Politics

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi: My interest was what it meant to be black and British

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi talks identity, showing emotion in Parliament - and how she married a man she once hated

Of all the five sisters, I was probably the dad’s girl. And the one who wanted to know what was out there, in the wider world. Whenever there was a family get-together and the women were all chatting in one corner and the men in another, you’d find me with the men. I was never very interested in a certain kind of women’s conversation. I found them quite fickle. Two of my closest friends when I was a teenager were men. The roles between men and women are completely blurred now but when I was growing up there were male roles and female roles and I wasn’t interested in what I felt instinctively were female roles.

Clothes, hair, make-up… they never meant anything to me. I just wasn’t interested. My elder sister liked all that, she loved to go shopping but I hated it. My mum bought all my clothes and I’d be happy to wear whatever she chose. My main interest was books, I always had my head in a book.

I was very aware as a teenager that I was lucky to have such a good education as a Muslim girl. Not everyone around me had the same, and I felt I had a responsibility to make the most of that. My mum always told me and my sisters we had to be better than the boys. I was very conscious of that. We were always encouraged to have an opinion.

My mum always told me and my sisters we had to be better than the boys

My mum says I was a really easy teenager. I never gave her hassle – I saved all that up for later, as she puts it. I wasn’t moody, I didn’t want to be out with my mates, I wasn’t going partying, I wasn’t wearing make-up. I didn’t have a lot of friends but that was an active choice because I wasn’t particularly interested in the things they were talking about. I was really interested in bigger issues – identity, what it meant to be black and British. How I fitted in. I remember learning about the British Raj at school and constantly questioning how my teacher presented it, the creation of Pakistan, that kind of thing.

In terms of a career, that was very much chosen by my mum when we were teenagers. She decided she needed a lawyer, an accountant, a teacher and a pharmacist, and she just told us which one she wanted us to be. I got law. So I became a lawyer.

When I was a student I became very involved in student politics. I was definitely on the left. I came from a strong Labour family. I remember fighting for grants not loans. And against the Poll Tax. When I got into my 20s I started thinking more about domestic politics and it became pretty obvious the things I believed in made me centre-right. Low tax economy, smaller state, civil liberties, opportunity, all of that. I didn’t actually join any party until my late 20s because I felt the issues far outweighed party politics. But I think if you want to be involved in frontline politics it has to be done through a party.

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One thing I’d say to the young Sayeeda is to learn to have more fun. It’s not instinctive for me to just go out and have fun. The job’s always more important to me, and I would always choose work over play. I think I’m a workaholic. But I’d tell my younger self to learn to play more.

My kids say: “I don’t know why you complain about Nana because you’re turning more and more into her every day.” Yes, I’m probably quite focused, like she was, but less driven as far as my kids are concerned. I tell them their options and the consequences that flow from them but they have to make their own decisions. If one of them wanted to run off and join the circus? Umm… I’d tell them the advantages and disadvantages – and if they can live with the consequences, so be it. People don’t always take responsibility for their actions. I tell my kids they must always do that.

If I really wanted to shock the younger me I’d tell her she ended up married to a man she knew and despised at high school. I got married and divorced before that but I’ve ended up with this man who was in my year at school, and we hated each other. We rubbed each other up the wrong way. My kids like to think it’s because we had a crush on each other but that’s completely untrue. We finally got together after I’d travelled the world and he had too.

I would probably tell my younger self to hold back more. At times I was far too blunt and honest and open. I was naïve. I didn’t understand the politics, the game-playing of politics. I probably still don’t. I remember one occasion, in a private meeting in parliament, I was quite upset by something and showed a lot of emotion. I shouldn’t have done it. I was far too transparent. I refuse to say all decisions should be made only with your head. But they can’t all be made with your heart either. I think with women it’s probably more heart than head. But if I had to choose between a politician who felt too much and one who didn’t feel at all, I’d always go for the one who felt too much.

I was quite upset by something and showed a lot of emotion. I shouldn’t have done it. I was far too transparent

The young Sayeeda in her wildest dreams wouldn’t have thought she’d end up at the cabinet table. She might have expected to play some part in politics, most probably as a lawyer, maybe as a campaigner. But not a cabinet minister. That would not have been a world she felt entitled to enter. The idea of being able to walk into the Palace of Westminster and say, yes, this is where I work… Even when I first got there, I felt like I was waiting for someone to walk in and tap me on the shoulder and say, what are you doing here? Then, being part of the Tory Party – chairman of the Tory Party! That would shock the young me.

If I could go back to any time in my life it would be when my daughter was between nought and five. They’re so clever and cute at that age, always learning. At that time I was running my own business, my own legal practice, working incredibly long hours. I have some great memories of that time but I wish I could relive all of it all over again with her. Just without the bad marriage.

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