Bloodshed to bloodfest: rise and fall of an activist
Shahid Malik's career never lacked drama, says Andy McSmith
Saturday 16 May 2009
For years, Shahid Malik has had a reputation as a man in a hurry, determined to get to the top, who came out fighting when the going was tough. It was driving ambition that brought him on to television screens yesterday, adamantly proclaiming that he had done nothing wrong and forecasting his quick return to office.
Whenever Mr Malik has found himself in the centre of the storm, for instance after young Asians rioted in his native town of Burnley, or when one of his constituents from Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, was identified as the leader of the bombers behind the attacks on London on 7 July 2005, he has always fought back.
Mr Malik, 41, shot to fame one day in June 2001, when the police mistook him for a ringleader of the Burnley riots. In reality, he was a commissioner with the Commission for Racial Equality, and so was on the streets trying to spread calm. The police assaulted, arrested and handcuffed him. The incident was caught on national television when, with a theatrical touch, Mr Malik refused to wash the blood off his face.
He was more conciliatory when he emerged after seven hours in hospital with five stitches above one eye, and he realised that if he lambasted the police it could trigger more trouble on the streets. Instead, he declared: "No recriminations. This incident should not stereotype all police officers." His behaviour earned him praise and an apology from the Lancashire constabulary.
By then it was already obvious that Mr Malik had bigger ambitions than a career in a quango. He was, some people thought, too obviously political and too deeply plugged into the Labour Party to be a good race commissioner, which is probably why his appointment was not renewed in 2002. His aim was to become the Labour MP for Burnley, where he was born in 1967, and where his father, Rafiq, was the deputy mayor, but he was prevented by his party's decision that Burnley should have an all-women shortlist.
After that setback, Mr Malik seemed ready to go anywhere that a Labour Party seat was up for grabs. He entered what turned into a bad-tempered contest for the Labour nomination for Brent East in London, but was perhaps lucky to lose because the seat was then seized from Labour by the Liberal Democrats at the next election.
Mr Malik had, meanwhile, found himself a berth in the safe Labour seat of Dewsbury. He arrived in Parliament in 2005 with a track record of opposing the Government on issues that most directly interested British Muslims, notably the Iraq war, which he opposed from the outset.
But in the Commons, he managed to avoid any position that would have destroyed his chances of promotion. Two months after the London bombings, when Arab television showed a video of the ringleader, Mohammad Sidique Khan, from Dewsbury, boasting about the vengeance he was going to enact for the suffering that British foreign policy had caused Muslims, Mr Malik condemned his words as "sickening". He rubbished the idea that terrorism was caused by British foreign policy, blaming it instead on a "sick" interpretation of Islam.
A year later, when Jack Straw, the current Justice Secretary, caused a storm by suggesting Muslim women should not wear veils, Mr Malik's reaction was noticeably diplomatic. "We shouldn't shoot somebody for being honest," he said. At the time, a teaching assistant from Dewsbury, Aishah Azmi, had been suspended for insisting on wearing a full face veil. After she lost her (highly publicised) case at an employment tribunal, Mr Malik said: "I would appeal to Mrs Azmi now just to let this thing go. There is no real support for it."
When Gordon Brown became Prime Minister in 2007, he made Mr Malik a junior minister at the Department for International Development; he was the first Muslim to hold a ministerial job in the UK. A year later, Mr Malik was transferred to the Ministry of Justice and in March his job was expanded to include part of the Home Office.
When he was elected MP for Dewsbury, his constituents naturally expected him to live there, so he found a flat at what appears to have been a subsidised rent. The House of Commons rules say that when an MP becomes a minister he should inform his civil servants of any benefits he is receiving. Mr Malik allegedly failed to do that, which is why he became an ex-minister yesterday.
He clearly that believes he has done no wrong, but his fierce determination to fight his corner may have done him more harm than if he had quietly slipped out of sight. As one older, more experienced minister, who heard Mr Malik's performance in front of the media, remarked yesterday: "He seems to have forgotten the old rule – if you're in a hole, don't keep digging."
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