For the first time since 1997, the Conservatives suddenly look to be on the electoral march. A resounding victory in the local elections condemned Labour to third place and its lowest share of the vote since 1918: the Conservatives gained ground in Labour heartlands in Wales and the North, capped by Boris Johnson’s win as Mayor of London over Ken Livingstone.
Of course the Conservatives still have an electoral mountain to climb, a swing of 6.5% nationally to gain an overall majority in Parliament. Yet the momentum is with David Cameron, while Labour seems to be suffering the usual malaise of third term governments, being perceived as tired, out of touch and out of ideas. The proposal to get rid of the 10% tax band, rising fuel and food prices, falling house prices, the collapse of Northern Rock and the global credit crunch have all dented Labour’s strong record. Suddenly, after a decade-long boom, people feel insecure and have made their feelings clear at the ballot box. What we don’t know yet is whether the next general election for Gordon Brown will be a rerun of 1992 or 1997: will he be able to rally Labour support to keep a reduced majority, or go down to a Conservative landslide?
Just as New Labour sought in its first term to reassure voters as to its fiscal prudence by tying its spending to the Conservative’s budgetary plans, Cameron has similarly tied himself to some of Labour’s spending plans. As Labour became trusted with neoliberal economics, the modern Conservative party seeks to emulate the Clintonesque-Blairite third way, weaving neoliberalism with welfarism. It seeks to be trusted not to dismantle the welfare state, to be convincingly post-Thatcherite. There is, David Cameron has said recently, such a thing as society.
Of course Muslims might wonder how the question of Islam in the post-9/11 world would be treated under a Conservative government, say from May 2009. The evidence thus far is that the party is thinking out aloud in various directions. Cameron himself spent a week with a Muslim family and had positive things to say about his experience (although he was unsurprisingly alarmed by the conspiracy-itis he encountered at a mosque he visited). Dominic Grieve, the Shadow Attorney General, has argued at length about the deleterious effect anti-terrorism legislation has had on Britain’s proud tradition of fundamental civil liberties, on the proposed ID cards or on the extension to detention without charge or trial. And Iain Duncan Smith has done genuinely creative and thoughtful work on social exclusion, an issue that ought to exercise Muslims thoroughly given that our average unemployment rate is more than three times the national average.
There are also a variety of strategies proposed for dealing with “extremism”. Analogies are commonly drawn with the Cold War. Michael Gove, the author of Celsius 7/7 and the Shadow Minister for Housing, analyses Islamism within the framework of twentieth century totalitarianism, and argues strongly for confrontational ideological warfare against Islamism itself, and not just al-Qaeda, which is regarded in this analysis as its violent anarchist fringe. Charles Moore also recently argued that the Conservative party has sufficient distance from Muslim communities to lead this charge against British Islamism, as it is not entangled like New Labour in Muslim identity politics. Just as in the 1980s with trade unionism, the Conservatives now seek to take on the “Scargills of Islam“.
It has to be said that this is a rather worrying trend, not because Muslim political activism that galvanises a faith-based identity politics is somehow wholly beyond criticism, either internally or externally. It is not — for as it claims to represent Muslim interests, it should be held to account for the validity of those claims. Rather, the point is that when it comes to dealing with violent extremism, targetting Muslim political activism in Britain will have no perceptible impact on the “men of violence”. Muslim activists are really policy strawmen, being easy targets to knock down while the real action lies elsewhere.
The other issue lies with the rancorous debate around Muslim integration. This has been held hostage to fears of terrorism and (admittedly) a dislike of small-“c” conservative Muslim values. What is needed here most of all is a division between security and integration policy imperatives, and a realisation that as Britain will remain very diverse, multiculturalism needs to be reinvigorated with a greater emphasis on responsibilities, participatory citizenship and an inclusive nationalism.
Recent conservative thinking has so far been wide-ranging but is not yet fully-formed on British Muslims. In any future scenario, no true political virtue can be made out of an acknowledged distance from Britain’s Muslim communities.
Yahya Birt is Commissioning Editor at Kube Books and blogs at http://www.yahyabirt.com.
This article first appeared in Emel Magazine, Issue 45, June 2008.