Vidya Ram

The Asian flavour in Westminster

Vidya Ram | Updated on January 23, 2018

Priti Patel Managing employment

Sajid Javid... Minding his business

To what extent will these MPs influence British policies vis-à-vis the ‘mother’ country?

In 1892, Dadabhai Naoroji became Britain’s first ethnic minority (and Indian) MP, representing the Liberal Party (that eventually morphed into the Liberal Democrats). Though he held the position for just three years, his impact on the UK was significant: he took up domestic issues, supporting the suffragette movement, and spread the message of his sharp critique of British imperialism, the drain theory, which focused on the transfer of wealth and capital via salaries, interest payments, and profits from India to the UK.

While he failed to be re-elected three years later, another Indian-origin politician, Mancherjee Mewanjee Bhownagree, took his place in the British parliament, this time representing the Conservative Party. Though a supporter of British rule in India, he too took up issues that impacted India, including education and the position of the Indian community in South Africa.

Three decades later, in 1922, a third Indian-origin MP, Shapurji Saklatvala, entered parliament as a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, also taking on domestic issues such as the position of coal miners as well as getting involved in the anti-colonial movement.

Nearly a century later, politicians of Indian origin have a major presence both in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. It’s perhaps unsurprising as there are around 1.4 million British voters of Indian origin, and some 6,15,000 Indian citizens resident in the UK (who are able to vote in the general elections, along with other Commonwealth citizens).

Interestingly, while Indian voters — like most ethnic minority groups — largely vote Labour (just over 60 per cent in the 2010 election, according to a report by the Runnymede Trust), there is a greater level of support for other parties, reflecting the wide range of backgrounds and affluence of the British Indian community. Some 24 per cent of voters with an Indian background voted Conservative in 2010, against 13 per cent from Pakistan and 18 per cent from Bangladesh. Indian voters also tend to be engaged — some 74 per cent voting in the last election according to Operation Black Vote.

Indian invasion

There are now 10 MPs of Indian-origin in Westminster. Some, such as Labour’s Keith Vaz, (who has been in parliament since 1987), Virendra Sharma and Seema Malhotra, and the Conservative’s Priti Patel and Sajid Javid (with roots in India and Pakistan), held on to their seats.

Newcomers include Rishi Sunak, the son-in-law of Infosys founder NR Narayana Murthy, who stood in the safe Tory Yorkshire constituency of former Foreign Secretary William Hague, who has now stood down as a member of parliament.

As might be expected, many Indian-origin MPs hold seats in areas with large Indian and Asian populations — they include Sharma, Malhotra and Vaz. However, there are many who have won seats in non-Asian dominated areas too such as Sunak, Patel and Alok Sharma (another Conservative parliamentarian who represents a constituency within the city of Reading).

While many Indian-origin MPs have had a prominent role in parliament and government (Vaz for example has, for the past eight years, headed the influential Home Affairs Select Committee in the House of Commons, a committee that has often appeared in the headlines, including when Rupert Murdoch appeared before it following the phone hacking scandal of 2011), their impact on UK-India relations presents a mixed picture. Certainly, while major issues relevant to the British Indian community have cropped up, many have campaigned vocally.

Some impact

A recent example would be the EU’s temporary ban on mangoes from India, along with several other vegetables, in 2014, which led to a campaign urging Britain to help push for a swift review of the ban by EU authorities (the ban was lifted earlier this year).

But on other India-relevant issues, they’ve had less of a prominent role — for example during a parliamentary debate on Kashmir last year, only a handful of Indian-origin MPs participated (even allowing for the fact that some were unable to because of their position within the government). Perhaps this is not surprising given that for many, the direct links go back several generations.

Going forward, the impact of an increase in the number and prominence of Indian-origin MPs remains to be seen. Patel, who was given the position of Prime Minister David Cameron’s Indian diaspora champion during the last government, has been raised to the position of employment minister, responsible for meeting the Conservative’s pledge to create 2 million domestic jobs in the next five years.

During the last government she became a prominent face of UK-India relations, beyond her ministerial stature at the time (she was appointed exchequer secretary to the Treasury last year), taking part in discussions with Finance Minister Arun Jaitley during his visit.

She’s a strong advocate of greater trade ties with India, and last year made headlines after making an official complaint about the BBC coverage of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the run-up to the general election.

At the same time, she’s in favour of tougher immigration controls — an issue that has overshadowed UK-India relations for a while now, particularly when it comes to student visas, and the lack of a post-study work option. (In 2013-2014 the number of Indian students coming to the UK fell by 2,635 to just under 20,000).

Immigration has also been an issue for Indian businesses, which have argued that the rigidity of the current regime limits their flexibility to bring in skilled workers from India as and when needed.

One to watch

Another figure to watch will be Javid, a former senior Deutsche Bank executive, who has been appointed Business Secretary — a prominent role when it comes to India-UK relations. (His predecessor, Liberal Democrat MP Vincent Cable, who lost his seat in the May 7 election, made several trips to India and made a major effort to change perceptions about Britain’s immigration stance.). Javid, like Patel, takes a tough stand on immigration. It’s far too early to tell what Sunak’s impact will be. Though he holds no ministerial position at least for now, he’s been identified as one of the party’s highflyers in the media (though, as Spectator magazine notes, the party now stays clear of publicly identifying rising A-listers, after that strategy backfired during the last election).

The big question now will be whether the rising number of Indian-origin MPs could help parties strengthen their ties with India, and help revive a steady if unremarkable bilateral relationship.

It’s noteworthy that Britain is one of the only major western powers not to have been visited by Modi since he became Prime Minister.

While the Conservatives in their election manifesto pledged to support India’s bid to become a permanent UN Security Council member, other issues overshadow the political relationship, such as Britain’s stance on Kashmir and Afghanistan. On a business level, while FDI in both directions is strong, trade has lagged behind expectations at around $15 billion annually.

Published on May 13, 2015

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