How the Conservative Party declared a cold war on Islam
During the first two decades of the 21st century, the British Conservative Party mutated. I watched this happen first-hand. When I arrived at Westminster as a reporter in 1992, the Conservative Party could boast that it was the most successful and enduring political organisation in the Western world, having been a frequent party of government ever since its conception in the early 19th century. Caution, scepticism and pragmatism were the secret to its success. The party supported the British welfare state and membership of the European Union, though in neither case with much enthusiasm.
This type of conservatism slowly died, or at any rate went into abeyance, after the general election calamity of 1997. By the turn of the century, the Conservative Party appeared to have run out of steam. This reflected puzzling changes in society that it couldn’t cope with. Above all, it was suffering a collapse in its membership base. After the Second World War, the party could boast 2.8 million members, or approximately one in ten of the British adult voting population. By the time David Cameron became prime minister in 2010, party membership had collapsed to less than 200,000. This meant that the party had lost much of its connection to civil society and was increasingly controlled by donors and special interest groups, a process which was accepted and even welcomed by Cameron and the clique that surrounded him.
Cameron and his allies modelled themselves not on the traditional Tory leadership, but on Tony Blair and his fellow New Labour modernisers who had positioned themselves in opposition to the traditional Labour Party. Cameron’s chief strategist and Chancellor, George Osborne, boasted to his friends “how easily we have taken over the party”.
This state of affairs was hidden, in part because of David Cameron. Educated at Eton and married into the landed aristocracy, he had the hallmarks of an old-fashioned establishment grandee. This background was not misleading and many of David Cameron’s instincts were Tory. But he was simultaneously – thanks to one of those paradoxes which are admittedly entirely characteristic of the British governing class – a member of a fluid international and financial elite.
It’s helpful to compare the young David Cameron to the emergent George W Bush. Before he entered the White House, Bush rarely seemed troubled by thoughts about anything much. This may have been one of the reasons the US electorate warmed to him. Once in office, however, he was quickly captured by a clique led by his vice president Dick Cheney. It was the same with Cameron. His chief strategist, George Osborne, and his ideologist, Michael Gove, intellectually dominated the young Tory leader. Their views came from the right wing of the Republican Party; in terms of power politics, this was logical. New Labour was dominant in the UK, while left-wing parties were ascendant in Europe. So it made sense for ambitious young Conservatives like Osborne and Gove to seek to emulate Republican success in the US.
Political journalists labelled the Osborne Tories as "modernisers’" It is true they were young, metropolitan, well connected and (for a while) fashionable. But this label did not tell the full story. These young Tories had become adherents to a new and influential worldview: neo- conservatism. This is a term which needs to be treated with caution because it sounds as if it is an up-to-date way of talking about conservatism. It is actually nothing of the sort. It is more accurate to think of neo-conservatism as the opposite of conservatism.
Traditional conservatives are suspicious of change. They like long-established ways of doing business and ancient institutions, which they view as embodying wisdom. They hold a pessimistic view of human attempts to influence world events, which makes them sceptical of dramatic or sweeping reform. Neo-conservatives, on the other hand, seek to transform the world. They believe human nature is malleable and can be created afresh. This optimistic view explains their disastrous belief that they can export their democratic ideals into foreign lands.
David Cameron evolved from traditional Tory to revolutionary neo-conservative over the course of his leadership. In his early years as Conservative leader, he worked closely with Muslims, took a generally optimistic view of Islam and spoke up for Muslim causes. He saw this as part of the modernising project. He claimed that the Israeli blockade had turned the Gaza Strip into a "prison camp’". His foreign affairs spokesman William Hague also criticised the Israeli attack on Lebanon in 2006 as "disproportionate", arousing Israeli fury.
Cameron identified Sayeeda Warsi, a Muslim woman then in her mid-thirties who had unsuccessfully fought the Dewsbury seat in the 2005 general election, as a new face for his Conservative Party. He offered her a peerage and a place in his Shadow Cabinet. What’s more, he gave her the sensitive role of shadow minister for community cohesion, which had responsibility for relations with Muslims and other minority groups.
These young Tories had become adherents to a new and influential worldview: neo- conservatism
The second of five daughters to Pakistani immigrant parents, Warsi had studied at Leeds University and qualified as a solicitor. She also helped run the family business, a furniture factory in Yorkshire. In due course, she was to be given a job as joint chairman of the party. For a few years, the entrepreneurial and family-minded Warsi appeared to be the future of Muslims in David Cameron’s Conservative Party. But not for long, and the story of Warsi’s downfall is instructive.
In 2007, two years after becoming leader of the party and on the advice of Warsi, Cameron stayed for a week with a Muslim family. This involved entering a mosque, something that, it seems, he had never done before. It was one of only a handful of times that he would do so in his 12 years as Conservative leader.
He wrote about his experience for the Guardian. Reading it today is like entering another world; at the time, he set out a series of positions about Islam which he would go on to diametrically oppose as prime minister, positions only a brave mainstream politician would dare utter today. He insisted that "we cannot bully people into feeling British", adding that "by using the word 'Islamist' to describe the [terrorist] threat, we actually help do the terrorists’ work for them’" Cameron was adamant that "those who say that faith-based schools hinder integration are wrong". More remarkable still, he suggested that "it is mainstream Britain which needs to integrate more with the British Asian way of life, not the other way around". He added that "if we want to remind ourselves of British values – hospitality, tolerance and generosity to name just three – there are plenty of British Muslims ready to show us what those really mean" Alarm bells started to ring.
Warsi vs Gove
In 2007, Cameron’s leadership hit a crisis point as the new Labour leader Gordon Brown pondered calling an election with the Tories sinking in the polls. It was only when he hired Andy Coulson – a former editor of the Rupert Murdoch-owned News of the World, who later went to jail in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal – as media handler that Cameron began to recover. One of Coulson’s main jobs was to make sure the views of the Murdoch press were reflected in Cameron’s policy announcements. The Murdoch press tended to adopt, with uncritical and even unbridled enthusiasm, the narrative about Muslims developed by Policy Exchange, the neo-conservative think tank then shaping the agenda at the top of the Conservative Party.
Meanwhile, the neo-conservatives around David Cameron were engineering a conservatism which had no room for Sayeeda Warsi. The most famous protagonist – and beneficiary – of this project was Michael Gove, the Murdoch protege who had given up a Fleet Street career to enter politics as a Tory MP in 2005.
Gove had been the first chairman of Policy Exchange. In 2006, the year after Cameron was elected leader, Gove wrote a celebrated book. Titled Celsius 7/7, it was a call to action, and an attempt to reshape the UK and the world. Gove – and this came naturally to a founder of Policy Exchange – distinguished Islam from Islamism, asserting that the latter was a form of ‘totalitarianism’ that was fundamentally hostile to Western liberal values. “Islamists”, thundered Gove, “are a self-conscious vanguard who look down on other Muslims and consider the majority of their co-religionists as sunk in barbarity or error.”
He believed that Islamists were at war with the West, with Israel standing at the frontline of the battle. Gove announced his belief that “a sizeable minority” of the UK’s then 1.8 million Muslims held “rejectionist Islamist views” which, so he said, presented a threat comparable to Nazism or communism. He declared that Islamists were on the march and that the West had collectively failed to act.
Gove’s polemic has reportedly since been handed to every new member of the Conservative Friends of Israel group, to which an estimated 80 per cent of all Conservative MPs belong. In a short space of time, Mr Gove’s treatise created an enduring Tory narrative about Islam.
The views of Gove and Warsi were impossible to reconcile. On the one hand, Warsi argued that Muslims were law-abiding, family-minded and naturally conservative. Gove and his allies painted a darker picture. For him, Policy Exchange was a constant source of intellectual support, as well as fresh ideas and material. Warsi had no comparable intellectual secretariat.
After the 2010 general election, I became chief political commentator on the Daily Telegraph, then the most important Tory-supporting paper. As such, I found myself in the perfect position to witness the clash between Gove’s neo-conservatism and Warsi’s last-ditch defence of multiculturalism. At first, the coalition government looked promising for Warsi. She had natural allies and supporters in the shape of the Liberal Democrats and, above all, the deputy prime minister Nick Clegg.
Even with Clegg as an ally, however, Warsi was no match for her opponents. The Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, defence secretary Liam Fox (before his resignation in October 2011), Cabinet office minister Oliver Letwin and Home Secretary Theresa May all leant towards the same side as Michael Gove. So did the mainstream Tory newspapers.
Furthermore, Gove was advised by the most effective backroom political operator of the modern era: Dominic Cummings. Cummings, who was an adviser at the Department for Education before being appointed as Gove’s chief of staff, was at this point an almost unknown figure, and had none of the national recognition that followed several years later when Boris Johnson foolishly appointed him his senior adviser in July 2019. Nevertheless, Cummings had already brooded hard on techniques of campaign management, popular mobilisation and press manipulation, and was all the more effective for being unrecognised outside a small circle.
Cummings was an important asset for Gove as he fought his battles as Cabinet minister. But the support that the new education secretary could take for granted from the Murdoch press was beyond price. Gove had worked for the Murdoch-owned Times newspaper for nine years before moving into politics. By far the most powerful media owner in the UK, Murdoch’s papers produced a relentless diatribe of fabrication, propaganda and bile aimed at Muslims. The Murdoch press has been a powerful weapon in modern British politics, and it has always been on Gove’s side.
Apart from Clegg (whose office was just a few feet down the corridor from Warsi’s inside the Cabinet Office), Warsi could only rely on an incoherent group of One Nation Tories, of whom the most distinguished was probably the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve. Most of her supporters were on the back benches, a tiny group of elderly MPs who were going nowhere. She didn’t have a hope.
The Cabinet split first entered public view in 2010 when Warsi was invited to speak at the Global Peace and Unity Conference in London, an event billed as the largest Muslim get-together in Europe. Warsi accepted and then withdrew at the last minute, acting under an instruction from Downing Street.
When I sought the reason for Baroness Warsi’s humiliation, I was told about a secret memorandum that had been circulated round Whitehall around this time. This memorandum was said to make a sweeping division between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Muslims. At the time I tried and failed to get hold of this memo, but in the course of researching this book, I finally did manage to find the briefing paper in an obscure corner of the internet. It had been sent by Ed Husain and Maajid Nawaz of the Quilliam Foundation to Charles Farr, then head of the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism.
The paper described a number of mosques and Muslim organisations – as well as the Muslim Contact Unit in the Metropolitan Police – as being broadly sympathetic to Islamism. This statement was accompanied by the warning that “local and central government should be wary of engagement with these groups as it risks empowering proponents of the ideology, if not the methodology, that is behind terrorism”.
It is impossible to say what influence this paper had, if any, or to what extent it was responsible for Baroness Warsi’s withdrawal from the conference. Nevertheless, it sets out with clarity the view that was by then taking hold in official and media circles: that Muslims sympathetic to ‘Islamism’ were part of a suspect community. Any politician who met them or attended a public event in their company risked being damned by association.
The new McCarthyism
Now let’s return to the Cold War. During the 1950s, the United States was infected by a malaise called McCarthyism. The infection is seen today in retrospect as a form of national madness. McCarthyism describes a technique of making reckless and unsubstantiated allegations against individuals for political ends. The essence of the technique was that the victims could not defend themselves by reason or evidence. If challenged, McCarthyites would invent new evidence or make a new allegation or simply move on to a new target, leaving the original victim still tarred by the original allegation. Anybody who had once been a communist, had ever expressed sympathy for communism, or had ever known a communist, was viewed as an object of suspicion.
McCarthyism operated with the co-operation of the security services, and its most damaging weapon was the blacklist, with many victims never aware that charges had been levelled against them. McCarthyism was mainly (although not exclusively) a phenomenon of the right. Joseph McCarthy himself was a Republican, while a strong supporter was the right-wing newspaper editor William Buckley, who called McCarthyism “a movement around which men of good will and morality can close ranks”.
It is important to bear in mind that Senator McCarthy had an elastic definition of communism, which went far beyond membership or support of the minuscule American Communist Party, or even membership of its many ‘front organisations’ in the 1930s and 1940s. This allowed him to target anyone as an ally, agent or dupe. McCarthy and his allies targeted communist sympathisers, subversives, left-wingers, liberals, homosexuals – anyone whose conception of American society did not fit in with the mainstream. Above all, McCarthy promoted the idea of an enemy within, a secret nest of traitors or dupes, whose machinations had to be exposed.
The parallels between McCarthyism and the UK’s own cold war on British Muslims, though far from exact, hit me hard soon after I started to research this book. Someone, somewhere, has made allegations against pretty well every senior British Muslim, with the exception of those who were officially sponsored or approved.
Like thousands in the 1950s, Muslims today are being asked to prove their loyalty to the American or British states. As in the 1950s, lawful movements and opinions held by Muslims are being identified as subversive and their adherents are being blacklisted. As in the 1950s with communism, there are special concerns over Islamist infiltration of schools and colleges, and about local cells seeking control over individual communities. As in the Cold War, there is a huge intellectual offensive against so-called radical Islam, with supposed independent organisations, journals and thinkers funded secretly from public sources. As in the 1950s for ex-communists, there are profitable careers to be made now for reformed radical Islamists as commentators and experts on detecting current radicals. There are tell-tale signs of potential radicalism as there were for potential communists in the 1950s (such as beards, in both eras).
As in the 1950s for anti-communism, anti-Islamism has nurtured, and been nurtured by, dozens of politicians who were otherwise mediocre, journalists, intellectuals and religious leaders. It has become an industry creating jobs and profits for public servants and private contractors.
The anti-communist crusade wrecked lives. But it also had its successes. It made its contribution to the Cold War, which was a huge triumph for the Western world against a real enemy. The anti-Islamist crusade has already claimed many more victims. It risks plunging the Western world into a new and ultimately unwinnable cold war against millions of people who are not its enemies at all.
Photo: Prime minister David Cameron speaks during the 2015 election campaign (AFP)
The Fate of Abraham: Why the West is Wrong about Islam is published on 12 May by Simon & Schuster. Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging at the Drum Online Media Awards in both 2022 and 2017 for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He was also named as British Press Awards Columnist of the Year in 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His latest book, The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism, was published in February 2021 and was a Sunday Times Top Ten Bestseller. His previous books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, and Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran.