked this week to ConHome:

“In a normal Cabinet of quality he would be a minor chord. But in this Cabinet, where mediocrity is laced with incompetence, he’s a bit of a star.”

A serving minister went further:

“I love Grant. Pre-Christmas, when there was the possibility of a lockdown, he was completely pivotal in Cabinet in stopping it. His intervention was crucial.”

Another influential Conservative, who has seen a lot of Shapps over the years, said of him:

“I can’t help but like him, even though I wouldn’t trust him. He’s probably the Government’s best communicator in terms of the Cabinet. He exudes confidence. He’s absolutely right about the rail strike – he’s brilliant. He reminds me a little bit of Jeffrey Archer.”

Shapps is an odd mixture of ambition, boldness, implausibility, realism and professionalism. All front-rank politicians need the self-belief to recover from, or better still shrug off, what may seem to spectators like a knockout blow.

The Prime Minister possesses that quality, and so, in a different register, does Shapps. When Mick Lynch, General Secretary of the RMT, blamed the rail strike on “Old Etonians speaking Latin and Greek”, the jibe did not land on Shapps, educated at Watford Grammar School (by then already a comprehensive), Cassio College and Manchester Polytechnic, and as a teenager more interested in designing computer games and setting up small businesses than in academic work.

Class war cannot work against the classless Shapps. “He’s got much better on the media,” a close observer remarks. “He’s one of the few who talks normally.”

One might say Shapps talks blandly. He is not much given to coining memorable phrases. He makes his case in a reasonable, workaday tone of voice, which offers his opponents no weak point against which to counter-attack.

And because he has been Transport Secretary since July 2019, so for almost three years, he has had time to work out how to continue the modernisation of the railways, which began many years before he came on the scene.

ConHome revealed in November 2020 how Shapps proposed to seize the opportunity offered by the pandemic to give Britain world-class rail.

The vast sums of public money which were needed to keep the trains running through the emergency meant this was a moment of central control, when it became possible, as well as morally right, to sweep away obsolete working practices.

That argument has only become stronger since. As Shapps himself put it in a speech delivered on Thursday of last week:

“These strikes are not only a bid to derail reforms that are critical to the network’s future and designed to inflict damage at the worst possible time, they are also an incredible act of self-harm by the union leadership.

“Make no mistake, unlike the past 25 years, when rising passenger demand, year after year, was taken for granted by the industry, today the railway is in a fight.

“It’s not only competing against other forms of public and private transport, it’s in a battle with Zoom, Teams and remote working. In case the unions haven’t noticed, the world has changed.

“Many commuters, who three years ago had no alternative to taking the train, today have the option of not travelling at all. Wave them goodbye and it will endanger the jobs of thousands of rail workers.

“The last thing the railway should be doing right now is alienating passengers and freight customers with a long and damaging strike.”

The strike is about who wields the central power which has been reestablished over the railway. Lynch and his colleagues in the RMT wish to demonstrate they can bring the network to a halt, and that they will continue to be able to do so.

The union barons used to be a power in the land, a great estate of the realm, because they could shut things down. In the 1970s, neither a Conservative Government, led by Edward Heath, nor a Labour one, led by James Callaghan, could work out how to regain the initiative.

In the 2020s, the Government would have to be extraordinarily incompetent – never, admittedly, a possibility which can be excluded – for things to play out as badly as they did in the 1970s.

Shapps was born in 1968, so remembers the 1970s. He not only announced in the early 1980s that he wished to be a Conservative minister, but at that time showed precocious gifts as a campaigner by getting himself elected National President of the Jewish youth organisation to which he belonged.

In an interview given to The Jewish Chronicle in September 2010, Shapps said:

“I feel totally Jewish; I am totally Jewish. I don’t eat pork, we only buy kosher meat and we don’t mix meat and milk. I like being Jewish and I married a Jewish girl. It’s like a way of life and it’s good to be able to instil some of that sense of being in your kids.

“All of that makes me seem as though I am quite observant but actually the flipside of this is I don’t know if there is a God or not. But one thing I am absolutely certain of is that God wouldn’t care if you were Jewish or Christian or Muslim.”

Although there are many politicians who, while nominally Christian, Muslim or Jewish, don’t know if there is a God, few actually say this.

Shapps is not merely undogmatic on his own behalf: he says God, if He exists, would be undogmatic too.

As a politician, Shapps does not preach doctrine, but is instead keenly interested in practice. “His approach has been generally sensible in a department that isn’t sensible,” as one Tory transport expert put it.

A railway specialist was less complimentary: he feared that Great British Rail, set up by Shapps, will become “another vast government bureaucracy that no one will be able to manage”.

But most observers think Shapps has done quite well at leading a department which is extraordinarily difficult to lead. One may compare and contrast him with Gavin Williamson.

Both men were desperate to get back into the Cabinet, both were astute enough to realise that Johnson was the horse to back in 2019, but Williamson, rewarded with the post of Education Secretary, soon found himself in serious difficulties, which Shapps, rewarded with Transport, has not.

The road to the fulfilment of his boyhood ambition has been a long one, strewn with obstacles, including a car accident in America in which he almost lost his life, and a bout of cancer which could also have proved fatal.

His recreation, when he can find time, is to fly his own Piper plane, made in 1985. His department has to deal with the airline industry, formidable at lobbying though not always good at hiring enough staff or treating them properly.

Shapps, son of a graphic designer, as a young man set up a printing business, but also sought to become an MP. He failed first in 1997, when he stood in North Southwark and Bermondsey, coming a distant third, and next in 2001, when he lost by 1,196 votes in Welwyn Hatfield.

In 2005, he won Welwyn Hatfield by 5.946 votes, and threw his support behind David Cameron, whose nomination papers he signed.

Under Cameron, steady promotion followed: Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Party in 2005, shadow Housing Minister in 2007, Minister of State for Housing and Local Government in 2010, Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party in 2012.

But the other Chairman was Lord Feldman, who when profiled on ConHome was described as “the more important” of the two, with much closer ties to Cameron.

There are eight references to Feldman in David Cameron’s memoir, For The Record, and only two to Shapps, one of which reads, in its entirety:

“Grant Shapps became Chairman. He was loyal, energetic, and really wanted it.”

Shapps was sometimes known to the Cameroons as von Schnapps, a nickname which perhaps suggests he was not taken with complete seriousness. He made valiant and for a time successful attempts to get Conservative activists bussed to wherever they were most needed.

But after the general election victory of 2015, he was demoted to the post of Minister of State for International Development, no longer attending Cabinet, and in November of that year he stood down because of  grave bullying allegations which had been made about Team2015, the scheme to move young activists around.

There had also been unwelcome publicity about Shapps’s business activities, touched on in this recent piece for ConHome by William Atkinson, including the use of the pseudonym Michael Green and the promotion of a get-rich-quick scheme which seemed unlikely to make anyone better off.

In October 2017, Shapps  said the Conservative Party could not “bury its head in the sand”, and called for the resignation of the Prime Minister, Theresa May.

The plot was a flop and she did not resign until the summer of 2019, when Shapps backed Johnson to succeed her, and became celebrated for the accuracy of the spreadsheets which he prepared for the Johnson campaign.

“He successfully adumbrated the weaknesses and venality of his colleagues,” as one Johnson supporter put it. Shapps had again proved his usefulness, and made sure everyone knew it.

He also makes sure everyone knows that Mick Jones, lead guitarist of The Clash, is his cousin.

Johnson is a fan of The Clash, and especially of Joe Strummer, the band’s lead vocalist. In November 2005, when Johnson was asked by Sue Lawley on Desert Island Discs for “record number seven”, he replied:

“Right. Ah, this is fantastic. It is The Clash, “Pressure Drop”, and the great thing about The Clash, of course, was apart from anything else, Joe Strummer was towards the end an avid Telegraph reader and it was the highest moment in my journalistic career when Joe Strummer actually sent me a letter saying how much he’d admired a column I’d written, about hunting funnily enough, and he was a fantastic man, a great hero of mine, a good poet as well as a fantastic rock musician.”

The Prime Minister will be excited to have appointed a Transport Secretary whose cousin performed with Strummer. Here is not the least of Shapps’s implausibilities.

The post Profile: Grant Shapps, the blandly implausible Cabinet star who is taking on the RMT first appeared on Conservative Home.

Nus Ghani: Prevent needs to have confidence in its own identity

29 Apr

Nus Ghani is the Conservative MP for Wealdon, and a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange.

When William Shawcross was appointed to lead an independent review of Prevent, I argued he needed to put the fight against non-violent extremism at the heart of the strategy.  As we approach the long-awaited submission of his report to the Home Secretary, interest is increasing.

This week David Cameron, the former Prime Minister, captured an essential element of the challenge facing the Government, in a foreword to a Policy Exchange report looking at Prevent’s critics. Cameron argued that delegitimising counter-terrorism risks enabling terrorism.

The debate around Prevent is not an idle academic exercise – getting it right matters. The murder of my colleague David Amess, the deadly terrorist attack on three gay men in Reading in 2020, and the botched Parsons Green bombing in 2017, all involved extremists who had been in contact with Prevent, but who carried on their path towards violence.

This is not the first review of Prevent, or the first attempt to update our approach to counter-terrorism. In my earlier analysis of Prevent, I likened the post-2011 version of the policy to a satellite that flew at 80,000 feet, without the “boots on the ground” that were also necessary.

As far back as 2015, David Cameron identified the ‘grievance culture’ poisoning the worldview of some young British Muslims. I wrote regretfully of the then-Prime Minister’s analysis: “His ideas failed properly to take hold in Government departments, let alone in communities.” Self-appointed ‘representative’ organisations were also indefatigable in besmirching Cameron’s analysis. They understood too well the threat it posed to their own survival.

Those problems persist and are exacerbated by the use of new technology. To address them, Prevent needs a stronger identity, and it needs to develop the self-confidence which flows from positive leadership. Talking to local Prevent staff, I am struck by their commitment and dedication.

However, those at the coalface sometimes see the Home Office as distant and isolationist. Statements in support of Prevent, whilst welcome, tend to come across as stock responses, when what is needed is sustained engagement from Ministers and senior officials.

Local authorities also have a role to play. Too often they fail to do any mapping exercises locally, struggle to get out and about into the community, and instead rely on ‘gatekeepers’ or a small number of activist organisations who have their own agenda. Yet for all the noise on social media, opinion poll data suggests the uniform opposition to Prevent from ‘representative’ organisations, is not shared by British Muslims.

As part of rebuilding Prevent’s identity, it needs to be restated what it is for. Prevent exists to stop people from becoming supporters of terrorism and stop people becoming terrorists. It must therefore challenge extremism in all its forms, and in a way that is understandable to the public.

One issue Shawcross will have to address is the declining number of Islamist related referrals, in a period where Islamist terrorism and extremism has continued unabated. Where there is considered to be a genuine risk of radicalisation, Prevent referrals may be followed by what is known as a Channel intervention.

The latest Home Office figures for Channel cases in 2020-21 record 46 percent concerned far-right extremism, just over twice the number for Islamist influenced individuals, which actually fell to 22 percent. Britain has a number of angry far-right activists, spewing out bile, and seeking to attract others to their cause in the process. Whilst we can’t ignore the referral data, are we sure fascists and neo-Nazis constitute twice the threat Islamists do?  Shawcross will need to answer questions like this, to ensure Prevent doesn’t lose its way.

To further recast Prevent’s identity, it needs greater transparency, with clear Ministerial control and accountability.  Without this, the opposition will fill the void. This is not to decry Prevent’s critics. It is through debate and critique with democratically elected politicians that policies are improved and fine-tuned.

But the undermining of a counter-terrorism policy is a different matter. For some of Prevent’s opponents, undermining is simply a prelude to abolition. Why would anyone want a permissive environment for extremism? As David Cameron has alluded, society needs to ask much harder questions of anti-Prevent activists.

The quest for constructive criticism has not been helped by the tendency for some of the debates around Prevent to become increasingly absurd. For many for us, for just challenging the critics of Prevent and tackling the issue of Islamist terrorism means we have to deal with abuse and death threats.

It gets worse. I came across comments that suggested that the treatment of British Muslims is on a path to how China treats Uyghur, who are genocide at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party. How utterly absurd and shameful – and I should know. I’m the only female MP sanctioned by China as national threat for leading the way in the UK and internationally in exposing Uyghur genocide, trying to save the lives of Uyghur men, women and children.

The Shawcross report is not the first attempt to recalibrate Prevent, but it is perhaps the most important. It must signpost a way for Prevent to refashion its identity. We know too well the risks of not getting it right.

James Gurd: The deadly attacks in Israel as three great religious celebrations meet – Passover, Easter and Ramadan.

15 Apr

James Gurd is Executive Director of Conservative Friends of Israel.

News of the brutal terror attack at a busy bar in the heart of Tel Aviv broke during CFI’s first parliamentary delegation since the pandemic. The attack was the fourth such incident in little over a week – the deadliest in 15 years. Our week had been shaped by an inescapable question – was this the beginning of a Third Intifada?

Israelis have an inbuilt resilience to these sorts of tragic incidents. You will be hard pressed to find an Israeli that wasn’t affected in some way by the hundreds of Palestinian terror attacks during the Second Intifada of 2000-2005 which killed over a thousand. There is a growing feeling that something is again brewing.

The night of the Tel Aviv attack I was out and about along Jerusalem’s main Jaffa Street. The security presence was palpable and the city felt unusually quiet – a far cry from previous visits. Police cars patrolled the streets methodically at short intervals and armed police and soldiers were ever present.

The scene will have been similar across much of the country and is likely to continue for another few weeks yet as Israel experiences a rare confluence of three major religious festivals – Passover, Ramadan and Easter.

Ramadan has historically been a time of increased tensions and attacks, and the overlap with Passover and Easter has certainly added to the combustibility of this period. The approaching one-year anniversary of Israel’s latest conflict with the Hamas terror group, as well as Israel’s Independence Day (5th May), will likely serve as additional flashpoints down the line. This period of tension will not be abating any time soon.

The threat of attacks had been anticipated. Jordan – custodian of the holy Muslim sites in Jerusalem – had publicly hosted senior Israeli ministers ahead of the holidays and the two countries had been closely and publicly coordinating.

Israel, for its part, has waived permit restrictions for tens of thousands of Palestinian worshippers to visit the al-Aqsa Mosque on Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount throughout Ramadan. Israeli officials made no change to this policy in the wake of the attacks, perhaps mindful of Hamas’s long history of presenting any perceived Israeli restriction on access to al-Aqsa Mosque as a call to arms.

Hamas has chosen to dial up its rhetoric over Jerusalem regardless but it still seems unlikely that the group will initiate another round of conflict from the Gaza Strip. Less than a year ago, Gaza was the centre of the world’s attention as Israelis sheltered from thousands of rockets and Gazans endured another tragic conflict inflicted by their Hamas overseers. Today, there is relative calm.

In our recent briefing with the Israel Defense Forces on the border with Gaza, it was noted that Hamas was not ready for a major escalation as it was busy rebuilding after Israel delivered a heavy blow to its military capabilities. Hamas is even understood to be preventing rival terror groups – including Palestinian Islamic Jihad – from launching rockets into Israel. This threat level, as always, can change rapidly though.

For now, Hamas appears to be far more willing to unleash its extensive network of cells across the West Bank. A strategy of arms length violence works well for the group as it looks to jointly deliver fatal blows across Israel and threaten the rule of its fierce rival, the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority which governs the West Bank. As ever in the Middle East, Iran is usually no more than one-degree of separation away from any instability and as one of the Islamic Republic’s premier terror franchises it is likely that Hamas is being encouraged to agitate again now.

The PA is vehemently opposed to Hamas strengthening its position in the West Bank through a campaign of violence. 17 years into his four-year term, President Mahmoud Abbas and his PA old-guard are deeply unpopular among Palestinians for their well-documented corruption and there is a growing sense of malaise exacerbated by high-unemployment and stalled peace process. Polls indicate a worrying growth in support for violent acts, especially among younger Palestinians who now make up the majority of the population.

President Abbas may have been applauded by some commentators for his condemnation of two recent terror attacks – albeit under pressure from Jordan and the U.S. – but his Fatah party hasn’t hesitated to celebrate the attacks and their perpetrators. The families of the ‘martyrs’ are even set to be honoured with financial support; one of the deplorable practices which may have led the UK to recently freeze its aid to the PA.

Despite this, Israel is working with the PA’s UK-trained security services to stamp out the shared threat posed by Hamas-driven violence but appear to be having mixed success.

Much of the focus has been on the northern Palestinian city of Jenin where the perpetrators of two recent attacks came from. Regarded as the “capital of resistance” by Palestinians during the Second Intifada due to the many suicide bombers who came from the town, it has again become a hotbed for Hamas and PIJ fighters after the PA appeared to lose control of the area in recent years – although it remains unclear how orchestrated they have been. Israeli security services have reportedly foiled further terror attacks originating in the area but its ongoing security operations in Jenin have led to a series of fatal clashes and firefights which are likely to escalate further.

It is a combustible situation, and will likely spread elsewhere in the West Bank and into Jerusalem. Religious fervour has already seen the desecration of Joseph’s Tomb – a holy Jewish and Muslim site – by Palestinian protestors.

Israel seems to have been less prepared for another dynamic – the possibility of attacks claimed by so-called Islamic State. The Jewish state hasn’t been a major focus of the group and yet two of the recent attacks were undertaken by Arabs living within Israel that had pledged allegiance to the group. It remains to be seen whether IS will seek further attacks in Israel, but Hamas and PIJ are certainly committed to doing so.

The uncertainty over what happens next is looming large. There is a great deal at stake for regional stability in the tense days ahead. While Israelis contend with that inescapable and fraught question over a possible Third Intifada, the world is rightly focused on the Russian onslaught in Ukraine. If events continue to escalate though it may not be long be another international crisis erupts. As ever in the Middle East, unpredictability is the only predictable thing.

Rehman Chishti and Bashayer Al Majed: Let’s hold the Taliban to account on their vow to respect women’s rights

8 Mar

Rehman Chishti is MP for Gillingham & Rainham and a former Adviser to Benazir Bhutto. Dr Bashayer Al Majed is Professor of Law at Kuwait University, Visiting Fellow at Oxford Centre of Islamic Studies, and an adviser to the Kuwait Parliament.

As we approach International Women’s Day 2022, we must look at the challenges that women and girls are facing around the world, simply because of their gender. In this article, we want to look at the situation facing women and girls in Afghanistan six months on from the fall of Kabul after the Taliban took control of the capital by force.

Whilst the world focusses on the grave situation in Ukraine, and we must do all we can to protect an international rules-based order and democracy, some authoritarian states around the world are using the situation as a pretext to further suppress human rights in their countries.

When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan on 15 August 2021, they made a statement that they would operate “within the framework of Islam”. Six months later, the international community, and organisations like the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and key stakeholders, need to now judge the Taliban on their actions and not their words. This article explores the rights of women and girls in Islam, and their role from the very outset of when the religion was formed in the 7th Century, in line with the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad.

As the international community has not recognised the Taliban as a legitimate government and has the finance to hold the Taliban to their word, these two levers should be used to help safeguard the rights of women, girls and religious minorities in Afghanistan.

In the last six months women and girls in Afghanistan have not had access to a full and inclusive education. In September 2021 Abdul Baqi Haqqani, the Higher Education Minister, indicated that women would be allowed to study in Afghanistan, but not alongside men, stating:

“Coeducation is in conflict with the principles of Islam and, on the other hand, it is in conflict with national values and is against the customs and traditions of Afghans.” 

Afghanistan’s previous government under President Ashraf Ghani had its flaws, however, progress was made with regards to women in society. Rula Ghani, the former First Lady of Afghanistan, was an active voice for women’s rights. She was revered in Afghanistan for undertaking humanitarian work to aid and empower children, refugees and women, showing the world the capability, independence and strength of Afghani women. She pressed for women’s rights and participation in the peace and leadership of the country.

In 1999, no girls were officially attending secondary school, and only 9,000 attended primary school. By August 2021, the figure had risen to 3.5 million girls in school, with women making up a third of all university students (public and private). In 2019, more than 1,000 Afghan women had started their own businesses; however, this progress is now under threat by the Taliban’s regime.

With regards to Islam itself, firstly, the Prophet said: “I advise you to treat women kindly.” There are several hadith where it is announced that forced marriages are not permitted in Islam, likewise if a woman marries and is unhappy the marriage can be ended.

In 12th-century Uzbekistan, Fatima al-Samarqandi was a respected scholar and jurist. She educated men and women and served as advisor for the Syrian leader Nur-al-din-Zangi. Benazir Bhutto was Prime Minister of Pakistan from 1988-90 and 1993-96, and the first female leader of a Muslim state in modern times. Significantly, Bhutto led the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, demonstrating that that there is no limit to what female Muslims can achieve.

Many more female Muslim national leaders followed in Bhutto’s ground-breaking steps. For example, Megawati Sukarnoputri of Indonesia (2001-2004), who stabilised her country’s democratization process and eased the relationship between the legislative, executive, and military arms of the nation.

Dr Hawa Abdi of Somalia, a Nobel Peace Prize Nominee, obtained a scholarship in Kiev, studied medicine, then returned to Somalia to be the nation’s first female gynaecologist. She continued to study law, and gained a professorship of medicine, opening a clinic and setting up a foundation to offer free healthcare, shelter and education to families displaced by the war.

Sammera Moussa received a PhD from Cairo University in atomic physics, the first woman to do so. She was the first non-US citizen to be invited to tour the American atomic energy facilities, whilst on scholarship there. She established the International Atomic Energy for Peace Conference to work towards developing safe methods to deliver cost-effective nuclear-based medical treatments.

Morocco’s Nawal El Moutawakel opened the door for Muslim athletes in the Olympics in 1984, being the first to win a gold medal in the 400m hurdles and the first Muslim woman to join the International Olympic Committee in 1998. She later held office as Morocco’s Minister of Sports. We now have Muslim women competing in many sports including Taekwondo, karate, show jumping, 100m, and swimming, some with hijab, some without, depending on their own preference.

In August 2021, 175 female Westminster MPs pledged support for the 69 female Afghan MPs in a statement written by Harriet Harman MP, recognising their talent in Parliament and their role in inspiring other Muslim women.

Additionally, further to a debate in Parliament, 70 MPs signed a statement of support to religious minority faith and belief communities across Afghanistan, written by Rehman Chishti MP. This shows that the issue of human rights and women’s empowerment is of crucial interest to UK parliamentarians.

Six months on from the fall of Kabul, we must now judge the Taliban on their treatment of women and girls in all sectors of society. The international community has the financial leverage to ensure that the Taliban are held to their word on female rights in Afghanistan, in line with Islam, and the role that Muslim women have played around the world, including leading majority-Muslim states.

This lever must be used to help facilitate concrete change on the ground in Afghanistan to ensure that the rights of women and girls are upheld, along with the other lever: state recognition.

Imran Mulla: Religious freedom – and why French assimilation fails while British multiculturalism works

10 Jan

Imran Mulla is a student of history at Jesus College, Cambridge. He lives in Leicester.

Éric Zemmour, the most controversial candidate for the French presidency, believes that France is veering towards civil war.

The reason? Its growing Muslim population, too distinctive from the white majority for comfort. “Our elites have made the mistake, for the last 30 or 40 years,” Zemmour proclaimed in a recent interview with UnHerd, “of adopting the British method, which consists of excessive respect for the culture of origin, trying to allow different cultures to coexist side by side”. He paused, before adding pointedly, ‘I am against that.’

Zemmour’s polemic bears little resemblance to reality; France has never had anything like British multiculturalism. The French government refuses to so much as collect data based on religion, whereas here the word ‘multiculturalism’ denotes our politicians speaking of ‘communities’, visiting minority community centres and places of worship, and ritually giving well-wishes on different religious festivals.

It represents a heterogeneity unimaginable in France, where religion is forced out of the public sphere – thus French schoolgirls are unable to wear the headscarf, the Interior Minister is aghast at the spectacle of halal meat in supermarkets, and Muslim women are banned from covering their faces for religious reasons (though not for fear of the Coronavirus). The French have quite obviously not imitated the British method.

Accuracy aside, though, Zemmour’s point was that France has thus far been too permissive in its attitude to Muslim immigrants and French Muslim citizens. He believes that the growing tradition of Islam must be privatised, de-politicised and modernised – just as other religions have been.

His position is rooted in the legacy of the French Revolution, which was animated by an anti-clerical fervour that saw the forceful subjugation of the Catholic clergy and a requirement for French Jews to renounce the mosaic law. A century later, the Law of 1905 established laïcité by decisively separating church from state.

But France’s colonial exploits in Africa encouraged the migration of colonised Muslims to the metropole – France is now home to a significant Muslim minority. Zemmour, himself a descendant of Algerian Jews, celebrates France’s colonial history, yet exploits fears over its legacy: ethnic and religious diversity in France.

French elites have concealed the ‘reality of our replacement’, he declares ominously in his campaign announcement address, echoing the conspiracy theory of the esoteric fascist, Renaud Camus.

So, what is to be done? Firstly, Zemmour believes, immigration must be halted – but he also wishes to “re-establish French-style assimilation”: immigrants must be forced to “appropriate French history, customs, habits and traditions” (although the French in North Africa made no effort even at integration, let alone assimilation).

We in Britain should respond to Zemmour’s attack on British multiculturalism by standing up for ourselves; we have handled diversity far better than our neighbour.

For one thing, Britain’s secularism lacks the aversion to visible religion that defines French laïcité. Anglicanism is our state religion, the Queen is head of the Church, and all state schools are required to hold an act of communal worship everyday. Britain’s Christian heritage is embedded into our political system; this is largely why we have responded with far less hysteria than France to the growth of new religious communities on our shores.

Many British conservatives, of course, see multiculturalism as having eroded a sense of national identity. But the picture is more complicated than that. Consider the elderly white man in Bradford or Leicester who bemoans the fact that he does not recognise his neighbours, that the music on the radio is American, that his grandchildren hold values entirely different from his own, and that the local church is being used as a mosque.

He is reacting to globalisation, social atomisation, the decline of Christianity, and a host of other symptoms of ‘liquid modernity’. These are not the fault of immigrants or their descendants. That this country is ethnically and religiously diverse is fitting considering our history: Britain first became multicultural when it formed an empire, and today most British non-whites trace their ancestry to the colonies. Our first significant Muslim communities were formed from the arrival in the 1950s and ‘60s of migrants from former British India, encouraged to migrate by the British government.

Nor has our multiculturalism been any sort of disaster; Muslims here identify even more strongly with Britain than the population at large, and there is a positive correlation between British identification and higher religiosity. Islamic faith schools top the national charts in performance, with Muslim girls usually achieving higher than boys. Religious segregation, meanwhile, has consistently been declining, and Muslims are more likely than Brits in general to live in ethnically mixed areas.

Myths abound about Muslims, but these are generally false: ‘no-go zones’ for non-Muslims are non-existent, despite being believed in by almost half of Conservative Party members. Contrary to popular belief, moreover, Muslim and Pakistani-heritage men have no disproportionate presence in grooming gangs, as a two-year Home Office study concluded.

Nor does Muslim terrorism reflect a general problem with Muslims any more than far-right terrorism reflects a problem with white people (London’s Muslims, for example, are even less likely than the population at large to condone violence against civilians).

Integration, overall, is proceeding smoothly; the culture found among, say, Birmingham’s Pakistani-origin Muslim youth has little in common with youth culture in Pakistan.

The most self-segregating people in British society are the wealthiest. They move in their own social circles and maintain elite private schools such as Eton – culturally, they are removed from much of the country. But we do not attempt to suppress their way of life in the name of egalitarianism (although some activists would have us try), because to do so would be authoritarian. Britishness, traditionally understood, has always been a broad umbrella.

This is not to say that there are no problems with multiculturalism – there are, and this should be considered in light of the fact that half of British Muslims live in poverty. There is also pervasive discrimination: Muslims face significant penalties in the labour market (as evidenced by all the available data) and are singled out for digital strip searches at the airport.

But, overall, British multiculturalism has been a relative success. This is the irony of Zemmour’s rhetoric: the French situation, by contrast, is disastrous. While Muslims here feel comfortably British in the understanding that Britishness allows for the expression of different religious values and the intermingling of cultural practices, French Muslims are trapped in a zero-sum game: they must conceal their religious convictions to be respectable citizens.

But Zemmour’s comparison of the two countries should encourage us Brits to look in the mirror. We face an attack on our traditional multiculturalism from our own government, which is currently promoting a ‘muscular liberalism’ compelling people to either accept ‘British’ (read: liberal) values or be labelled an extremist.

This un-British attempt to coerce fealty to an ideology represents a departure from Lockean liberalism and multiculturalism. Religious liberty is being eroded – we now face the possibility of the Prevent ‘counter-extremism’ programme, which has proved extraordinarily ineffective at combating violence while targeting expressions of Islamic practice and suppressing Muslim free speech, being extended into the private sphere.

Religious institutions may be compelled to report people suspected of ‘extremism’ (defined by the government as vocal or active opposition to British values) to the authorities. This would mean the wholesale securitisation of religion – something one would expect to see in France, but not Britain. Old-fashioned multiculturalism might be messy and flawed, but it is less authoritarian than the assimilationist model currently being ramped up.

The spectacle of French politics, where every significant presidential candidate has an assimilationist stance towards French Muslims, should encourage us to assert ourselves in support of the British multiculturalism which Zemmour disdains and which is currently being threatened. We are not like France, and it should stay that way. Will Britain really be enriched by replacing multiculturalism in all its vibrancy and complexity with a secular monoculture?

This is Zemmour’s aim for the French – and the closer you look, the more incoherent his vision appears. France is ‘the country of the Notre Dame,’ he declares bombastically in his campaign announcement video, not considering the irony that the Virgin Mary, whose image adorns the cathedral’s stained-glass windows, would today be unable to step foot inside a French school; headscarves are banned. Zemmour also adulates the French Revolution’s legacy of liberté, but there is an obvious contradiction here: ‘freeing’ French Muslims from their religion requires extreme coercion, from deploying immensely authoritarian surveillance methods to banning women from putting on too many clothes.

Zemmour is right about one thing: the situation in France is certainly tragic. We in Britain should be thankful for what we have, and wary of allowing it to be lost.

Interview with Tobias Ellwood: Johnson lacks “serious expertise, people with political acumen, over in the Number 10 machine”

11 Nov

Boris Johnson does not have the advisers he needs at Number 10, has exposed himself to comparison with the Hungarian leader, Viktor Orban, and is “losing sight of what parliamentarians and the Conservative Party would naturally do and see as right to do”.

These are among the lessons drawn by Tobias Ellwood, Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, from last week’s debacle on Commons Standards, when Tory MPs were whipped to vote in support of a course of action which only hours later the Government abandoned.

Ellwood, who abstained in that vote, has sat for Bournemouth East since 2005. He protests at the sacking of Robert Buckland in the last Cabinet reshuffle, and laments that the Government is failing to use the talents of the 2019 intake of Conservative MPs, and indeed has no idea how to set about doing so.

As a specialist in international relations, Ellwood is deeply worried by the lack of resolve shown by the United States in Afghanistan, and by the West’s lack of strategy in the face of Russia and China, but sees opportunities for British leadership.

He warns against allowing the argument over the Northern Ireland Protocol to become a running sore which prevents the much needed defence co-operation between Britain and France:

“There’s a 1930s feel to the world. Weaker international institutions, countries weaponising, the authoritarianism on the Right, lack of western leadership.”

ConHome: “In your Sun on Sunday piece last weekend you wrote,

‘the Government thought it acceptable to overrule the punishment [of Owen Paterson] and rewrite the rules. If this happened in Poland or Hungary, we would not be surprised. But in Britain?’

“Orban is corrupting Hungarian government and society. Is that an apt comparison to make about Boris Johnson and the Government?”

Ellwood: “It’s a warning. It’s to say, ‘Is this who we want to be compared to?’ That itself can’t be a good thing. In that article I mention a couple of times ‘the mother of Parliaments’, how proud we are of the journey we’ve taken over centuries.

“But that journey of advancement has actually almost stopped. We’ve refused to look at further ways we can continue that journey on.”

ConHome: “What are the most dangerous things Number 10 is doing?”

Ellwood: “It’s losing sight of what parliamentarians and the Conservative Party would naturally do and see as right to do. Clearly there was something wrong with this decision. You yourself pointed that out.

“So our loyalty was tested, 250 of my colleagues actually held their noses and walked through those lobbies because they somehow assumed it was in the interests of the party, and clearly it wasn’t.

“So two questions there. Why, first of all, did the executive think they could do this?

“And secondly why weren’t more of my colleagues willing to stand up and say ‘No, this is actually wrong’?

“To give them their due, I can’t actually find a single Member of Parliament who did not express views to the Whips’ Office that this was completely wrong.

“So somehow something went wrong with the reporting mechanism to Number 10, to say ‘Don’t pursue this route’.”

ConHome: “This is part of a wider pattern?”

Ellwood: “That’s the concern I have. It’s part of a wider pattern, of us veering away from sound policy, of explaining to the British people what needs to happen, the difficult decisions.

“And two great examples where you could win over the public, actually I can think of three.

“Firstly to do with Trump and Afghanistan. Much easier to say ‘Bring troops home’ – that’s a vote winner – rather than explaining to the American people why keeping 2,500 troops there is actually in our longer-term interest strategically.

“Bringing troops home shows success, job done. Clearly it’s more complicated to explain to the electorate that keeping troops there, in that neck of the woods, between Russia, Iran, China, not a bad bit of real estate to keep control of, it will take time though, it’s going to take much more patience than we’re currently showing at the moment.

“That’s one example. The other one is DfID, the cuts in that. You explain to the British people, as has been done since that cut was made, that actually we lose leverage, we get replaced by Russia and China with their projects, or extremism then fills in, because of us pulling out.

“The British people would actually say, ‘Well, that’s wisely spent.’ But if you sell to the British people, ‘We’re going to take that money and we’re going to slide it to Red Wall seats,’ well which is going to win?

“Now ultimately the needle has moved on the support for DfID funding, because it’s actually part of our DNA, it’s what we do on the international stage.

“It’s a wiser, more cognitive approach to taking the electorate with you. It’s more complicated, it’s more taxing, it’s not simple, it’s not banner bumper stickers or banner headlines, but it’s what we should be doing.”

ConHome: “You also wrote that ‘at every reshuffle, MPs who have become experts in their fields are demoted or sidelined in favour of the uber-loyal.’ Who were you thinking of?”

Ellwood: “I mentioned Robert Buckland. Everybody was astonished by this decision. Everybody expected him to become potentially Home Secretary or certainly to stay in Cabinet.

“Go back to balance if you like of the spectrum within our party, he’s seen as a moderate, a sound voice, willing not just to toe the party line but occasionally to add another dimension to it.

“That’s just one of many examples. I’ll just mention another. A Cabinet member, now doing brilliantly, but it took 11 years to get there. What a lot of patience you have to go through. How many sycophantic, underarm-bowling questions do you have to ask?

“What often happens is that people lose patience with the machine itself.”

ConHome: “Are we not recruiting enough high-grade candidates? Because this will put good people off.”

Ellwood: “It will put good people off. I won’t make a judgment about not recruiting them, because I think we’ve got some really good talent on our backbenches.

“But they’re not utilised. And the difference between this new intake that’s just come in, particularly as we suddenly got all these Red Wall seats, so these are people who are running businesses, they’re doing, you know, exciting things.

“If they are not utilised, you know, they’ve come in to be part of politics, to represent their constituents, but to affect the political agenda.

“And if all they’re doing for years is just ask simplistic questions which are just handed out by the Whips’ Office, that’s not really utilising their strengths that they bring to the Chamber.

“So what I’m suggesting is this, which I think there would be a lot of appetite for. You come in and you’re invited to suggest a spectrum of interest for your career.

“It might be local government, it might be health and social services, it might be education, it might be science, it could be in my case international affairs.

“And within that spectrum there are things that you could do. Not necessarily being a minister, but certainly things which will allow you to advance and progress with an interest, and to influence policy.

“But no. There is no HR. There is no managing of anybody’s career whatsoever.

“So you end up, and this leads into the very topical debate at the moment, with people finding outside interests, and that also affects how this place looks.”

ConHome: “Were you thinking of yourself? You’re an expert in your field, you were a minister, you’re now not a minister.”

Ellwood: “No, not at all, because being on a committee is another great way in which you can affect the agenda, hold Government to account, and come up with ideas.

“And certainly being the chair of that. If you are a round peg in a round hole you are very, very lucky indeed.”

ConHome: “Can Johnson revive his Government, though. He’s just had a reshuffle. But can he revive it without sweeping changes in his team, both his team in Cabinet and in Downing Street, to take more account of what the backbenchers are now thinking and saying?”

Ellwood: “I think we do lack some serious expertise, people with political acumen, over in the Number 10 machine. It’s a tough gig, but you need to have your political antennae about what does and doesn’t work.

“Now on the actual team of the reshuffle, it’s that wider picture of making sure you take advantage of the skill sets that you actually have.”

ConHome: “Fundamentally, do you have confidence in Boris Johnson’s leadership?”

Ellwood: “I worked for Boris Johnson in the FCO, and he brings an element of energy and vibrancy to the party which I’ve not seen for a long time.

“And in today’s cut and thrust of 24-hour news that’s actually important, that he’s actually inspired a lot of people to vote Conservative, in a way that many other leaders have actually failed to do.

“But you need to be supported then by genuine strategy, when it comes to policy formation. For me there’s a gap in the market in the area I’m particularly interested in. What is Britain’s place in the world? What does global Britain mean?

“There is a leadership role, I think, that the world is calling out for.

“He needs the team around him to support the energy he provides.”

ConHome: “After David Amess was murdered, you said that MPs should pause holding face to face surgeries. Do you think that pause should now cease, and if not, when should it cease?”

Ellwood: “I look from a security and defence perspective. Clearly the situation has changed, we can reassess, and everybody has taken stock of their own situation, so it’s right that we can then downgrade or reassess the situation.”

ConHome: “You’ve been a soldier, and soldiers have to confront danger and death, but you’ve had two very personal encounters with it.

“You wrote last weekend about shaking hands with the Taliban, who were harbouring the group who killed your brother. What effect did his murder have on the way you think about security?”

Ellwood: “I don’t go past a barrier now outside the gates here without thinking about the wider security environment. I think the sadness of the 9/11 anniversary with all those documentaries we saw again – we are no better at tackling extremism, if we’re honest about it.

“We’re no better at dealing with the ideology that encourages somebody to put on a suicide vest to kill themselves, to kill westerners in the belief that they’re going to be rewarded with a place in paradise.

“And until we deal with that – and that’s not for us so much to deal with the interpretation of the Koran, that’s actually a wider theological challenge for the Islamic world to deal with too, but until we’ve done that then I’m afraid ISIS-K, Boko Haram, Al-Shabab, Al-Qaeda, they will continue to be able to recruit.”

ConHome: “You also fought to save the life of PC Palmer.”

Ellwood: “That happened in 2017, it was a reminder again. Bali was 2002, 9/11 2001, David Amess 2021. There is a correlation between all those events, which link myself and indeed other people in our community together, and shows you what an enormous challenge still exists.

“We’ve now absented ourselves from Afghanistan, handing the country back to the very insurgents that we went in to defeat. When I met the Taliban it was very, very clear why they are trying to still pursue a ruthless, quite a tough interpretation of Sharia law, because if they didn’t they would actually haemorrhage more people to ISIS-K.”

ConHome: “You’re an interventionist, both for security reasons and for moral reasons: you’re helping to spread and sustain liberal democratic values by intervening.

“Do you feel that you’re part of a beleaguered minority now – that the trend here in Britain as in America has been to withdraw, to try to cut ourselves off from the rest of the world?”

Ellwood: “We’re feeling very, very bruised. It’s been provoked by Covid as well, our retreat from global exposure, becoming more isolated, more protectionist.

“Populism also is on the rise – why should we have a responsibility for what’s going on abroad? Let’s look after ourselves. Times are tough here.

“From where I sit, we’ve got a bumpy decade ahead. There’s a 1930s feel to the world. Weaker international institutions, countries weaponising, the authoritarianism on the Right, lack of western leadership.

“On top of that you’ve got three other factors. Climate change, which is going to bring its own scale of problems. Biblical movements of people that are displaced.

“Advances in technology that then allow non-state actors to incite real harm onto communities. And the rise of extremism.

“And if Russia wants to harm Britain, it can just play with the gas taps and watch the prices ripple through and cause problems.

“Look how that one ship caught in the Suez Canal caused problems across the world. I tried to get my lawn mower repaired the other day, and they couldn’t get the parts. They said, ‘You take your choice, it’s either Covid, Brexit or it’s that Suez Canal blockage.’

“How easy it is to cause harm to economies using non-military means.

“And there’s a gap in the market for international leadership. We’ve seen America retreat slightly, give up essentially in Afghanistan. This was the biggest military alliance arguably ever formed and we were defeated by an insurgency armed with AK-47s and RPGs, and we just decided to go home.

“So where is America’s commitment? If they’re not going to step up, we had to do it a couple of times in the last century. Different circumstances, I recognise that.”

ConHome: “What about NATO?”

Ellwood: “I was in Norfolk, Virginia only two weeks ago, headquarters for NATO in the US, scratching their heads, what is their purpose?

“We don’t do out of area operations any more. So there is a purpose, you go to Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, they’ll say absolutely, NATO is critical. NATO itself will retreat to what it knows best, dealing with the old Cold War-esque challenges.

“Putin has a strategy. President Xi has a clear strategy on the international stage. The West lacks one. We don’t have a strategy. We have an attitude towards China, towards Russia, but we don’t have a strategy.

“And again, this is Britain, going back to Boris Johnson and what Britain can actually do, this is where we normally have an insight and an understanding, a means, a desire to help shape the world.”

ConHome: “Our relationship with France is currently extremely bad. We and the French are the two military powers in Europe. How bad is it and what should we do about it?”

Ellwood: “So this is a great example of us enjoying an old rivalry that goes back centuries. What we forget is that as we fail to reconcile our differences with continental Europe, our adversaries are enjoying this blue-on-blue, which is essentially what it is.

“We and the French are not working together to recognise what Russia is doing in the Arctic, what China is doing in the South China Sea, and AUKUS was a great illustration of how things could have been done better.

“Absolutely right for Australia to move from diesel electric to something better, you’re offered a Ford Focus and suddenly you see a Ferrari, which one are you going to take?

“You’re going to go for the upgrade nuclear deal, nuclear powered, so France should accept that. But if you want a strategy to deal with the South China Sea, finally standing up to what they’re doing in that neck of the woods, which is pretty concerning, then include Japan, India, include the United States, Britain and France, and that’s the quad that should be invited, allowing AUKUS to be a procurement process.”

ConHome: “If we’re going to have a better relationship with the French, is that really consistent, given the French view of themselves as one of the guardians of the integrity of the EU, with moving Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol?”

Ellwood: “You then move into a very awkward space. This was always going to be a problem. I served in Northern Ireland and it’s not until you go there that you realise how critical trade of the entire island is in keeping the peace and helping both economies.

“We need to make sure we solve this, because it’s turning into a sore, which is then used by other countries to prevent us drawing a line and finally moving forward and advancing, where we don’t then say I’m a Brexiteer or I’m this, but this is the norm.

“We are still in transition, I’m afraid. And as long as that is the case, it will poison discussion on other, bigger issues, such as our reflections on international security that we need to be having with our continental partners.”

Emily Carver: The individual no longer seems to count in our identity-obsessed society

10 Nov

Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

New research from the Nuffield Trust, an independent health think tank, has claimed that inequality among NHS staff members of different races and religions “is getting worse”. 

Its study Attracting, Supporting and Retaining a Diverse NHS Workforce, commissioned by NHS Employers, part of the NHS Confederation, highlights statistical disparities in the experiences and professional outcomes of staff by group, including along the lines of gender, religion, and ethnicity. 

According to data from last year’s NHS staff survey, Muslim staff are more than twice as likely to report experiencing discrimination than staff of no religion, and those who prefer to self-describe their gender are twice as likely to report experiencing discrimination as male or female staff. 

In terms of professional advancement, male nurses were found to be twice as likely to progress up two pay bands than female nurses; ethnic minority staff 27 per cent less likely than white staff to be “very senior managers”; and candidates with Bangladeshi ethnicity were found, on average, to be half as likely to be appointed from an NHS shortlist than a white British person. Where there has been an increase in representation of a minority group, this is described as an “improvement”.  

Of course, discrimination and bullying in the workplace should be seriously investigated, addressed, and dealt with swiftly. But what’s troubling is the implication that runs through the report that diversity is an end goal in and of itself, and that any discrepancy is likely a result of discrimination, bias or a lack of commitment to diversity and inclusion. Its authors claim that “despite considerable effort and countless initiatives, inequality between NHS staff groups is persisting or even getting worse ­– and the health service does not have the tools to address this”.

In the same way that much of the analysis on gender pay gap reporting blames sexism for any discrepancies in earnings between men and women, the Nuffield Trust’s report assumes that any disparity between identity groups is down to discrimination – or at least provides little acknowledgement that there may be other factors at play. 

The reader is clearly meant to believe that any disparities between groups, be it in terms of progressing up pay bands, or gaining a position in senior management, must be due to discrimination.  

What’s concerning is how this translates into action. Commenting on the report, Danny Mortimer, Chief Executive of NHS Employers said, “there’s an absolute commitment from our members to finally address the inequities in our workplaces”, and that the report “reminds us that far more urgency and impact is needed in every part of the NHS”. 

Pat Cullen, The Royal College of Nursing Chief Executive, responded by saying that the NHS leadership has “no alternative but to act on the findings” of the report, and that lack of inclusion and diversity can’t be pushed down the list of priorities any longer. This is ironic, considering the recent exposure of just how much we’re spending on NHS Diversity and Inclusion officers every year.

Mortimer says that we must address inequities. But what does this actually mean? What actions are they advocating to ensure there are no such inequities? Does this mean that unless there is parity between groups, that the NHS has failed? And why is this even desirable? Should equality of outcome among staff now be the priority, in an organisation that is creaking at the seams? Surely, the last thing we need is more of our money spent on diversity and inclusion managers. 

But judging by the proposals made by the Nuffield Trust, this is exactly what its authors want. The report recommends that NHS England regularly provides information to employers on their ‘relative and absolute performance’ on equality and diversity. This means continuous data gathering on age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation, as well as socioeconomic status, national origin and carer status. All to be supported by “continuous training” for NHS ‘diversity leads’.

Applying to jobs in the public sector and parts of the private sector has become a diversity and inclusion minefield. Demands to fill in your ethnicity, gender, even sexuality are commonplace, while in parts of the civil service they no longer want to see your academic background. Increasingly, it feels as though job ads may as well just put at the top of the job ad notice: “white, heterosexual, able-bodied men need not apply”. 

Diversity and inclusion may be dressed up in the language of equality, progress and advancement but it leads to quite the reverse. It’s lunacy that it has to be said but individuals should be judged as just that, individuals, not by their group identity or by their supposed ‘privileges’.

An institution like the NHS should focus on meritocracy, rather than engaging in pursuits that look suspiciously like social engineering. Come down hard on genuine accusations of discrimination, but whether a nurse is black or white should be of little consequence. 

Orban says he’s defending Christian civilisation. His opponents say he’s subverting Hungary’s democracy.

24 Sep

Will the European Union hold together? Or is Western Europe going one way and Central Europe another?

Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary, is perhaps the most eloquent exponent of, as he put it in a recent lecture, “a Central European cultural, intellectual and political entity that is growing more and more different from Western Europe”.

Orban has many critics, but his lecture was directed against one in particular, Timothy Garton Ash, Professor of European Studies at Oxford.

There was a time when they were on the same side, for as Orban says:

“The professor has an excellent knowledge of Central Europe and used to inspire many of us during our years of resistance against communism and the Soviet occupation, in the late 1980s.

“What’s more, members of the current Hungarian political leadership had the chance to personally attend his lectures, which took a stance for freedom, at the University of Oxford.”

Orban, born in 1963, sprang to fame in Hungary in June 1989 by giving a speech demanding the withdrawal of Soviet troops and the holding of free elections, after which he studied for a few months at Pembroke College, Oxford, on a scholarship awarded by the Soros Foundation.

He returned home in January 1990, was elected to the National Assembly, became the leader of Fidesz, which he led in a national conservative direction, and served as Prime Minister from 1998-2002 and again since 2010.

Garton Ash has become, as in this interview with Euronews on 8th September, an unsparing critic of Orban:

“we do have European Union values which are being massively violated in countries like Hungary and Poland, and I think we need to stand up for those values…

“Viktor Orban is having his cake and eating it. He’s winning elections by saying ‘Stop Brussels’, campaigning against the European Union, but taking billions of European taxpayers’ money.

“Therefore the key to an effective response is to establish a linkage between the Europe of values and the Europe of money. And that’s what the European Union has so far failed to do…

“It is absolutely outrageous that you have a member state of the European Union which in my view is no longer a democracy, which has destroyed media freedom, which doesn’t have fair elections, free but not fair elections, which has kicked out the best university in central Europe, which has indulged in outrageously xenophobic propaganda, the treatment of migrants and so on, which is still receiving billions of euros in the EU funds, that is an outrageous state of affairs.”

When asked whether Orban’s illiberalism is a real threat to the EU, Garton Ash replied:

“Without question… One has to go back a long way to find a period when a Hungarian leader was so important in European history…

“And that is because he has become the symbolic leader of the other Europe, the conservative, anti-liberal, ethnic nationalist, Christian, socially conservative Europe.

“And Matteo Salvini, Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage, Geert Wilders, are all with him.

“So he represents not just one medium-sized member state of the European Union, he represents a very important tendency in the entire European Union.”

Orban maintains that on the contrary, his conservatism is “a blessing for the European Union and even Western Europe”, because the West, he contends in his lecture, has lost the convictions which lay behind its success:

“I understood that beyond and behind all the technical equipment, novel institutions and scientific discoveries, there was also the West’s sense of its exceptionalism and mission, which gave it inspiration and confidence. The conviction that Western man has a mission in the world and with the world, and must act in order to accomplish that mission.

“Naturally, we do know that the Western mission has intellectual and spiritual foundations that should be sought in Christianity. ‘Go, and make disciples of all nations’, Matthew says. This mentality, even if in a changed form, survived in the West also during the Enlightenment, the periods of the humanist ideal of man, human rights and the discoveries of modern science.

“During a period of unquestionable development and brilliant success – despite evident mistakes, blunders and grave shortcomings – the conviction that the overall balance of the mission of Western civilisation and the West was fundamentally positive held for a long time.

“However, something had changed by the beginning of the 21st century. And this happened just at a time when the West, led by America and Britain, had scored its most brilliant victory, having won the Cold War…

“It no longer seeks meaning in its own history; instead, it keeps saying that it will end soon. It re-interprets or deletes entire chapters of its history, finding them shameful and so to be cancelled, and in the meantime, it is unable to replace them with anything else. And those who are not paralysed, but in fact very much active, are such deconstructive, negative forces that they would be better off paralysed…

“the concept of open society has deprived the West of its faith in its own values and historical mission, and with this now – at the time of the Muslim flood and the rise of Asia – it is preventing the West from setting its own mission against the rising intellectual and political power centres…”

Orban contends that in Brussels, and the West generally, “a sense of mission shared by a political community, a nation is now unacceptable, even suspicious.” Hungary, on the other hand, still has that sense of mission: hence Budapest’s disputes with Brussels.

To Garton Ash, speaking on Tuesday to ConHome, Orban’s essay amounts to “a brilliant exercise in ideological distraction”: Orban says “let’s have a really interesting intellectual conversation about the future of western civilisation”, and the disreputable methods by which Orban stays in power are forgotten.

ConHome suggested two questions arise: one is whether Orban himself is a reputable person, the other is whether it is permissible for anyone, no matter how reputable, to hold Orban’s views.

Garton Ash replied:

“You can be a Conservative nationalist party continuing to govern in a country which is still an excellent liberal democracy – we live in one.”

Orban, he went on, has instead subverted liberal democracy, by gerrymandering, by pay-offs to friendly oligarchs, by getting the media under control: “That’s the problem, that’s why I’m so angry.”

And Orban then distracts attention from his destruction of liberal democracy by reframing the whole battle as an ideological clash, so that people say “maybe I agree with him about immigration” or “maybe I agree with him about Islam”.

Garton Ash went on to say that “characterising Muslims as invaders” (as Orban has done) “is in my view beyond the pale”, and that “some of the election propaganda against Soros is borderline anti-semitic”.

He urged British Conservatives to be cautious about embracing Orban: “It’s the difference between Farage and Johnson.”

And he pointed out that while Orban attacks Brussels, he also accepts very large sums from Brussels: “Viktor Orban is a master of cakeism.”

For a long time Orban managed to keep Hungarian MEPs in the European People’s Party in Brussels, before at length they were eased out of it.

David Cameron, one may note, promised that British MEPs would leave the EPP, and at length kept that promise. British Euroscepticism, leading to Brexit, is in some ways more straightforward than Hungarian and Polish Euroscepticism.

In Hungary and Poland, with their recent history of Soviet occupation, there are still large majorities in favour of EU membership.

Orban wins elections by playing the nationalist card, but one should not imagine that this card does not exist in Western Europe. The EU is paralysed by the fear that taking the great leap to becoming a federal state comparable to the USA  would provoke a nationalist backlash in most if not all of the member states, including Germany and France.

The German Constitutional Court stands as the most reputable though so far reticent opponent of a federal Europe. Alternative for Germany, founded in 2013 by learned men opposed to the policies required to prop up the euro but soon degenerating into a xenophobic movement, is one of the least reputable opponents.

It is now 21 years since Larry Siedentop pointed out, in Democracy in Europe, that no Madison, Hamilton and Jay have stepped forward to compose Europe’s version of The Federalist Papers.

The euro remains a currency unbacked by a government. Perhaps under the pressure of some great crisis, surmounted by leaders who rise to the occasion, that government will be conjured into existence.

But in the meantime, one cannot help being struck by the persistence of the nation state as the fundamental political reality. Nations may be good or bad, reputable or disreputable, democratic or authoritarian.

Perhaps the ultimate function of the EU, towards which Garton Ash points the way, will be to keep its members democratic. But what an opportunity that offers to demagogues to blame the nation’s woes on Brussels.

Chris Newton: The Government’s Free Speech Bill won’t fix universities if viewpoint diversity isn’t addressed too

21 Sep

Dr Chris Newton is a military historian and a former defence policy adviser in the Conservative Research Department.

As universities start a new academic year, the Government’s Higher Education (Free Speech) Bill is going through Parliament. The bill strengthens and protects university freedom of speech and is desperately needed.

University cancel culture” is not just an American phenomenon (and Peter Boghossian’s recent resignation letter to Portland State University indicates it’s still a major problem there). One needn’t go back far to find examples of academics and students in the UK having their freedom of speech threatened as well.

Just this month, the media reported that the University of Bristol dropped Professor Steven Greer’s module on Islam and the Far East. This is despite Greer being cleared by a five-month investigation into complaints about his alleged views on Islam.

In Scotland, where the bill will not unfortunately apply, Neil Thin, a senior lecturer Edinburgh University who criticised the renaming of David Hume Tower, faced an investigation after students made unsubstantiated accusations against him. While the university dismissed the complaints, Thin has spoken about the “severe psychological and social damage that can be caused by…unnecessary punitive investigations”.

These are just a couple out of a whole litany of cases where academics have been subjected to event cancellations, petitions calling for their dismissal, or witch trial style disciplinary procedures.

Their views aren’t, on the whole, regarded as particularly controversial in the real world. Academics have been denounced for defending Brexit, arguing that British history contains good as well as bad aspects, and for saying that biological sex is scientific fact. These views have been met with cries of “xenophobe”, “racist“, or “transphobe, among other slurs.

Recent research indicates that there is a deeper cultural problem. A 2020 report from Policy Exchange found that 44 per cent of academics surveyed who identified as “fairly right” and 63 per cent of those who were “very right” stated that they worked in a hostile working climate. These concerns seem to be justified as only 54 per cent of academics indicated that they would feel comfortable sitting next to a Leave supporter at lunch.

The Free Speech Bill should at the very least prevent further noplatformings. Some have argued that universities will also have to create bureaucratic structures that will ensure legal compliance. The Free Speech Union will also keep defending its members and reminding universities of their legal obligations.

These are important developments, but Nadhim Zahawi, the new Education Secretary, should consider whether the bill as it stands is still a sticking plaster that only deals with the symptoms and not the root causes of the problem.

As has been pointed out by Policy Exchange and others, universities have been able to enforce an ideological orthodoxy because they are dominated by one side of the political spectrum. The Policy Exchange report found that under 20 per cent of academics voted for right-leaning parties in 2017 and 2019, while 75 per cent voted for either Labour, the Liberal Democrats, or the Greens. For all the preaching about “diversity and inclusion” that goes on in universities, political diversity is very much forgotten.

Fuelling the intolerance is also the growing influence of radicals. The past few years have witnessed the emergence of “critical theories” or “critical social justice”, once a fringe element, as a powerful force on campus, particularly in the humanities and social sciences.

Critical theories” include postcolonialism, critical race theory, and critical gender studies, and are descendants of Marxism and Postmodernism. They believe that Western societies are structurally unequal, and ethnic minorities, women, homosexuals, and transgender people are systemically oppressed.

There is no room for individual agency; power dynamics are structural and pre-determined by group identity. An ideology that believes that those who question their claims regarding systemic oppression are “complicit” in the discrimination is not exactly going to be open to alternative views.

There has been an increasing expectation from university diversity officers that the whole institution should reflect this new orthodoxy. This is reflected in initiatives such as “decolonising the curriculum”, which seems to be more interested in deleting fundamental content than genuinely making courses more diverse.

Leicester University proposed to ditch Geoffrey Chaucer and Beowulf from the English curriculum in favour of more modules about race and sexuality. Exeter University’s library requested that lecturers decolonise their reading lists, “look beyond traditional textbooks”, and embrace “grey literature” such as tweets. Musicologist Professor Paul Harper-Scott has just resigned from Royal Holloway in London due to the “dogmatic” nature of the decolonising agenda.

The new government guidance does prohibit the imposition of political agendas like “decolonising the curriculum” on staff, but there are potential ways around it. One way is to simply hire believers. Many lecturing job adverts now ask for specialists in critical theories, or for a commitment to the “decolonisingagenda.

The Policy Exchange report also indicates that there is potentially some political discrimination in hiring. 37 per cent of academics who voted Remain said they are likely to discriminate against a Brexiteer in job applications. Leavers face an 80 per cent chance of being discriminated against on a four-person panel.

Moreover, half would rank a grant application lower if it came from a right-wing perspective. There is little use of a Free Speech Bill if almost everyone already believes in the same set of ideas. What is needed are measures that will restore viewpoint diversity.

What can be done? Potential options include, first, the Office for Students monitoring recruitment and grant approval practices, as well as providing incentives to ensure fair play and a degree of balance. However, some may be uncomfortable with such a degree of state intervention.

A second approach is to create new higher education institutions explicitly committed to philosophical pluralism. A key problem, however, is that the barriers to entry are exorbitant. The Government could remove some of these barriers, for example allowing small start-up organisations to offer masters courses initially to get themselves established, before offering other degrees later on. It could also, as the Cieo think tank suggested, help set up new “free universities”.

The Free Speech Bill is a positive step in moving universities back in the right direction, but it is only a first step. What we really need is not just a Free Speech Bill, but a Free Speech and Viewpoint Diversity Bill.

Rehman Chisti: How mainstream Islamic teaching can help to hold the Taliban to account

19 Sep

Rehman Chishti is MP for Gillingham and Rainham, and previously served as the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief (2019-20).

The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban has raised serious questions about the rights of religious minorities, women, and others under its rule in Afghanistan – and its interpretation of Islam. As the Prime Minister has stated, we have to judge the Taliban by their actions, not their words.

As someone from a Muslim background, whose father, uncles, and grandfathers were Imams, religion and faith are a central part of my life. This was reflected during my service as the UK Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief, when I worked with colleagues to challenge the persecution of individuals based on their faith around the world.

In fact, faith is an integral part of many people’s lives across the globe, especially in the Middle East and Central and South Asia region. According to a Pew Research Center report, 84 per cent of the world’s population claim to identify themselves with a religion. In my view, if we don’t understand religion, including the abuse of religion, it will be even harder for us to understand the world.

Having had the honour of working as an adviser to Benazir Bhutto, the first female Prime Minister of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and first female head of state in the Islamic world, from 1999 to 2007, I know full well the strong and inspiring leadership role that women can play in Islamic nations. Islam has a rich tradition of inclusivity and respect which we must put forward and be proud of. In fact, we can see examples of strong female leadership in Islam throughout history, both in the distant and near past.

Muslim women have always played a crucial part in society as rulers, jurists, businesswomen, scholars, and benefactresses. Khadija, the Prophet Muhammad’s wife, was not just his companion, but a businesswoman in her own right; Aisha bint Abu Bakr, another of the Prophet’s wives, became a brilliant scholar and tutored many men.

We can also see this in Shifa Abdullah, one of Prophet Muhammad’s companions, who held a leadership role in supervising transactions in the marketplace of the Islamic empire’s first capital, Medina. Or with Rabi’ah Bint Mu’awwad, an eminent scholar and jurist of Islamic law in Medina who taught famous male scholars. And with Fatima al Fihri, a Muslim woman who founded, in 859, what is today the oldest continuously operating university in the world, al-Qarawiyyin University in Fez.

In more recent times, we can look of course to Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, but also to Bangladesh: this country, which has the world’s fourth-largest Muslim population, has had a female prime minister for nearly 28 of the past 30 years.

Khaleda Zia, the country’s first female Prime Minister, and Sheikh Hasina, the incumbent, have been two of the country’s pre-eminent political leaders, and have overwhelmingly held the office of Prime Minister since 1991.

In Europe, Atifete Jahjaga served as the first female President of Muslim-majority Kosovo, from 2011 to 2016. During her time in office, she fought against extremism and radicalisation, fostered reconciliation between religious and ethnic groups in the country, and hosted a key International Women’s Summit.

Of course, there are divergences on theology in Islam as there are in every faith. But as set out above, Islam’s past and present has at its heart the values of all other faiths: respect, inclusivity, and tolerance. It is this version of Islam that we must champion.

As I set out to the Prime Minister last week in the House of Commons, he should call on the 57-member state Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to ask Al-Azhar, a widely respected and leading institutional authority on moderate Islamic thought, to issue a statement confirming the rights of religious minorities and women in Islam.

The Taliban in Afghanistan claim that they will rule within the confines of Islam. A statement from an institution such as Al-Azhar will let the world judge whether the Taliban’s actions are indeed in line with the teachings of Islam.

In my recent meeting with the Kuwait Ambassador, Al-Duwaisan, the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps in London, who has served in his role for nearly 30 years, he was very supportive of calling on the OIC to ask Al-Azhar to set out the inclusive approach to the rights of women and religious minorities in Islam.

On this occasion therefore, when we have the support of Muslim-majority countries, I would urge the Government to move forward urgently with this proposal. Al-Azhar is a hugely well-respected institution across the globe, founded over 1000 years ago. Recently in 2019, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar jointly signed with Pope Francis a Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, and when the UN Security Council held a session to discuss anti-terrorism, al-Azhar was the only Islamic institution invited to take part.

If we are to build an inclusive society and world, we must all play our part and that means setting out the true virtues and values of our faiths.