Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and I agree on very little. Where she’s left-wing, I’m right, and vice versa. But we’ve always got on. We’ve done numerous sparky, late-night paper reviews together, and have had some furious arguments on air. If it weren’t for Yasmin, I wouldn’t have got the LBC job. She’s now editing a series of books for Biteback called PROVOCATIONS. I say all this because I count her as a friend. I’ve been to her house to dinner and she came to my civil partnership. Some people call us ‘the odd couple’. So when I saw what Michael Fabricant had tweeted I knew how upset she’d be. Because that’s what friends do – they instinctively know. Yasmin has had many threats to her over the years, including someone shoving a lit, petrol soaked rag through her door, so she might be more sensitive than some to threats, no matter how mild they may seem to others. And of course what followed the Fabricant tweet was a succession of people telling her not to be so sensitive, or somehow trying to defend what Fabricant had done. Frankly, they should have saved their breath. Anyway, it took my mind back to an interview I did with Yasmin for Total Politics back in 2011, which I thought I’d share with you again here. It’s sometimes strange to interview a friend, but I wanted to try to get underneath the public persona that Yasmin revels in. Did I succeed? Read on…
ID: Do you enjoy the reputation you’ve acquired over the years?
YA-B: A few years back, I think they thought I… spoke with fury. I was uppity. But the deal is that every country expects an immigrant to come, work very hard and be grateful. I am grateful, but not that grateful. There aren’t many of us out in the public space. Once upon a time, you had Darcus Howe or Bernie Grant. Now there’s me and Diane Abbott, and the two of us are ‘the big mouths’. But, over the last five years, the cries of ‘why doesn’t she go back where she came from?’ [have faded]. There’s much more respect. It’s as if you’ve ‘survived’.
Have you mellowed?
I’m less wary of the consequences. When you’re younger, you worry, ‘Will I get another job?’, ‘Will they stop asking me on the BBC?’. Where once my main work was about race and white racism, now it’s very complex. One week I’m fighting that, another I’m fighting Muslim madmen, and another corruption in the third world. I’m not a one-trick pony. I also see what this country gives us; the values I thought were remarkable – freedom and political rights – are now a part of me.
Do you think you have to be considered a ‘loudmouth’ to get noticed nowadays if you’re not a white, middle-class male?
I’ve never done anything for effect. If you try and provoke a hot response from someone, eventually it has no effect. With someone like Mehdi Hasan, there’s an expectation – that’s who he is… I can’t say that many people out there love me deeply, but I think there is respect, even from people I’ve been vicious about. I was given an award in February that was engineered by Keith Vaz, and I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve attacked Keith. I’m really pleased that when I die there’ll be a few people at the funeral who didn’t like who I was and what I said.
When you’re invited to speak, are people expecting a certain act from you?
They expect me to say that all Muslims are downtrodden, or that I hate everything about this country. And I don’t! I admire so much about it. I make a lot of mistakes, but I admit them. I passionately believe that there are templates for fundamental human rights and equality for everybody, and they include gender, race, everything. I judge everybody by them, including myself.
Do you consider yourself English?
No, and I don’t want to be. I feel British, very deeply British. I’ve had job offers from Canada, from America, but I couldn’t not live in London. London is my first homeland. My daughter is half-English, and my husband is very English.
What’s the difference between being British and English?
The English have a particular history. There’s an ancestral connection to places and feelings. The South Downs don’t affect me, but I can see that they stir my husband’s heart. I love Shakespeare, completely, but I don’t get emotional when I hear John of Gaunt’s speech. The English are particularly stirred by all of that. My next book will be about why I feel England is being unfairly treated; the surge in an English longing for identity, recognition or respect, is either feared or derided. Just look at the treatment of the St George’s Cross – it takes the English to find a foreign saint, I’ll tell you that. I love the English because they’re so promiscuous.
I thoroughly enjoyed your one-woman show. How did that come about?
The cover of my book Who Do We Think We Are? depicted a half-Maori, half-British Queen. That got me into a lot of trouble with the Telegraph. I talked about how this country has changed remarkably, and yet the mirrors in which it sees itself never change, so the arts, education and politics don’t reflect the country it’s become. I said that black and Asian people were virtually missing from the arts at that time. Somebody, the then-artistic director of the Royal Court, rang and asked me to come and talk to his young playwrights. As I was talking, [he said]: “You know, I think you could do a one-woman show.” He went to the Royal Shakespeare Company, who offered me one. It’s a terrifying thing to do, actually. I had to work very hard for six months. We don’t talk nearly enough about Asian racism against black people. If you think British people are angry with me, it’s nothing compared to how East African Asians hate me, including half my family.
Were audiences angry with you for what you said in the show?
Yes, but it was such a good story. We were the hard-working little shopworkers coming to the nation of shopworkers. And we were thrown out partly because we were so nasty to black people. We didn’t think about how we were behaving, and we didn’t change. Okay, the British in Uganda set us up as a buffer between themselves and the black people, but we had a responsibility… when you say that, you’ve taken away this very convenient narrative, and it made people angry. They still denounce me, saying: “She’s betraying [us]. She’s lying.” Well, I’m not. You should go back to Rwanda or Kenya and see – it’s still there.
Were you expecting that reaction?
I was. My father didn’t speak to me from when I was a young teenager until the day he died because I played Juliet in a school production, and the [boy playing] Romeo was black.
A lot of people accuse you of writing only about race, that you bring race into any discussion. What do you say to them?
They’re probably right. Peter Tatchell finds any reason to [talk about gay issues]. If you feel passionately about a cause…
Do you ever want to break out?
I do break out. I often write about fashion, about sex, about the arts a lot, about food. It’s beginning to happen, but not nearly enough. I’d love to be asked onto BBC arts programmes, but not to talk about being a Muslim. But it’s important to think about how race affects us all. I went to an Italian restaurant the other day with a friend. Somebody at the next table was going on and on, saying – I don’t know if he recognised me or not – in a very loud voice: “Look at the Italian immigrants. They came, settled. They didn’t make a fuss like those Pakis.” And I’m thinking: “I’m really enjoying this meal, and this man isn’t really bugging me, but why does he have to do this?” I decided it wouldn’t be fair to my host to say anything. Sometimes you have to leave it, otherwise you become a crazy. I’m not a crazy.
But you attract a lot of crazies. You’ve had multiple death threats. What attracts this kind of vitriol?
I don’t know. I may speak in the wrong way. Sometimes I get overexcited. Some react to my writing, which is actually very sober.
There are people who’ll think you’re selling out.
I write what I truly believe. If I said: ‘Aren’t the roses nice in my garden?’ there’d be madmen saying: ‘Who does she think she is, saying our roses are lovely? Why doesn’t she effing go back to where she came from?’ In fact, they do it every week. A lot of people, across the board, value what I do. I was speaking in Amersham, in a church full of quite conservative, white Christian people – who did look, I have to say, petrified, as if I was going to set the place on fire. But it was one of the nicest evenings I’ve ever spent. I realised that I get very down about [what people say about me].
What does your family think of all this? Do they ask you to stop?
Absolutely. I nearly did. When the ‘tweet’ thing happened – somebody said wouldn’t it be a good idea if somebody stoned Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to death – I did genuinely think I must stop. It was affecting my teenage daughter. He must have thought he was joking, but it isn’t funny. Had he said he wished a ‘bus would run her over’, it wouldn’t have got to me as much, but he used a very Muslim [punishment] – stoning. My mother was, at one point, very scared that we’d be deported. But then she became proud that I survived. It’s been very hard for my family. Part of what you and I do, surely, is about courting attention? We have to maintain a public profile. If you don’t say something controversial, no one in the media takes any notice. Someone like Andrew Marr, who is a god to many people, does it, and nobody says he’s courting attention.
He’s not a columnist.
That’s true, but name me a columnist who doesn’t get this kind of stick. Somebody said recently that people think I’m on Radio 4 and Question Time all the time “because they don’t forget you”, and that’s a good thing. But I’m not deliberately controversial. I’m stopping myself saying or writing anything about the Royal family, although I’m a republican.
You’ve publicly admitted you voted for the Liberal Democrats in the last general election. On a scale of one to ten, how much do you regret that decision?
Quite a lot. I still like Nick Clegg. I was reading about his feelings. But I didn’t think they’d told us what they were going to do in this situation.
To be fair, I don’t think they had a clue they would be in this situation.
After that first debate, certain people in the party could have issued papers on the implications of being tied to the Tories, and of a properly hung Parliament. Why didn’t that happen? David Cameron was one of the few leaders to say, genuinely, that ‘our policies in the past have done some great wrongs’. I’m furious about what the coalition is doing to the NHS. But even listening to Cameron talk about the NHS, I thought: “He sounds as if he really means this.” So, I’m trying not to be unfair to the coalition. Nick Clegg and Vince Cable, those whom I really admire – they can never recover. I feel sorry for them, but I’m disappointed, and I probably wouldn’t vote for them in the next election.
Politically, where I’m right-wing, you’re left-wing, where I’m left-wing, you’re right-wing. You’ve got some quite conservative social views.
I believe profoundly in sustained families. The economic liberalism of the Thatcher era and the social liberalism of the left have created a fractured society. Too many children have been caught up in unnecessary divorces, which may not have happened if the ‘me, me, me’ culture hadn’t penetrated every level of British life. So I’m very tough on that. I have a strong sense of duty towards my family and towards society. If that’s what big society means, I’d be with it.
Do you think it’s possible to believe in ‘compassionate conservatism’, or are the two things mutually exclusive?
I remember reading Disraeli’s book when I was quite young, and thinking: “Gosh, he’s a Conservative.” Yet he was one of the first to have a conscience during those days of Victorian capitalism. So, it’s not impossible.
What about Iain Duncan Smith’s agenda?
He visited the housing estates in Glasgow and saw things that should have made him think, but he’s no John Profumo. Most of the policies he’s coming up with are terrifying, because he had these experiences, but seems to have lost his compassion. This will sound ‘Tory’ – I’m going to lose a lot of friends over this! – but some children are born to parents who have deficient parenting skills, and those kids are going to repeat the cycle. You see them, on tubes, buses – nobody’s talking to them. The mum’s on the mobile phone for one-and-a-half hours. I’ve seen this – and this child of three hardly has any language skills because nobody’s talking to it. It doesn’t even know what a nursery rhyme is. We should do something about this. We need early, hard intervention.
We should bring back the tough, professional health visitors who told you how to do things, and would make sure you were doing them. My brother-in-law was the head social worker on one of the worst housing estates in Wales. He could tell you – and he was brought into the Home Office for this work – which two-year-olds had already entered the corridor that was going to lead to a prison. I couldn’t believe that we weren’t taking children away from parents like these. So, I would have invested heavily in interventionist health visitors. Sod the freedom bit. We need to take care of our children. But I’m not saying I’m the perfect parent; I make mistakes. Parenting is tough.
Especially for a single parent. Yet, Britain has the highest teenage pregnancy rates and more single parents than any other country in Europe. What do we do about that?
Thanks to the sexualised culture in which we live, young people understand nothing about love, but everything about sex, including stuff they really shouldn’t know yet. In families where parenting deficits are high, the sex becomes an affirmation, something to play with. Having a health visitor intervene there would be very good.
How much do you think the use of the words like ‘Muslim’, ‘Islam’ and ‘Islamist’ affects the way that Muslims are seen in this country?
A lot of racism – I won’t use ‘Islamophobia’ – is directed at British Muslims, but a young black man is much less likely to get a job and a life chance than is a young Muslim man. So, we should keep our heads. What’s more serious is the way Saudi Arabia is investing huge amounts of money here, building mosques, schools, and changing the Islam that I grew up with. Leicester was the nicest city, and the Islam practised there was really open. Everybody got on. The Saudis went in there five years ago. The last time I went there to publicise my book I was told people were scared to attend my event, scared for my life, scared of how much the Saudis controlled everything in Leicester. Why aren’t we doing anything about this? Within a year after the King Fahad Academy down the road opened, you noticed little girls in the nearby playground, aged three and four, wearing headscarves and cumbersome clothes. They couldn’t go on to slides or seesaws. The entire area is like tent-bloody-city. There are all these women in tents.
So what? Everyone has a right to dress how they wish. I’m being deliberately provocative.
Muslim women, even if they say they choose it, are being segregated, which has implications for their rights and education. What it means is that ‘women are evil presences in the public space’.
When I see somebody coming towards me on the street, pretty much covered head to toe, a part of me that thinks – and I wonder if I’m being racist in this – “Why are you dressed like that in England?” But I don’t have the same reaction to orthodox Jews.
I do, but at least you can see their faces. The ultimate degrading message behind it is that ‘women are evil and men are rapists’. The Qur’an says that both men and women have to dress modestly, but the two or three passages about the veil have been interpreted in different ways. For some, ‘Lower your veil’ means, ‘Take down your veil’. For others, ‘Cover yourself’. For one group it means, ‘Cover your whole face except for one eye’. I don’t know where that came from. On websites, British Muslim women are asking the most insane questions: “Am I allowed to clap if I go to a show? Am I allowed to wear perfume? Can I go to my tailor, or is it haram?” They’re becoming infantilised, disenfranchised. We should get into professional jobs, become middle-class, more independent, but it’s not happening, even with the third generations. When people say, ‘It’s their freedom’, I want to ask, if your daughter came home and said: ‘I’m going to wear a complete burka and I’m not going to work’, would you say: ‘Of course. It’s your choice’? No, you’d go crazy. I’m going crazy.
But if we went down the same route as France, wouldn’t that play into the hands of the fundamentalists who want to foment trouble between us all?
There are two arguments. One, that you’re encouraging racists. The other, that fundamentalists would have something to say about it. But it’s so important that we don’t let this form of Islam control our lives. It instinctively feels wrong to ban [the burka], but it’s reasonable to say that anyone in public must show their face; Muslims, hoodies, bikers.
What do you think of what we’re doing in Libya?
I thought those early pleas were heartbreaking. Now I’m not sure. We went from a no-fly zone to… well, William Hague said one thing, Cameron another, Obama said something different. Now it’s changed to ‘arming the rebels’. As Rory Stewart MP said, people are beginning to question if we know whom we’re arming. Do we really want a civil war? Western politicians aren’t the bad guys – though they did go there for the oil. The oil is a lazy argument. I just don’t believe it. Then why aren’t we doing anything in Saudi Arabia? We went into Kuwait, and we allowed Saudis to go into Bahrain. How far should we go? Is public opinion with a war?
In ten years time, what would you like to have achieved?
I’d like people to think I’d been a good voice to have in the public domain. So much of what I wrote about multiculturalism years ago has become part of mainstream conversation. I’d like the day to come when people understand that treating people less equally, based on their colour or culture, was wrong. There’s still racism and inequality here, but there’s such resistance to listening to what I have to say. I don’t mean to be trouble, but I feel very strongly about this country. It’s where I want to be.
What’s your favourite view?
I can see Ealing Common from my desk.
Favourite holiday destination?
Ted Heath, because he was good enough to let us come in.
What music gets you onto the dancefloor?
What book are you currently reading?
Philip Hensher’s The Northern Clemency.
One thing that nobody knows about you…
I’m a very good cook. I cook every evening. I’m a complete domestic goddess/slave.
Can you think of a quote that has affected you?
Only connect. If only we connected. With each other. The past with the future.
Who’s your favourite interviewer?
Ritula Shah on Radio 4’s The World Tonight.
The Independent’s Christina Patterson.
If you weren’t a Muslim…
I’d be a Baha’i.
Chocolate and sex.
Have you been back to Uganda?
I went back once several years ago. I couldn’t stay there for longer than two days. It’s just too painful. They were emerging from this long war.
How old were you when you left?
Twenty-three. But I’d like to go back, probably next year. It’s difficult to go back to places that you have a difficult relationship with. I have a lot of Ugandan friends who are all exiles as well. It’s completely different now, of course.
But is it still home?
I did my first degree there, and my second at Oxford, but London is my home. We’re very lucky to live here. Many immigrants come here because this is a very special place, and the English are more open than they think they are.