Colourblind: Britain’s local municipal elections

Dadabhoy Naoroji - Britain’s first elected Asian MP, was paler than the ruddy Salisbury

A Muslim and a Sikh in a tight hug would be a stagy illustration of communal harmony in India. But the picture I mean was published in London’s Evening Standard newspaper last Friday. The intention was not to highlight interreligious cordiality but the Labour Party’s success in Britain’s current municipal elections.

One of the two men was Sadiq Khan, a prominent Labour member of Parliament who handled the party’s campaign in London. He was embracing the red-turbaned Jas Athwal, a Labour municipal councillor, to celebrate Labour’s success. Their ethnicity was just incidental and unremarkable for minority and mainstream are becoming indistinguishable.

However, this success might be grist to the racist mill of another force that is beginning to shine brightly in the political firmament. Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) whose two campaign planks are anti-immigration and anti-European Union, appears grinning from newspaper pages and television screens.

Ukip, which, too, has done well electorally, implies it accepts the hundreds of thousands of people from former British colonies in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean already settled in this country. But it objects to continental Europeans — especially Rumanians — who are flocking in because of EU membership.

Life has moved on since 1892 when the Marquess of Salisbury remarked the British wouldn’t want to be represented by “a black man.” That was when Queen Victoria is famously supposed to have sniffed, “We are not amused”. According to contemporary chroniclers, the “bla-ck man”, Dadabhoy Nao-roji, Britain’s first elected Asian member of Parliament, was paler than the ruddy Salisbury.

The next two Indian MPs (Mancherjee Bhownagree and Shapurji Saklatvala) were also Parsis. Saklatvala was a card-carrying Communist whom the par-ty reprimanded for holding Zoroastrian initiation rites for his children. He explained it was not for religious reasons but to ensure they were not excluded from the family trust. The gambit didn’t help his bid to succeed his uncle, Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata.

Saklatvala was elected in 1922. There was no other Indian MP until 1987 when Keith Vaz, who held office under Tony Blair, entered the Commons. But there have been plenty since in both Houses of Parliament.

Compare this with Italy where the Congo-born black African minister for integration, Cecile Kyenge, has been compared to an orangutan, called a “dirty black monkey” and accu-sed of introducing “tribal conditions” and forming a “bongo-bongo” administration. In June, a local councillor called for Kyenge to be raped. Bananas were lobbed at her as she made a speech the following month. Nor is Ms Kyenge the only one to suffer attack. The black footballer Mario Balotelli who was born to Ghanaian parents in Sicily and is now a mainstay in the Italian national team, has faced stadium chants of “a negro cannot be Italian”.

Such outrages seem impossible in multiracial, multicultural Britain. In fact, it’s sometimes said that the native-born white Briton fares worst from a system that appears to welcome penniless forei-gners and reward the unemployed with an income. The charges may not stand up to scrutiny but can provide emotional ammunition at a time of economic deprivation.

The very fact that the Prime Minister, David Cameron, refers so often to the number of jobs Ratan Tata, who was awarded a high British honour earlier this month, has created by buying Jaguar-Rover cars might suggest a slight degree of defensiveness.

Mr Khan is close to Labour Party leader Ed Miliband. His campaign appealed to London’s better educated, multiracial voters to create what is called the London Effect, and might stand Labour in good stead when the next government is elected. If Mr Miliband becomes Prime Minister, he is bound to reward Mr Khan with a major portfolio.

Politicians like Mr Khan and Mr Athwal are part of a global cast of many hues and varied features who are changing the face — literally — of British politics. They are not all South Asians.

Oona King, for instance, who represents an east London constituency, is described as “African American/Jewish White British (Mixed Race)”. The two Johnson brothers — Boris, the one-time editor of the Spectator who quit as MP to become mayor of London, and Jo, who represented the Financial Times in Delhi — are down as “British Turkish/White British”. Anna Lo is “British Hong Kongian”.

Dispensing with the usual Nigerian, Jamaican, Ghanaian or other such African appellation, Baron Hastings of Scarisbrick calls himself “Black British”. Despite being without beard or turban, Paul Uppal is “British Sikh”. And Lisa Nandy’s “British Pakistani/White British (Mixed Race)” is intriguing since Nandy is neither a Pakistani nor an identifiably British surname. It’s Bengali Hindu. But then, the Bengali Brahmin Baron (Kumar) Bhattacharyya is “British Bangladeshi”. It’s not just names.

Appearances too are beginning to confuse. One could tell people by their features. African and Indian, Chinese and Arab, even Jews and Latins displayed some distinctive characteristics. Britain was a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant country when I came first in 1954. Today’s Britain is a melting pot, and increasingly colourblind at that.

The writer is a senior journalist, columnist and author

( Source : dc )
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