Westonbirt School for Girls
On Friday Sept 5th, I appeared on the BBC Any Questions panel at Westonbirt School, near Tetbury in Gloucestershire, along with Anna Soubry MP (Tory, Broxtowe); Caroline Lucas, former Green MEP and now MP; and Michael Dugher, Labour MP, Barnsley East. We were under the watchful eye of Chairman Jonathan Dimbleby.
With both Caroline Lucas and me on the panel, you might have thought that climate and energy would rear its head — but it was not to be. However they had a warm-up question: What do the panellists find gives them real joy in life? So after grandchildren and music, I added “And with apologies to Caroline, driving fast cars”.
Nor did the EU come up (despite one MEP and one former MEP on the panel), nor Scotland, which I had been expecting.
We did however spend some time on Iraq, and the “British Jihadists”. I objected to the use of the term “British Jihadists”, in that these people had demonstrated in the clearest possible way that their allegiance was given not to this country but to their “Islamic State”. They are “BINOs” — British in Name Only. They have sacrificed the right to be British. This point got some very positive audience reaction. But I added that Cameron had got himself into a muddle by floating the idea of withdrawing passports from these people, only to find that his hands are tied by international agreements on statelessness, and by European law. (Anna Soubry insisted that it was nothing to do with Europe. She’s wrong).
So the other panellists explained, in a rather worthy way, why we couldn’t leave these people stateless. I suggested that as they had clearly abrogated their British nationality, they should apply to their “Islamic State” for a passport, and see how they got on. Both Anna and Caroline threw up their hands in mock derision, and Caroline insisted that “Islamic State” was, well, not a state.
Well spotted, Caroline. But that is exactly my point. I know it’s not a state. You know it’s not a state. But these Jihadists have chosen to find out the hard way. It will be a salutary lesson for them.
One other point came up, raised by Jonathan Dimbleby. There are now reports of disillusioned would-be Jihadists, who believed (however mistakenly) that they were going to Iraq to fight for the rights of their co-religionists, only to discover that they were engaged in little more than gang warfare, internecine strife between different terrorist groups vying for supremacy. Thoroughly discouraged, they now want to return (we are told) to the UK, but are afraid they will be jailed on return.
I suppose one ought to have some sympathy for young people fired by the misplaced idealism of youth, who go to fight for a cause they believe in, only to find they’ve been betrayed into barbarism. Moreover if their repentance is genuine, they could perform a critical role in fighting extremism and radicalisation in British Muslim communities. Of course I explicitly exclude any who have committed crimes in Iraq (though evidence is hard to come by).
The real problem here is to separate the sheep from the goats — the disillusioned and repentant idealists from the hardened, committed fanatics. We might feel that MI5 should be up to the job. But we know that psychopaths in our prisons can convince Parole Boards that they are reformed and ready for release, only to offend again as soon as they get out. The fear remains that these Islamist psychopaths may be at least equally plausible.
I can’t conclude without a word about the venue, Westonbirt School, which is housed in a simply stunning country mansion, Westonbirt House, near the National Arboretum. It was built in the Nineteenth Century by Robert Holford and clearly no expense was spared. It out-Trusts the National Trust. The 200+ girls who study there are privileged indeed. Few will be destined to live in such splendour again.