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April - May 2004


Spotlight

Interview: Barry Gardiner, MP for Brent North

by Bhupendra Gandhi


I first met Barry Gardiner by chance, when he was canvassing in our constituency of Brent North, during the 1997 general election. We were in a greengrocer's shop, in Kingsbury. As it was a working day, practically every one in the shop was an old age pensioner, with a limited knowledge of English.Barry was there with a film crew and when I told him that I was a free lance journalist, he asked me and Kumudini if we would like to say a few words. It turned out to be a fifteen minute's interview, discussing every relevant topic but mainly local and national politics.

Barry Talking To A Monk At The Swaminarayn Temple, Neasden
Barry Being introduced To The Head Monk At The Swaminarayan Temple, Neasden

In the end Barry asked us if we would vote for him. My truthful reply was that we would be voting for Sir Rhodes Boyson. It was not a vote for the Conservative party or the approval of the government's record, who had just announced the plan to run down our local Edgware General Hospital but it was a personal vote for Sir Boyson, who was a very devoted constituency MP, always able, ready and willing to help us, his constituents, in our hour of need.

Barry's reply was, " Give me a chance and see what I can and would do for you." Since our first chance meeting, I met Barry several times before the election, mainly at friend's house, where Barry was invited to meet local people mainly from Indian community. After several meetings, I felt it was time for a change and we voted for Barry, although with some reservation, as we had always voted for Sir Boyson.

I must admit Barry did more for his constituents and the ethnic community, in just one term than any of his predecessors managed to achieve in their entire tenure at the House of Commons. No wonder Barry managed to more than double his majority at the last general election and has made Brent North a safe Labour seat, a great achievement, considering Brent North was a safe Conservative seat for a very long time. One asset Barry has, which impresses voters, is that he is so easy to approach and even easier to talk to. Barry has, through hard work, cultivated a tremendous personal following beyond party line. At 46 Barry is one of the youngest and most articulate MP in the House of Commons.

Barry With India's PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee
Barry With Bhupendra Gandhi
Barry was born and brought up in Scotland, one of three children of the late John Flannegan Gardiner and the late Mrs. Sylvia Strachan Gardiner. His father was a general manager of Kelvin Hall and his mother was a doctor. However Barry did not have an affluent upbringing, as his parentage would suggest, as Barry lost his father when he was only eight and his mother when he was seventeen. In a way, Barry is a self-made person, having looked after himself since the age of seventeen. As a child, he attended Hailesbury College ( secondary school ) where he obtained his O and A level education, before moving to St. Andrew's college, the oldest and most prestigious college in Scotland, on par with Oxford and Cambridge.
Hailesbury college has a very distinguished history and has given the British nation some very prominent personalities. The college was used by East India Company to educate the children of Company's employees and one prominent member, a great social reformer, educated at Haileybury College was Thomason, who laid the foundation stone of English education in India, establishing hundreds of schools throughout British India. Also educated at Haileybury, was the Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee, who surprisingly but resoundingly beat Sir Winston Churchill in 1945. India gained independence when Shri Clement Attlee was the Prime Minister.
Barry entered the university to read English but switched to philosophy. While at college, he was deeply involved with Student Christian Movement. (SCM) Barry describes this movement as similar to our own National Hindu Student Forum. After completing the third year, Barry worked as a Scottish Secretary for the Student Christian Movement for two years. During this time Barry visited sister organizations in various part of the world, Europe, North, Central and South America. While with SCM, Barry lived in a housing estate, just outside Edinburgh, called West Pilton Estate.

The estate was on the wrong side of the social divide, outside prosperous, comfortable Edinburgh, rife with domestic violence which was fueled by alcohol abuse and drug dealings, where male unemployment touched 80%. Their residents had no chance in life. It was a dead end estate for the people without hope. The country was going through a difficult period, with race riots in Toxteth, Brixton, Bristol and West Pilton stealing the headlines.
Barry entered the university to read English but switched to philosophy. While at college, he was deeply involved with Student Christian Movement. (SCM) Barry describes this movement as similar to our own National Hindu Student Forum. After completing the third year, Barry worked as a Scottish Secretary for the Student Christian Movement for two years. During this time Barry visited sister organizations in various part of the world, Europe, North, Central and South America. While with SCM, Barry lived in a housing estate, just outside Edinburgh, called West Pilton Estate.

The estate was on the wrong side of the social divide, outside prosperous, comfortable Edinburgh, rife with domestic violence which was fueled by alcohol abuse and drug dealings, where male unemployment touched 80%. Their residents had no chance in life. It was a dead end estate for the people without hope. The country was going through a difficult period, with race riots in Toxteth, Brixton, Bristol and West Pilton stealing the headlines.
In time, the garden, the allotment and such other projects became the pride and joy of the whole community, bringing down vandalism and adding some pride and purpose in the lives of these deprived and neglected people. As a result, the Lothian Social Services approached Barry and Caroline and requested them to become a detached, roving good workers.

One incident Barry can recall with pride, is that one night his wife Caroline woke Barry up at 2am and said that she had a strange dream. Some one was stealing their potatoes. Barry got out of the bed grudgingly, peeped through the curtain and indeed saw a couple of people digging up their allotment.

Barry dressed up quickly and ran downstairs, knocking on the door of Rab, a neighbor. Now Rab was a violent man, spending more time in prison than outside but the hard work in the garden and on the allotment had managed to harness his energy, his vigor for the project. Rab was in charge of an allotment plot and it was his pride and joy. Next day the atmosphere was tense. It was soon apparent who the culprits were. Every one was wondering, indeed dreading what Rab would do to the thugs who had decimated his beloved project, his pride, his one achievement in life.
Rab stayed in his flat whole day and in the late afternoon, when he came out, he calmly dug up a sack full of potatoes and gave it to the persons who were stealing them in the middle of the night. Rab felt that if they had to go out in the middle of the night to steal, then they needed these potatoes more than any one else. It was an amazing moment, an unbelievable act of forgiveness from a person who had always turned to violence when provoked. From then on Rob was a changed man. It was a minor miracle for Barry and the West Pilton community. Barry says, during the four years he spent at the West Pilton estate, he learnt more about human nature, their problems, human frailty and the kind of world we live in than he could ever learn in a university or any institution. He got the opportunity to put the theory he learnt at the university into practice at West Pilton estate.
I would like to add that it requires a strong will power, a desire to serve the humanity and sacrifice on all front to spend four years in such a deprived area, especially when you are married. It shows how much Caroline is part of Barry's life, may be his inspiration as well and how determined Barry is to bring social justice and equality to the people of this country. Barry was not involved with politics in his student days. One incident that made him join the Labour party also occurred at the Pilton estate. The council put up for sale 718 flats but did not have the courage or the courtesy to tell the tenants who read about the sale in the evening paper.
Each flat was sold to a developer at a give away price of one thousand pounds per flat but due to some loophole, the developer were given seven thousand pounds per flat for refurbishment, although originally such a grant was meant for owner occupier only. The developer walked away with 718 flats, plenty of land and over four million pounds in cash. Young Barry was seething with anger. He realized that if he want to avoid such injustices in future, he had to enter politics and the Labour party was the natural home for his aspiration. Thus the seeds of his political career were sown at the Pilton estate.
Barry met Caroline at a church gathering in 1975, when he was just seventeen. It was a love at first sight and they have been together ever since, through thick and thin, getting married in 1979 when Barry was only 22 years old. They have four wonderful children, three boys and a girl, the oldest boy Jesse is 19 and the youngest is just 6 years old.
Barry has equally interesting working background. After leaving college, he became a roving lecturer, regularly visiting the Academy of National Economy in Moscow. He also spend just under three years at Cambridge University, doing research. He became a partner in a company called Meditteranean Average Adjusting Co. The Company acts as an arbitrator, to assess the value of the cargo on a ship, when the ship is stranded on a rock, a sand bank or meet such other disasters. It is a very difficult and a very complicated process. There are only some 500 such assessors in the world and some 300 are based in London.
Barry has equally interesting working background. After leaving college, he became a roving lecturer, regularly visiting the Academy of National Economy in Moscow. He also spend just under three years at Cambridge University, doing research. He became a partner in a company called Mediterranean Average Adjusting Co. The Company acts as an arbitrator, to assess the value of the cargo on a ship, when the ship is stranded on a rock, a sand bank or meet such other disasters. It is a very difficult and a very complicated process. There are only some 500 such assessors in the world and some 300 are based in London.
Barry is the founder member of the Labour Friends of India Parliamentary Group. (LFIN) It is his fervent desire to make LFIN independent, to have it own organisational structure, so that it does not have to depend on the present members only. At the moment Barry is deeply involved, at least in parliamentary term, with India and Sri Lanka.
I got a very unusual answer when I asked Barry about his favourite author, book, film, actor and actress. Barry's favourite author is Jane Austen who wrote the novels Persuasion, Pride and the Prejudice, Emma and Barry's favourite novel is Persuasion. Barry describes Jane Austin as an author with great moral sense, who emphasizes logical, detached reasoning. She also takes her leading character to the pinnacle of social morality and have some message to pass to the community. Another book Barry recommends is After Virtue by Alasdair Macintyre. The author is a great philosopher, who tries to analyse the breakdown in morality since the 16th Century. Barry's favourite film is "It's a Beautiful Life". It is an Italian film with English subtitles, which won an Oscar as the best foreign film some six years ago. The film is set during the troubled times of the Second World War.
Barry has traveled to some thirty countries, as far as China, Russia, NewZealand, USA, Canada, Cuba and many more. During his working life as a International Maritime Arbitrator, Barry used to live out of a suitcase, visiting Soviet satellite countries, like Poland, Hungary and Ukraine; but one country Barry has missed out and he would very much like to visit, purely on holiday, is the tiny island Iceland, situated just south of the Arctic Circle, between Norway and Greenland.
Barry's views on EC and EURO more or less coincide with the official Labour policy. He feels it is inevitable for Britain to join Euro at some stage but he also believes that it is essential, in fact of paramount importance that the timing should be right, when our economy is in harmony, in tandem with that of EC members who have already joined the Euro club. Joining Euro at a wrong time when our economies may not be running parallel may cost us dearly in job losses, problem with interest rate, inflation and may lead to drying up of the inward flow of investment, especially from Japan and USA. So our Chancellor Shri Gordon Brown, who is one of the most accomplished and astute politician in the House of Commons, is the right person to judge the timing of our entry into Euro. Barry also feels that it is time to reform the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) especially fisheries, where we provide some 80% of the stock but in return we get just 30% of the catch.
If stranded on a desert island, Barry would like to have, besides the Bible and the complete work of Shakespeare, which every one is allowed to have, a book by German composer Johann Sebastian Bach, a complete work for key board. Barry's one luxury item will be a grand piano and he will sit and try to learn all Bash's key board work. Barry says, that would be a wonderful thing to do, to pass time without feeling lonely. It would be a challenge, although how far he will succeed in mastering the work is difficult to predict. But it certainly is a challenge which will keep him fully occupied.
My last question was, " Which two events, would he like to see happen?". His unhesitant answer was to bring the Olympic games to London and to see an end of civil war throughout the world, especially in Sri Lanka, a jewel in the Indian ocean, an emerald isle which has so much to offer to the world, especially tourism. As Sri Lanka is one of the few places on the tourist map I have not yet visited, I couldn't agree more with Barry Gardiner, an MP extraordinary, a people's politician.

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