recently ran for the leadership of the Liberal Democrats but was decisively defeated. Simon Barrow zoomed by her office on 6 August 2020, three weeks before the voting ended.
Photography: Tim Bearder
Can you tell us a bit about your background?
I was the first of four kids. I was the first grandchild on both sides of the family and so everyone was very excited.
I spoke Arabic as a child – my first word was daw’, which means ‘light’. [Up to the age of three,] I spoke exclusively Arabic with my mum and English with my father, who doesn’t really speak any Arabic at all.
Dad joined the [EU] Commission when I was one and we moved to Brussels and I went to a French-speaking Montessori preschool, so I’d always had a very eclectic background, I think – and an eclectic identity, based more on what was in front of me at the time than on any one strong cultural influence.
What does it mean to you to be half Palestinian?
The Arabic bit, to be perfectly honest, is partly about language, music and food – a lot of food. I love cooking Arabic food now. But it wasn’t really until we moved to Jordan when I was 16 that I think I really connected with the Arabic side of my family. That was amazing. I got to know a bit more about my great-grandfather, Wasif Jawhariyyeh,1www.paljourneys.org/wasif-jawhariyyeh who was a well-known oud player and composer – my mother’s side of the family are very musical. His diaries were published [in Arabic in 2003], which was the first time I realised how well known he was at the time and how influential.
Obviously, I already knew of my mum’s heritage. Her mother’s family are originally Greek but they went to Palestine and my grandmother was born there. After the diaspora in the late Sixties,2That is, after the Six-Day War in 1967, when Israel seized and occupied the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip they moved away to Jordan and then eventually to Greece, though a lot of the family stayed in Jordan.
I have a British passport, I’ve never had anything else; but as a family we lived in London for one year before moving away. So, what kind of British am I? Where am I from?
Their stories are stories of resilience. I remember my grandmother telling me of the Jordanian civil war [of 1970–71, also known as ‘Black September’], and then they got caught up in a civil war in Cyprus. Every 10 years or so, that family would move to somewhere else and start again. It was a typical diaspora (which is, frankly, another word for ‘refugee’ – or ‘refugee with means’) family.
‘Money doesn’t matter’ was kind of the thing that they said. Integrity matters, how you treat other people matters, your legacy matters. Money doesn’t matter.
How did you react to Theresa May’s remark about ‘citizens of nowhere’?3At the Conservative Party conference in 2016, she said: ‘Today, too many people in positions of power behave as though they have more in common with international elites than with the people down the road, the people they employ, the people they pass on the street. But if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship means.’
I was deeply offended, deeply offended, by that comment, because it felt very much like an attack on a life that I had no control over. And that I’m very proud of, because moving around the world in the way that I did, having that mixed heritage, I think makes you very open to recognising that everyone’s experience in its own way is diverse and you should get to know someone before you make a judgement on them.
I have a British passport, I’ve never had anything else; but as a family we lived in London for one year before moving away. So, what kind of British am I? And there are lots of British people across the world like that, who also are international – and yet somehow she was making us feel like second-class citizens in our own country. So, where am I from?
Where do you think of as home?
Well, I am very proud to live in Oxford. It’s a diverse, welcoming city, and there’s very easy access to airports if I need to go and see family abroad. When you have moved around so often, you become very good at working out how a community works and getting stuck in, and embedded, really quickly – and now actually, for the first time in my life, I really have absolutely no itchy feet and no desire to live anywhere else.
You’ve described yourself as ‘a humanist’…
My mum’s family are quite religious – I was baptised in a Greek Orthodox church and when I go to Greece I will go and light a candle. (There’s a Greek Orthodox church in Oxford and I’ll go and light a candle there sometimes, if there’s someone from that side of the family that’s ill.) But it’s mainly symbolic. I don’t go to church unless it’s for a wedding or a funeral or something like that.
When I was at school, I loved singing in the choir and I became chapel prefect, even though by that point I’d decided I wasn’t that religious. I was more scientific, actually, and that understanding of the world that I was seeking, and peace with its complexity, which when I was younger I thought would come from religion, I found in physics, which ties it all together. So, am I agnostic? Well, if someone could give me proof that God exists, I’m not going to reject it.
Humanism is one of these labels that I read about and I go: ‘Oh, that makes sense. Maybe I’m that.’ Humanists essentially believe in the inherent goodness in people, and that’s my starting-point with people in general: that I believe they are good people, just doing their best, and I trust them. I always try to look for the best in people.
There are strands in humanism that make human interests and needs the be-all and end-all. Hasn’t the ecological crisis rather called that into question?
When I talk about my experience of depression and obesity, I can only ever describe how it was for me. It’s a hard conversation to have with someone you know really well, let alone wider society
You’re highlighting that there are strands to humanism I don’t really know about and have not really engaged with.
My own view – having lived in countries that are far more affected by climate change than this one – [is that] we are lucky in our temperate climate and abundant water and, you know, the green landscapes that are so eloquently described in [William Blake’s poem] ‘Jerusalem’. Jerusalem itself doesn’t look like that. The Arab world doesn’t look like that. And the kind of scarcity that you get in other parts of the world has always made me appreciate how incredibly important our natural environment is.
So, if that’s in conflict with humanist philosophy, maybe I’m not humanist [and] I don’t know what I am. I do believe that we are all interconnected and that our planet deserves our respect as much as we all do.
You’ve had to deal with social stereotyping and stigma in the past. Do you find it difficult to talk about such things?
Whenever I talk about my own personal experience of depression and obesity,4See eg, theguardian.com/commentisfree/. I do not claim to be an expert, I do not try to [say] how someone else might be feeling; I can only ever describe how it was for me. And often that deepens people’s empathy and understanding.
It’s actually a really hard conversation to have with someone you know really well, let alone with wider society; but I think there is now a general sense that people want to get to know each other – to know who you are and what drives you and what you’ve had to overcome – and so, maybe because I am younger than most politicians or maybe because I am a very open person generally, I’ve invited some of those conversations.
And even when they have been uninvited, I’ve embraced them. A good example is my sexuality, which wasn’t something I’d wanted to bring up as early as it came up – I hadn’t yet told members of my extended family about it. A Sunday newspaper had been pursuing the story for several months and we were saying, you know, ‘Please don’t do this!’, but they decided that that was their moment and they were threatening to print. So, I decided that I was going to take control of the story and I was going to tell it.5See eg bbc.co.uk/news/.
It is a deeply personal thing – and frankly most people don’t care; but there has been a small number of people that it has really helped, so I’m happy to talk about it.
At the moment, the debate about transgender issues seems to be particularly bitter, especially on social media. I imagine that you can empathise with both sides of the argument. How do you handle those kinds of disagreements and how do you resolve your own conflicting sympathies?
I’m very sad at the way that conversations that should be compassionate and rational have simply become divisive – and not just on this matter, but more generally in political discourse at the moment. Maybe it’s social media that’s driving it, I don’t know. It certainly seems to have got worse over the last five years. The Russia report6See wikipedia.org/Russia_report. makes the point that our democracy was being trolled in this way from the 2014 Scottish [independence] referendum onwards, so it’s possible that some of this division is being sown from elsewhere. I just don’t know. What I do know is that none of these incredibly complex issues are solved in 140-character tweets, or in any sort of reductionist way.
My father’s job and my mother’s background meant that politics was always discussed around the dinner table. I spoke to presidents and prime ministers in their garden
We’ve seen some really alarming statistics and signals – you know, 95-odd per cent of trans people, men and women, feel that they’ve been discriminated against, and some are now actively looking to leave the country. Shocking numbers in schools have self-harmed and have been on suicide watch.
The underlying issue here is not just tolerance – I don’t like the word ‘tolerance’, because to tolerate something suggests you don’t like it and are just putting up with it. We’re not celebrating them. We’re not celebrating their bravery in the face of the travails that they’ve had to go through to be who they are – and ultimately all people want is to be happy.
So, the way that I try to resolve this is: let’s bring it back to the human. Let’s bring it back to a point of compassion. And also let’s bring it back to a point of evidence – because a lot of the debate has been marred by misinformation and scaremongering, unfortunately, spread primarily on Facebook and Twitter. The scientist in me goes: Look, let’s look at what evidence there is for the various things you’re concerned about. And often there is none.
What kind of liberal are you, and what are the sources of your liberalism?
It’s fair to say that my experience outside of Westminster is being used against me [in the party’s leadership contest] as something that shows I’m inexperienced; but in fact I consider the fact that I’ve spent most of my career outside of the Westminster bubble as a great advantage, because I haven’t bought into the way that classic politicians think.
For most of my life, I was not political with a big ‘p’ [but] I was always political with a small ‘p’ insofar as when I saw injustice I would want to do something about it. My father’s job and my mother’s background meant that politics was always [discussed] around the dinner table, and I’ve been around it a lot – you know, I’ve spoken to many presidents and prime ministers, mainly because they were in the garden when my father was having a reception.
In my late twenties, when I voted for the first time, I voted Lib Dem but it was mainly that I really didn’t like the then Labour government and felt that we needed to shake up the system – I was just, you know, that kind of young person.
The thing that really woke me up to liberalism and what it means, in the context of something that I cared about deeply, was [the 2003 invasion of] Iraq. The stance that [the then Liberal Democrat leader] Charles Kennedy7Interviewed for High Profile in July 1999 took over Iraq I felt was a real wake-up moment for me in understanding that internationalism was a really important part of liberalism – but also that peace was a really important part of it, and evidence as well. Given my background – being a scientist, being very internationalist and being someone who has travelled the world with a diplomat who was part of an organisation that was trying to spread peace and aid and trade and all the rest of it – I saw in the Lib Dems a party that I felt was very close to probably what I believed.
I then did a master’s in comparative education and it was then that actually I got quite angry, over the educational inequality in our country. Having grown up in countries that really are very poor – Ethiopia in the late Eighties, Jordan, Jamaica – I appreciated, through the research that we were engaging with, how huge inequalities are in this country. There are children in this country who go to bed hungry at night, and yet we have an economy that should be able to support them.
You want as much freedom in all parts of society as possible, but if there is a conflict between freedom for the individual and freedom for a market, I will always pick the individual
I was ashamed of being British. I had two instincts at that point. One was to take the easy route, to make use of my international connections and move out of the country again. The other was to stay, rooted here, and fight, recognising that unless we sort our own country out, how can we preach to other countries about child nutrition or education or whatever else?
That’s when I decided to be an MP. Of course, you know, you don’t just wake up and decide to be an MP; obviously, it’s much harder than that. But I realised that, in order to effect real change, that is probably what I needed to do. I picked the Lib Dems partly because of my previous sympathies, but also I compared all the political parties’ policies with what the research was saying would actually solve these kinds of issues in our country, and we were the closest.
I thought [at the time] I was more of a social democrat, but over subsequent years, as I got introduced to liberal traditions, the way that they are absolutely centred on the celebration of the individual, on embracing diversity, on that community-focused approach that then solves bigger problems, I realised that actually I was a liberal all along, it’s just that I was never really taught what that meant.
In 2008, when I interviewed Nick Clegg for High Profiles, I asked him whether he saw any tension between economic and social liberalism, and he seemed to be genuinely puzzled by the question.
Do you share that kind of laissez-faire optimism or do you think there are tough choices to be made sometimes?
I think that even people who would describe themselves as ‘economic liberals’ in the party now appreciate that not all markets are perfect. As I understand it, economic liberalism, and this whole idea [that] if you marketise something it’s going to lead to better outcomes, is predicated on equal access to information and equal access to the market itself – which is partly why I believe that education should be one of the top things that anyone who is a liberal cares about, because that’s how you ensure equal access to information for all.
But you also need to look at the outcomes that those markets deliver, and we know that our education system is unequal. Therefore, ipso facto, you cannot have economic liberalism that doesn’t involve some intervention from the state, because [otherwise] people won’t have equal access to the tools that they need to make the most of those markets, and therefore the markets will never deliver in the way that purist economic liberals want.
So, you want as much freedom in all parts of society as possible, but if there is a conflict between freedom for the individual and freedom for a market, I will always pick the individual. Perhaps that’s why I would sit closer to the social liberal side, if I had to pick a side.
You said that peace is an important element of your understanding of liberalism. As it happens, today is the 75th anniversary of the atom-bombing of Hiroshima…
I understand that the Liberal Democrat position is to renew Britain’s nuclear weapons.
More than anything else in the world, I would love to go back in time and stop nuclear weapons ever being created in the first place – but we are where we are
Not like-for-like. Not like-for-like. Actually, I agree with the party’s approach, because I’m also a pragmatist and I understand geopolitics and how it works, and those nuclear weapons are actually, broadly speaking, partly why we’re on the UN Security Council. We would lose our ability to influence across the world if we unilaterally gave them up. I think it would be a very difficult thing for the country to do straightaway.
I’m also a multilateralist. I don’t want a world that has nuclear weapons in it and, more than anything else in the world, I would love to go back in time and stop them from ever being created in the first place; but we are where we are. So, what we believe is that, rather than replace all four [Trident-armed submarines], we would step down the nuclear deterrent to a non-continuous-at-sea deterrent. I think we would be the first country to be actively downgrading our nuclear arsenal – in the group of countries that are known to have one, anyway.
The problem with multilateralism is that if everyone is waiting until everyone agrees to make a move, almost nothing ever happens.
Exactly. That’s why taking that tentative first step would show real leadership.
If it ever came to it, would you yourself be prepared to ‘press the nuclear button’?
Oh, well, I mean, frankly, given where the Lib Dems are right now, I really don’t see that arising while I’m leader. But I honestly – I don’t – I don’t think you know.
If you were asked to do something like that, you would have to be aware that you would be killing millions of people and at that point it would be a utilitarian question about what would kill the fewest people. It would be an incredibly precarious moment for the planet, and I can’t even imagine at this point what would get us there. But if you are in that position, you have to do the job that you have been elected to do, in a country that has this capacity.
I sincerely hope that we get to a world where we don’t need to do that, and that is why I believe in engaging at the international level. It’s why I believe that being part of the European Union was so important. It’s why I believe in the United Nations. All of these things are under threat across the world right now, and that is why we have to fight for peace, with partners anywhere around the world.
You’ve expressed support for what might be called ‘a progressive alliance’. What compromises should Liberal Democrats be willing to make to forge an effective opposition to the growing power of the right?
So, the way that I approach politics is collaboratively in general, you know, and especially when [our support is] 6 per cent in the last poll I looked at. If we are going to actually achieve anything for people from our current position in Westminster, we have to forge alliances. And that includes with backbench Conservative MPs, incidentally, so I’m proud to chair the all-party group on coronavirus and I’m even more proud that [the former Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union] David Davis is part of it. You wouldn’t think that we would [both] be involved in something like that, but it’s about what it is that you need to do for the greater good.
I think there is a big question mark over the Lib Dems. What we need to do now is regain people’s trust. If there’s one thing I’m striving for now, it’s that
When it comes to the next general election, we have to work out how to beat the first-past-the-post system. When you are challenging the Conservatives, it makes no sense [for the other parties] to campaign against each other when it’s so clear that we have a common foe. In my own seat in 2017, the Greens stood aside, but more than that, they actively campaigned for me, with me. They traipsed the streets with green rosettes with ‘Layla to win’ and yellow in the middle. We had people putting ‘Labour Voting for Layla’ posters in their windows. It was about more than just tactical voting.
It was about forging relationships?
Exactly. And, with the Tory party increasingly moving to the right, I think there is appetite for that kind of approach on a seat-by-seat basis. Lib Dem members, and voters, are generally very pragmatic and will reciprocate – and already have in some places. [We need] a signal from the top that what we need to do at the next election is deprive Boris Johnson of a majority, and in seats [where] this kind of co-operation is helpful, it should be encouraged.
After five years of the Coalition government, many people suspect that, when it comes to it, the Lib Dems will swing whichever way will get them into power. How are you going to build the trust to make a progressive alliance possible?
Well, some of it lies in common policy platforms, and the green agenda is really important in this. The focus on public services, particularly education and the NHS, is really important. There seems to be a movement in the Labour Party now towards electoral reform, which is incredibly important because the only reason we are talking about this is because of the first-past-the-post system.
Where I gained trust on the ground in my own seat was by demonstrating through the things I was campaigning on that actually we have more in common (to coin a phrase). Also, our approach to campaigning was respectful [to the other progressive parties].
There are some who blame us for that Coalition period, and particularly austerity; and, to be perfectly honest, there are parts of that legacy that I’m not very proud of, either. We can’t ever write it out of our party’s history, and if I’m leader of the party I’ll face questions on it; but I think we need to demonstrate that where we got it wrong we’ve learnt from that and we won’t do it again.
That sense of drawing a line under the last 10 years and moving on is a big part of what I’m trying to communicate to our own ‘selectorate’, because what I’m hearing from a lot of friends of mine who are in the Labour Party is that they are willing to think about working with us in some way but they need to know that we understand what was so bad about that period.
Electing me would basically be a signal – and what we then campaign on after that would be the proof in the pudding, as it were.
There is a lot of talk about ‘a new politics’. What does that term mean to you?
H’mm. I think it partly is in how you campaign and the language that you use and the respect for others. We have to try to find the points of commonality. I do think that there is a greater appetite for working together in Parliament, more than ever before. Also, there’s been a move, increasingly over the last few years, for the executive to take more power away from Parliament, so Parliament has had to find ways to assert itself.
I’m hopeful that that is what we mean by ‘a new type of politics’: one that puts the common good [above] tribal political divisions. Unfortunately, I don’t see us getting away from those fully until we change the voting system, because our winner-takes-all system basically forces you to campaign against someone else. It’s a very competitive way of looking at politics. If you move to a more proportional system, it becomes much more about ‘Well, these are the best bits about me’ and you can vote positively.
But I feel that I do do politics differently. I’m pretty accessible, I communicate a lot with my constituents and I’m very honest with them. If I don’t know something in an interview, I say: ‘I don’t know.’
I think it all boils down to honesty – and trust, which, bluntly, since the expenses scandal… (And it’s got even worse since then, through Brexit and everything else.) I think we overtook estate agents in the last three or four rounds of ‘Which profession do you trust the least?’ And I think there is also a big question mark over the Lib Dems.
So, that’s what we need to do now: regain people’s trust. And if there’s one thing I’m striving for now, it’s that.
|⇑2||That is, after the Six-Day War in 1967, when Israel seized and occupied the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip|
|⇑3||At the Conservative Party conference in 2016, she said: ‘Today, too many people in positions of power behave as though they have more in common with international elites than with the people down the road, the people they employ, the people they pass on the street. But if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship means.’|
|⇑4||See eg, theguardian.com/commentisfree/.|
|⇑5||See eg bbc.co.uk/news/.|
|⇑7||Interviewed for High Profile in July 1999|
Layla Moran was born in west London in 1982. Her father was an EU diplomat and so she grew up in a number of different countries, including Belgium, Greece, Ethiopia, Jamaica and Jordan. She was educated at Roedean School and read physics at Imperial College London.
From 2003 to 2012, she taught maths and physics, at the International School of Brussels and at Queensmead and Southbank International Schools in London. She took time out in 2005–7 to complete a PGCE at Brunel University and in 2007/8 to take a master’s degree in comparative education at UCL’s Institute of Education.
She also worked part-time from 2009 as a course tutor for Oxford Study Courses. In 2013, she was promoted to be their full-time academic manager.
She ran in the 2010 general election as the Liberal Democrat candidate for Battersea and then stood in the 2012 London Assembly election, on both occasions without success.
She contested Oxford West and Abingdon in the 2015 general election, coming second with just under 29% of the vote. Two years later, she won the seat with a majority of 816, and in 2019 she retained it with 53.3% of the vote. She was the first British MP of Palestinian descent and the first female Liberal Democrat MP from an ethnic-minority background.
In her first year in the House of Commons she served as her party’s spokesperson on education, science and young people and was appointed to the Public Accounts Committee, responsible for overseeing government expenditure. In 2019/20, she spoke for the Liberal Democrats on digital, culture, media and sport.
She decided not to run for the party leadership in 2019, despite being considered a frontrunner to succeed Vince Cable; but in 2020 she entered the race to replace Jo Swinson.
In the summer of 2020, she was appointed chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus.
Up-to-date as at 1 August 2020