The Rise of British Indians in Politics

(Photo: The Guardian)

By Roshan Shukla – Contributor

The recent government reshuffle sees British Indians now having six times as much representation in the cabinet (15%) as their respective proportion of the national population (2.5%). This follows a recent trend of a growth in representation for British Indians in British politics, and it is worth uncovering the stories behind their rise on the political scene, and in particular in the Conservative Party. 

Many of their stories have humble beginnings. In search of a better life, many Indian immigrants arrived in the 1960s, filling in the post-war labour shortage by working lowly-paid and physically demanding jobs from dusk till dawn. More joined them in the 1970s, having fled the persecution brought on by former Ugandan President Idi Amin, arriving with only the clothes on their backs. Yet, even with these hardships, British Indians have still been able to reach the summit of the political mountain with several of their descendants visible as members of the cabinet.

As a British Indian myself, it comes as no surprise to see British Indians assume the highest offices in the land within a generation. Having witnessed first-hand the work ethic, diligence and devotion of British Indians to this country, it seemed only a matter of time until their loyalty was rewarded. Conservative Prime Minister Ted Heath once said on the value of British Indians who came here as refugees, “Uganda’s loss is our gain”. This statement has been proven correct time and again, with British Indians contributing to this country as doctors, entrepreneurs, and a range of professions that are the cornerstones of our communities.

These British Indian immigrants and their descendants, who have tirelessly contributed to the NHS, enterprise and various other institutions, are part of the immigrant population that comprises the backbone of modern Britain. This is reflected in the multiple careers and family backgrounds of the British Indian Cabinet Members today. For example, Rishi Sunak’s father worked as a GP while his mother ran a pharmacy, Priti Patel’s father owned a chain of newsagents, and Alok Sharma started as an accountant. These are some of the most non-privileged backgrounds of anyone in the cabinet. They will hopefully acknowledge their roots and not pull up the ladder on those wishing to follow in their footsteps. 

However, this identification with the Conservative party often results in abuse towards British Indians, with people claiming that this affiliation ‘undermines’ their heritage. However, their party loyalty arguably only makes sense; Baron Tebbit, former Chairman of the Conservative party, once stated, “Asians are natural Conservatives. Strong commitment to family values, resolute work ethic, keen on education, entrepreneurial and business-minded”. The latest census back this up, with British Indians being the second wealthiest ethnic group, above white British. Similarly, this inclusion of British Indians is merely a mirror of recent elections. In 2010, a survey found that the Conservative Party won 30% of the British Indian vote. By 2017 this was 40%, and further surveys have suggested that in 2019 the Conservatives did even better. This is helped a lot by the popularity of politicians like Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who was ranked the most popular politician in the UK early this year, with 42% approval. Similarly, popular Indian politicians such as current President Narendra Modi have been associated with the Conservative Party, for example when David Cameron introduced him at his speech in Wembley Stadium in 2015. This shows that the identification of British Indians with the Conservative Party is not a new thing, and voters should not be abused for this. 

To British Indians like myself, it is important to see people who share our history who have gone from being taunted with physical and verbal racial abuse (as happened to Sunak and Patel), including from groups like the National Front, still being able to make it to the top. Imagine any one of these three figures being in 10 Downing Street one day and the impact that will have. Some will suggest that it would make no difference and that this country is institutionally racist beyond repair. As a person of colour, who can speak with some authority, I believe that is not the case. True, there are pockets of racism in this country that undoubtedly need to be addressed. There is no denying that there is still racism in this country that need to be removed. However, if anywhere has worked towards redeeming itself for its colonisation and historical ills, it is Britain. After the Second World War, this island opened its arms to anyone across the commonwealth who had the will and determination to get here. 

My grandparents saw this island as a future beacon of diversity- a place where people of all races and colours came to live in harmony and peace. That’s how I still see it today, especially when looking at how multicultural our country’s leadership and population are compared to anywhere else on the globe. This is therefore an association that many British Indians have with the Conservative Party. While systemic racism has not been wholly disappeared for everyone, for many British Indians, it has fallen to a level that would be unimaginable merely a few decades ago. In contrast to the naysayers, I believe children of Indian heritage sitting in front of the television in Birmingham, Leicester, Southall and elsewhere will look up at the screen and know that their skin colour will not be a barrier in their lives. 

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