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Mohammed Abdel-Haq: Tories and 'minority communities'

Mohammed is a private banker and was Conservative candidate for Swansea West at last year's General Election.

The Tory party has recognised in David Cameron the courage and ability to take a current of change in the party and turn it into the mainstream, and so win back the hearts and minds that will win the next election. But I still hear people say that it’s all to do with presentation and packaging, it’s just a ‘makeover’.  As I understand it, a ‘makeover’ is a change of look, something without much to stand on, and meant to last only until a different mood or fashion sets in. I believe the party’s collective wisdom in making David Cameron its leaders means something much more and much better than a ‘makeover’. It is a change of image — that can’t be denied, and why should it be?  But it is a change of image that has legs good enough to stand on, and good enough to run the party towards the election victory it and the country so badly needs. My experience of being selected as the Tory candidate for Swansea West at the last election can help explain some part of where the present changes are coming from, and why they are so important for the future of the party I stood for.

I am a first generation immigrant to this country. I was born in Jordan, so when I speak English I have an obvious accent. Neither selection committee nor campaign team felt that I needed to do something about the way I sound. Similarly, nobody offered to call me ‘Mo’ instead of Mohammed, or suggested that I’d best keep quiet about being a Muslim. What the party cared about was that I should be willing and able to do the job, and have the commitment and stamina to get on with it. And when I did get on with it, I found that the people I was canvassing were equally relaxed about my being different: their concerns and questions had to do with public services and how to improve it.

Yet the image of the party, and especially of its core support, ‘the Tory party faithful’, is associated with defensive attachment to class and nationality — something that supposedly makes Tories less ‘caring’ (in particular towards those who are ‘different’) than Labour or LibDem supporters. It is partly because this image persists that defectors from New-Labour drift toward the LibDems rather than the Tories. The image badly needs to catch up with the reality of the Tory party that I have known since I joined in the mid-90s.

We need to echo what David Cameron said so pointedly: ‘There is society’.  We do have responsibilities for each other as well for ourselves. We need to explain well that we care about people’s livelihoods and the security of those livelihoods, that we care about the public services that people depend upon and the quality of those services. In a free society, government has no business trying to deliver (still less guarantee) the same outcomes for all citizens. But, if we do accept that we have responsibility for each other, it is right to express that responsibility by striving to give all citizens a fair start in life — then it’s up to them how they make use of their talents and opportunities.

The idea that there is no community of purpose between haves and have-nots, that there is, instead, a necessary conflict between them, is deeply rooted in the instincts of Labour supporters, not Tory ones. Those instincts shape attitudes, agendas and policies that trap people into believing that they can rely only on the state to define and deliver the common good. As a result, people gradually lose the ability to imagine how much they might do for the common good themselves. They just accept the sheer immensity of the public purse, and compete for a bigger share of it. In spite of New-Labour rhetoric, public wealth is actually spent as if it belonged to nobody, rather than as if it belonged to everybody.

The Labour party will do little to encourage a change of attitude among the minority communities.  Labour gets too much easy mileage out of the tricks that go with a superficial political correctness. But the Tories can and should do something about it. Let us affirm that to participate fully in citizenship in this country, only four things are non-negotiable: the allegiance to the Queen, rule of law (which neither privileges nor exempts anyone), the primacy of the common language, and the habits of political civility that make democratic processes workable. These non-negotiable elements of citizenship are not tokens of some idealised notion of Britishness, imposed on people of different cultural tradition. They are not tokens at all. They are concepts and tools of proven effectiveness, which secure the framework within which pretty much every kind of difference (racial, cultural or political) can be discussed in a peaceable way.

As I said, in contrast to the widely projected image, mainstream Tories do not have a problem with people being ‘different’ or with their ‘difference’ being ‘visible’.  At the same time, we need to welcome and encourage minority communities to express their values adaptively — through their citizenship here and now in this country, rather than in ways suited to countries that they are no longer in.  That does not amount to a demand for conformity to the lifestyle of the majority, but for a ‘being different’ that is not self-excluding, that gives and takes in full, active participation in the wider society. The common good includes all of us together. 

It has now dawned on the British people that, despite years of being in power and a cleverly disguised system of increased taxation, New-Labour has failed to improve public services — whether for the underprivileged or the privileged. That is the pitch on which the Tory party must define the public perception of its policies. If we do that job well enough, we will win over those who, whether from the majority or the minority communities, have had quite enough of New- Labour’s empty promises. The choice of David Cameron as leader indicates a decided commitment to that job, a statement of intent and direction so strong and  clear that the public can have no doubt where we stand and where we are heading.


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