Even in politics, and certainly in more normal settings, it takes a lot to challenge a colleague openly. To weigh the consequences of a public criticism before making it, not least for one’s family, is understandable. That is perhaps especially true when the critic and the colleague share a political party and both are from ethnic minorities. All of these concerns, Sayeeda Warsi wrote this week, went through her mind before she finally penned the Guardian article accusing the home secretary, Suella Braverman, of racism and of “playing politics in the gutter” after she had branded British Pakistani men as child sex abusers.
However difficult, writing the article was the right thing to do. The home secretary has been getting away with her politics of performative cruelty and vindictiveness for too long. Every unchallenged provocation she makes only increases her boldness. Her comments that the members of sexual grooming gangs are “almost all British-Pakistani, who hold cultural attitudes completely incompatible with British values” were deliberately loose and consciously inflammatory, and were not based on the facts that, as a lawyer and a senior minister, she has an obligation to uphold. These were not dog-whistles, but racist language.
The grim reality is that there are sexual predators in every community, not just one. The nuances and specifics matter, of course. But the 2013 report by the children’s commissioner for England concluded that children were being sexually abused in every “town, village or hamlet”. The Office for National Statistics estimated in 2020 that at least 3.1 million Britons had been sexually assaulted as children, and a Home Office report the same year found that most members of sex-abuse gangs are white and aged under 30, not brown and middle-aged. According to the former chief prosecutor Nazir Afzal, who led the high-profile case against the Rochdale grooming gang in 2012, “the vast majority of these crimes are carried out by white British males”. To single out one community does not just encourage racist responses against them. It also puts the victims of sexual predators in other communities at greater risk.
Ms Braverman’s recklessness is not careless. It is a strategy. She doesn’t do nuance, accuracy or thoughtfulness. She does what advances the cause closest to her heart, of becoming Conservative leader. She was a second-rate attorney general who politicised a post that used to be strictly advisory. As home secretary under Liz Truss, she cast herself as an alpha-achiever who would get small boats stopped, suspects searched and arrested, and protesters cleared away. After six weeks, with none of it achieved, she had to resign. Six days later, after promising her support to Rishi Sunak in the ensuing leadership contest, she returned to the Home Office, and the sadistic rhetoric resumed.
The question now, as Lady Warsi points out, is to know who owns the racist rhetoric strategy and then put an end to it. Is it a Conservative party approach that is intended to stoke fear and anger as the general election nears? Or is it part of Ms Braverman’s own plans to keep herself in the headlines and parade herself as the candidate of the hard right? The real concern is that it is a mix of both, and that Mr Sunak, by embracing the stopping of the small boats as one of his five pre-election aims and putting Ms Braverman in charge of it, is himself complicit in the home secretary’s theatre of cruelty.
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