On Saturday night, I was on a Northern Line train heading back to north London. At Charing Cross, a group of Asian youths got on the carriage, five girls and three boys. The girls were all wearing headscarves and trousers, but had full makeup on. The boys were manhandling the girls in a way reminiscent of, well, most horny teenage boys – and were hardly being put off.
I mention this because one of the girls – and manhandlees – was wearing a tshirt that identified her as a warden of the Global Peace and Unity Conference which I happened to be aware was taking place because of this piece on Lib Dem Voice. That debate – essentially over whether the Policy Exchange should be “privately briefing” against the conference and whether Clegg (along with several other senior politicians) was right to attend the conference – has continued raging over the last few days. David T from Harry’s Place has been wading in to criticise Clegg for attending the event, likening it to a White Supremecist rally.
It all sounds rather reminiscent of the debate over the 2003 anti-war demo. Back then I was on opposite sides with Harry. Now I am… erm…
Having looked at the Policy Exchange document (word file here, still not available via main PE website as far as I can see, cheers
Alex Hilton Andy Hinton), I agree it is somewhat dodgy. Some of the biographies are tenuous at best and criticising people for selling shahadah headbands on the basis they are associated with Hamas is desperate to say the least. But for all the fluff, there are some genuinely concerning people mentioned on that list.
But you have to weigh that up against the fact that it is a genuine opportunity to engage with tens of thousands of British Muslims. This includes the teenagers I encountered on the tube on Saturday night. If they were hardline Hamas supporters, they had a funny way of showing it. Should we really write off an opportunity to connect with them, show them solidarity, because there are other people on the platform we don’t approve of? Should Clegg really have used his ten minute slot, as David T suggests, to hector the audience about the ne’er-do-wells they may or may not have listened to that day as well? What would that achieve apart from earn Clegg a few brownie points in the blogosphere?
There are no hard and fast principles Clegg should be sticking to here, only rough and messy pragmatism. If politicians are serious about engaging with the Muslim community, they have to go to them; the mountain must come to Mohammed. The potential reward? The opportunity to pull people away from the extremists.
Is it comparable to Clegg (or anyone else) attending the BNP’s annual Red, White and Blue Festival? No, because mainstream white Britons don’t attend it in any significant numbers. The Lib Dems should engage with BNP voters, but the way we do that is on the doorstep.
Back in 2003, we were told off by Harry’s Place and others for participating in the anti-war demo on the basis that it was also attended by Muslim extremists and the far left. As anyone who was there can tell you however, all those groups were drowned out into insignificance by the large numbers of ordinary members of the public. I very much hope that after this latest event and the controversy surrounding it, Clegg, Jack Straw, Dominic Grieve et al are getting together to discuss how they might collectively encourage the GPU event further into the mainstream. But start boycotting it? They’d be insane to.