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Tory leadership race shatters hopes for a more tolerant Conservative Party

While the UK's governing party appears to be celebrating ethnic diversity, it continues to attack religious liberty
British Conservative leadership candidate Rishi Sunak participates in a party event in Leeds on 28 July 2022 (AFP)
British Conservative leadership candidate Rishi Sunak at a party event in Leeds on 28 July 2022 (AFP)

In 2009, there had only ever been four non-white Conservative MPs in Britain. Thirteen years later, the situation could not be more different: six of the 11 candidates who entered the Conservative leadership race were from ethnic minorities, while Rishi Sunak, a Briton of Indian heritage, is currently in the run-off to become the new party leader and prime minister.  

This is rightly seen by many as a sign of Britain’s progress in fighting racism, and also of the Conservative Party’s own approach to race. Party members are not just comfortable with the new situation; they are overwhelmingly inclined to celebrate it.

British multiculturalism, traditionally understood, has entailed the recognition of diverse religious communities - and today, it is under threat

“Older white people feel an almost indecent thrill to hear their own views reflected in a younger generation by people of different races,” Charles Moore, former editor of the Daily Telegraph and revered biographer of Margaret Thatcher, wrote in the Spectator last month.

There is every sign that ethnic diversity has been enthusiastically embraced by both the party and the Conservative establishment. It would be tempting, then, to hail the Conservatives for their tolerance. But tolerance, rightly practised, extends beyond support for ethnic diversity. British multiculturalism, traditionally understood, has entailed the recognition of diverse religious communities - and today, it is under threat.  

For British Muslims, the Conservative Party is a hostile force. Studies have documented widespread anti-Muslim bigotry among party members, while MP Nusrat Ghani made the troubling claim earlier this year that she was sacked from the government because her “Muslim woman minister status was making colleagues feel uncomfortable”. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson himself has produced a plethora of remarks demeaning and mocking Muslims. With his resignation, however, some believed that the Conservative Party would move in a more generous-spirited and tolerant direction.  

Lurch to the far right

Their hopes have been shattered by the party’s decisive lurch to the far right, as Tory leadership candidates Liz Truss and Sunak vie for support from the membership. Last week, Sunak proposed to expand the definition of “extremism” - currently defined by the government as constituting “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values” - to include what he termed “extreme hatred of Britain”.  

If Sunak had his way, people who “vilify” the nation would risk being questioned under the Prevent “counter-extremism” programme and potentially put through a “de-radicalisation” process. Sunak’s vision poses such a dramatic threat to free expression that even former counterterrorism chief Sir Peter Fahy slammed it as “straying into thought crimes”.  

Attacks on Penny Mordaunt are fresh evidence of Tory Islamophobia
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Who would be most affected by Sunak’s proposed measures? “Possibly not long now until historians and people like me get reported to Prevent for not glorifying British history,” tweeted Sathnam Sanghera, the author of Empireland, a history of British imperialism.

It is certainly true that writers and activists deemed to be too “woke” would risk being condemned as “extremist” - but Sunak has another target, besides British historians. He aims to refocus Prevent on “Islamist extremism”.  

His justification for this is that 80 percent of live counterterrorism investigations, but barely a quarter of Prevent referrals, are “Islamist”-related. Indeed, leaks from the upcoming review of Prevent have revealed that it will recommend an emphasis on “Islamist extremism”, rather than the far right. Recent reporting has blamed political correctness for Muslims not being flagged to the “counter-extremism” programme in higher numbers.

“We don’t have the robust challenge we should have, because everyone is so afraid of being racist,” warned Professor Ian Acheson, a former prison governor and senior advisor to the Counter Extremism Project, an international policy organisation.

Needless harassment

The facts tell a different story. For one thing, more than 85 percent of people reported to Prevent are reported wrongly and thus are needlessly harassed. A UN Human Rights Council report has judged the policy to be “inconsistent with the principle of the rule of law”. Muslims (overwhelmingly innocent) have always been disproportionately affected by Prevent, which relies on profiling to focus its efforts. More than 70 percent of Muslims in England and Wales live in “Prevent Priority Areas”, compared with around 30 percent of the general population.  

Despite these statistics, the narrative being pushed is that Muslims need to be targeted further - and Sunak’s campaign might have designed his proposals to appeal to the membership. Significantly, a source speaking for his opponent, Truss, did not seriously challenge the proposals, but dismissed them as being mostly a “restatement of government policy”, with the “few new proposals” being “superficial and unfunded”.  

British Conservative leadership candidate Liz Truss speaks at an event in Norfolk on 29 July 2022 (AFP)
Conservative leadership candidate Liz Truss speaks at an event in Norfolk on 29 July 2022 (AFP)

Truss, who currently leads Sunak in the polls by a comfortable margin, has long accepted an approach to “counter-extremism” that targets ideas that are legal but contravene “British values”. When she was justice secretary in 2016, prison governors were instructed to “ban extremist literature and to remove anyone from Friday prayers who is promoting anti-British beliefs”. “Anti-British”, of course, has never been tightly defined.  

Whoever becomes prime minister will inherit the recommendations of the Prevent review, which was boycotted by more than 450 British Muslim organisations after William Shawcross was appointed to lead it. Shawcross was an eye-catching appointment: under his chairmanship, the Charity Commission faced complaints of institutional bias against Muslims. Shawcross said in 2012 that “Europe and Islam is one of the greatest, most terrifying problems of our future”, and has defended the use of torture in Guantanamo Bay.

Even without Sunak’s unhinged proposals, there is a serious chance that a revamped Prevent strategy will lead Britain towards an untrammelled authoritarianism.  

'Zero tolerance approach'

To her credit, Truss has responded to an appeal from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims by promising a “zero tolerance approach to Islamophobia” (Sunak, by contrast, has said nothing of the sort). But the overall tenor of the leadership race suggests that the Conservatives continue to regard British Muslims with suspicion and disdain.  

The Conservatives, in fact, often exhibit a refusal to engage with Muslim civil society. When former Prime Minister David Cameron made an intervention into the discourse surrounding Prevent earlier this year, he did so not by addressing Muslims but by writing in the Times, a paper that has published a number of false and discredited anti-Muslim stories. He endorsed a report produced by Policy Exchange, a neoconservative think tank. Many government officials, including Truss, Tom Tugendhat and Kemi Badenoch, have spoken at Policy Exchange events, and Sunak was formerly the head of its Black and minority ethnic research unit.  

It is far from being tolerant, instead surging rightward in a spirit of authoritarian zealotry. It has become a party of paradox

The think tank has been instrumental in shaping the government’s relationship with British Muslims. So broken is that relationship, and so ferocious is the attempt to bar Muslim organisations from the political mainstream, that during her leadership bid Penny Mordaunt was attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail for merely having met with the secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain last year. The story, the Mail might have judged, would hurt her chances with Conservative members.  

The Conservative Party can justly be praised for its unprecedented ethnic diversity. But it is far from being tolerant, instead surging rightward in a spirit of authoritarian zealotry. It has become a party of paradox, attacking multiculturalism while celebrating ethnic diversity, targeting free speech while complaining about cancel culture, and violating religious liberty while claiming to represent the values of Burkean conservatism.

Notably, though, no condemnation of Sunak’s dystopian proposals on Prevent has been forthcoming from the leader of the Labour Party. The government’s targeting of Muslims looks set to proceed unopposed.  

The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Imran Mulla studies History at Cambridge University.
Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in both 2022 and 2017, and was also named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Drum Online Media Awards 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 is The Fate of Abraham: Why the West is Wrong about Islam, published in May by Simon & Schuster. His previous books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran and The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism.