‘Am I British or Muslim first? I’m Yorkshire before both’ says Baroness Sayeeda Warsi of Dewsbury

4 April 2018......   Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, pictured  at her family's bed manufacturers in Ravensthorpoe near Dewsbury.  Pictures:  Tony Johnson.
4 April 2018...... Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, pictured at her family's bed manufacturers in Ravensthorpoe near Dewsbury. Pictures: Tony Johnson.
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SHE might have sat at the top table of British politics - and even shared a bunk bed with a former Prime Minister - but Baroness Sayeeda Warsi is a West Yorkshire girl through and through. Aisha Iqbal caught up with the Dewsbury-born and raised Conservative peer at the bed factory - founded by her father Safdar Hussain 40 years ago - which she now runs with her elder sister.

If you ask Baroness Sayeeda Warsi her proudest recent achievements, they will have nothing to do with politics.

A YORKSHIRE LASS: Baroness Warsi in the showroom at her family's Dewsbury bed factory, in front of the feature wall full of Yorkshire phrases.

A YORKSHIRE LASS: Baroness Warsi in the showroom at her family's Dewsbury bed factory, in front of the feature wall full of Yorkshire phrases.

After controversially quitting frontline British politics in 2014 over what she called the Government’s “morally indefensible” stance on the ongoing Palestine/Israel conflict, as well as her deepening disillusionment with her beloved Conservative party’s lurch to the right as she saw it, she is now splitting her time between her duties in the House of Lords - she was made a life peer in 2007 - and her business and charity interests.

She also recently welcomed her second grandchild - a girl born to her stepdaughter - renovated a dilapidated old house and is indulging a growing passion for reconditioning old industrial items into quirky furniture.

Several of the items now sit proudly in the reception area of her father’s bed factory in Dewsbury, the West Yorkshire mill town of her birth.

Baroness Warsi now runs the factory alongside her elder sister. Her father Safdar Hussain, now 80, is recovering from a recent stroke.

“He still comes in all the time and tells us how we are doing it wrong, but that’s just Asian dads for you!” she jokes, with genuine adoration in her voice.

After a turbulent few years, re-invention and re-invigoration are clearly on Baroness Warsi’s mind in more ways than one.

Her explosive book The Enemy Within - a withering polemic on how the Government is failing and increasingly alienating British Muslims - has recently been re-released in paperback, and she is getting ready to appear on Have I Got News For You in the coming weeks.

A YORKSHIRE FIREBRAND

In real life, the woman who became Britain’s first female Muslim cabinet minister is nothing like her up-and-down political career and elevation to the nobility might suggest.

A genuine Yorkshire firebrand, she is infectiously idealistic, talks passionately of her love of Britain - “I want to kiss the tarmac every time I come home” - and the White Rose county, and swears like a trooper.

Her political career has seen her become a close ally of former Prime Minister David Cameron - she reveals they even shared a bunk bed during a trip to Afghanistan - and she has been at loggerheads both with senior figures in her beloved Conservative party and people in her Muslim community on more than one occasion.

She has even been accused by elements of both of spying for the other.

Despite this, and making her fair share of u-turns - most famously on her position on Brexit, from Leave to Remain - she remains staunch in her core beliefs, and insists her political decisions were always guided by principle.

Resilience, says Baroness Warsi, is in her blood - in both sides of her dual Pakistani immigrant and Yorkshire heritage.

Each is a huge source of pride, the latter perhaps a little more so than the former.

And those qualities have naturally fed into her political development.

“Being working class in the Tory party, and being a Northerner in the heart of Westminster, you have to be resilient,” she says.

“That fighting spirit is certainly something I have had to refine over the years.”

As one of five girls born into her traditional Pakistani British Muslim family - at a time and in a community where not having boy-children was still considered a failure - her parents always encouraged her and her sisters to strive to be “better than their boys - whoever ‘they’ were”.

Her Muslim identity is and remains a vital part of her being. But not necessarily through choice.

“When I am asked about my overriding identity - and when you are Muslim you are always asked if you are British or Muslim first - I always say I am Yorkshire before both,” she says.

“It forms my identity, my character, my outlook on life. I love the old mill towns, the open rolling countryside, the language. It is a very special place.”

THE ‘BRITISH DREAM’

We are speaking at the headquarters of The Shire Bed Company, founded by Baroness Warsi’s father, who came to England in the 1960s and worked as a bus driver before starting the firm which now employs dozens and will be his family’s Yorkshire legacy.

The ‘Safdar and Daughters’ logo is scattered proudly throughout the building, as are tongue-in-cheek Yorkshireisms and framed signed shirts from Leeds Rhinos, Yorkshire Cricket Club and others.

Baroness Warsi admits this is where her true passion lies - “business is what excites me, politics is a necessity” she says.

Asked how a working class girl from Dewsbury in a Labour heartland ended up as a poster girl for modern, inclusive Conservatism, she points out that her upbringing, and her father’s work ethic - “becoming a self made man, bringing up five girls and putting us through University and fighting lots of challenges externally and internally” - is all part of living the “British Dream”, and was vital to forging her Conservative principles.

Her loyalty to her party is constant, although the love affair has admittedly been tainted somewhat in recent years.

She often gets asked how she “fell out of love” with the Conservative Party, but she insists “I am exactly where I was when I was in love with my party but sadly, my party changed”.

That change she is talking about is the party’s lurch to the right, which she believes has been hugely damaging on many levels.

In her book, she tracked the changes through former Prime Minister David Cameron’s statements between 2005 and a decade later - and noted “such a gap”.

“If my party swings further to the right, then of course I worry about that. But that doesn’t mean that I’ve changed. It means that my party needs to find its way back.”

Asked if she is still in contact with Mr Cameron, she speaks warmly of their friendship and mutual respect, despite their differences, which led to that high profile parting of the ways four years ago.

“I wouldn’t be who I am without David,” she says.

“We worked together in opposition, we sat on sodden railway platforms, we flew in transportation army planes, we even shared a bunk at one point - he had the bottom bunk and I had the top bunk en route to Afghanistan.”

Theresa May is “a different character”, she says, and “it’s difficult to get to know her in the same way”.

She doesn’t believe Mrs May will fight the next general election, and will step down before it.

Brexit will likely happen before either of those, of course, and for Baroness Warsi, it was the toxicity of the Leave campaign which triggered her switch of positions, and further alienated her from the party which had always been her political “home”.

“I have always been Eurosceptic,” she said.

“But what concerned me as the campaign progressed was that those of us who were free marketeers, and genuinely believed in democracy and sovereignty, were crowded out.”

For her, the raging, unabashedly xenophobic campaign was “not what Britain is about”.

But she believes it has given rise to a renewed intolerance and increasing “othering” of Muslims and other groups which she now fears could have far reaching socio-economic consequences for the country.

“My grandfather came here in the 1950s. I can’t guarantee that my grandkids will make Britain their home. And that is a really worrying thing,” she said.

“More and more I find that middle class Muslim, socially mobile, financially mobile kids are saying ‘I’m going off to Dubai, or Qatar, or Turkey or Malaysia’.

“They are opting out. And that’s a real worry for me. Because when successful, integrated young people start to opt out because they can’t be bothered with the grief every day, as they see it, that’s a worrying trend.”

It’s not just Muslim communities who are affected, she adds.

“I spoke to a Jewish friend of mine, and I asked him where do you think your grandkids will be? He said New York.

“That’s a sad indictment, where successful British Muslim and Jewish communities are starting now to look beyond the next generation and thinking ‘our grandkids are going to check out’.”

For Baroness Warsi herself, there is no such confusion about where she belongs.

In fact, it’s when she is talking about her love for Britain that she is at her most animated.

After her switch from Leave to Remain, critics were ruthless. Some said “good riddance”, others branded her a traitor.

But she regrets nothing.

“True patriots are people who like where they live, and want to constantly make it better,” she says.

“I can sit here and count how many faults there are in my nation, but whenever I go elsewhere like the USA and return, I literally want to get on my knees and kiss the tarmac and say ‘bless Britain’ because I’d rather be here than anywhere else in the world.”

And how does she feel when her loyalty to Britain is questioned again and again?

“I will not allow anyone to question my loyalty,” she says emphatically.

“I have served my country at the top table. I have family who are now going back into the armed forces. I will not take the loyalty test.

“I am deeply British, and I am deeply proud of my faith, and I do not see any conflict there. And I am sick to death of having to reiterate that again and again.”

‘POLITICS IS CONFUSED - WE MUST TACKLE HATE AND FIGHT THE GOOD FIGHT’

We return to the topic of the changed and fraught political landscape both in the UK and abroad.

The rise of populist politics is a danger, says Baroness Warsi, and that “solid centre ground” must be reclaimed in order to “create a space for everybody to be heard - and to learn to disagree”.

That responsibility is nowhere more urgent than in her own party, she acknowledges.

“We are all custodians of a party, and if those who are in charge of a party or speaking on behalf of the party are taking that party down a route which is dangerous or divisive or disruptive, then as members and as custodians, we have a responsibility to speak out.”

For Baroness Warsi, the identity crisis engulfing the two main UK political parties - fuelled by the rise of populism - is both fascinating and dangerous.

“British politics right now is in a very confused space,” she says.

“Both the Labour Party and the Conservative party are in some ways lost.

“There are many people within both parties who look at their own party and wonder where it’s gone, who are doing the same kind of soul searching.”

She believes that politicians and the media have a joint duty to step up and fix a situation - a divided country and that “confused” political landscape - they have had a huge part in creating.

“If you preach hate, whether it’s from a pulpit or from a newspaper or as a politician, you are going to greenlight bigotry,” she says.

“When a senior columnist in a newspaper writes ‘the Muslim Problem’ in capital letters, well of course Tommy down the street is going to start thinking it’s acceptable.”

“I’m not talking about censorship,” she stresses. “I’m talking about responsibility. Just because you have a right to do something, doesn’t mean you don’t have a responsibility not to do it.

“We have to continue to fight the good fight, from all sides of the political spectrum.”

190718 Leilah Vyner from Dragon Willow (left) the maker of the willow Diplodocus  manoeuvres the dinosaur into position at Harlow Carr gardens with James Allen of Harlow Carr Gardens  ready for   the Jurassic Discovery event starting sat for the school summer holidays .

Dinosaurs on prowl in garden at Harlow Carr