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December 2009 - January 2010
Without Fear or Favour: Comments on Current Issues
by Satjit Singh
The “Coopers” amongst us!
I have always been intrigued by trends in the political affiliations of British Indians. Most of them start off as Labour party supporters, but as soon as they establish themselves financially, they become Tories. Secondly, having made this political journey, they become tribal in their behaviour, accepting no divergent viewpoints and finally, hunting, even hounding in groups. Their behaviour is not new. Looking back, I can see that it had been happening for quite some time; I only began noticing it recently. The issue of interest for me is not which party people support, for that is their choice; it is how they came to support the party they do and, how they choose to behave as a result.
I know several of these people socially. Some time ago, one, prominent businessman told me: “when we first came to the UK, we supported a party that could help us get something from the government; now we support one which helps us keep what we have, away from the government”. This was meant to be a philosophical justification for the political defection and no doubt my friend felt that he had provided me with a well thought through reason. When I talked a little more about Fabianism, laissez faire, the Whigs and one-nation Tories’, he gave me a blank look. It was clear that he saw it as something of a social climb; joining the party of middle England, well-to-do businessmen and land owners. The affiliation to the group was not based on any resonance with a political philosophy; more on a shallow feel good factor of ‘having arrived in the company of well-to-do white folk’! Those familiar with the programme ‘Goodness Gracious Me’ will recognise the Coopers (Kapoors) and the St. John’s (Surjits) amongst this lot.
I wondered if I had got the reaction because my friend was a businessman and not highly educated. I therefore decided to explore this issue with a number of Indian doctors. Surely, given that most professionals in the social sector (health, education etc) tend to be centre-left in their politics, I would find a different viewpoint. The reaction, if not the reasons, were exactly the same as my businessman friend. They were generally very vocal conservative supporters; interesting because I knew that several had voted Labour previously. I suggested that as Labour had increased their earnings substantially, they might feel a degree of gratitude or loyalty. This is where their highly developed intellect came into play. The reason that they were so anti-Labour, they explained, was because being doctors, they were only concerned about their patients and that somehow the Labour party’s policies had managed to harm their patients’ well-being! When asked how they felt unable to support a health policy that cut waiting times from 24 months to 18 weeks, or that patients could exercise choice of doctor and hospital, they managed rather eloquently, to dismiss this as being irrelevant to patient well-being. As for the increase in their material well-being, it was no more than they deserved; indeed it was probably a lot less!
Perceived self-interest, not political philosophy was clearly at the heart of it!
Having got a ‘well-thought through’ explanation for their current political preferences, I began thinking of how their tribal behaviour contrasted with my white British friends, who are drawn from all political parties. I began observing how they are at times critical of particular policies of the parties they supported as well as at other times finding areas of agreement with others of a different political colour. Surely, I thought that we as Indians were just as capable and prone to act in the same way. Wrong again! In numerous social and other forums where politics is discussed, the walls came up and no quarter given. You were either ‘with us or against us’. There was no room for discussion; far less, appreciating another’s point of view.
Finally and following on from the above, is the manner in which Asians choose to express their politics. They hunt in groups and happily hound out the views of others who are in a minority. Last week I dined with a prominent British Asian, who made several unsolicited party political references. Not once did he pick up on the fact that I was not responding to this. It was not that he chose to offend me with his views; it never occurred to him that anyone would have a different view from him. Not anyone sensible, anyway!
Perhaps, therein lay the rub.
Cutting your nose to spite your face
The decision by the Conservative Party to block the candidature of Tony Blair as the President of the European Commission defies logic. Even the highly respected right-wing magazine the Economist has said that although it was not in favour of the Lisbon treaty, it endorsed Tony Blair as the President of the European Commission. Recently on the Today Programme, the editor of the magazine condemned the Tory stance articulated by the Shadow Foreign Secretary, William Hague when he said that a Conservative government would see the appointment of Blair as a “hostile gesture”.
Mr Hague is a clever man; however cleverness is not the same as wisdom. I recall his speech in the 2001 election when addressing a Eurosceptic audience; he pandered to them by talking about saving the “pound in his pocket” i.e. that he would not join the Euro. Given that that audience was already likely to vote Tory, he would have been better off spending time talking to those in the centre-ground who were more interested in issues such as healthcare, education, crime and social services and who needed persuasion to vote Tory. It was not a surprise to anyone that he was trounced in that election. Barring a miracle, the Conservatives will be in power next year; if Hague is the Foreign Secretary, he will either have to do a volte face on many key issues or be an unmitigated disaster for Britain.
But this is not about William Hague or the Conservatives. It is about having an effective leader of Europe. A Blair presidency would improve the EU’s global credibility. Though the EU constitutes 20% of world GDP, it punches below its weight in international diplomacy. This is partly because the 27 governments are sometimes divided, but also because its system of external representation is messy and confusing. Europe needs a leader who can deal with Barak Obama, Hu Jintao, Manmohan Singh and Vladimir Putin, in short, someone ‘who can stop the traffic in Washington, Beijing, Delhi and Moscow.’ Who can recall the name of the Prime Minister of Belgium or Luxemburg? As Charles Grant, Director of the Centre for European Reform wrote in the Observer, an Indian Minster said to him “If you choose the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, we may not find time to meet him.”
Britain needs at the helm of Europe, an Atlanticist and one who is committed to free trade. Blair is both. Whilst Thatcher spent her premiership resisting the Franco-German hijack of the EU and cautioning against the power that a united Germany would wield, successors in her party are ironically, poised to reverse that. Whilst she fought to preserve the importance of NATO and the US in European affairs, the Tories, by backing a European federalist over Tony Blair will achieve the exact opposite. Blair would also be the only leader capable of resisting the hijacking of the European Commission, especially by the Germans. It is no surprise that Angela Merkel is unenthusiastic about Blair and would prefer a nonentity from one of the smaller nations that most people would find hard to find on a map. There is only one man who both understands the need for an outward-looking Europe and has the ability to deliver it - Tony Blair.
For a party that competes with the BNP and UKIP in brandishing its nationalistic credentials, it is ironic that the Tories have vehemently, to the point of spite, opposed the candidacy of a Briton. There is of course history between the Conservatives, especially Hague, and Blair; he beat them convincingly in three elections. But to put party and personal interests before the national interest, smacks of pettiness and shows unsuitability for high office. I simply call it unpatriotic.
I have written previously in these columns that leadership is about judgement and setting direction, not sound bites. I would like to see leadership from our government-in-waiting. Sadly not much is forthcoming.
Sacrificing one’s honour for the honour
Craving for recognition is neither new nor unnatural. Some achieve it; others go to great lengths to get it, using means foul, fair and crass. The Asian community has some form on this.
Recently a friend requested me to write a note supporting him to get a ‘gong’. I asked him why he deserved it and he told me that he was a highly successful businessman and was President or a senior office bearer of a number of societies. I then asked him about his achievements in creating a better society and I could see him getting visibly agitated. I subsequently did some research on these societies and found the following interesting facts.
Of the six he mentioned, there was overlapping membership in five and they had given ‘awards’ to each other in the organisations they headed; these awards were invariably mentioned in the resumes of these gentlemen – yes they are almost always men! The office bearers were affluent businessmen who stayed in these roles for years at a time, flouting all norms of corporate governance advocated by the Charities Commission. Many had donated funds to political parties and had hosted events where a prominent Parliamentarian or Minister had been invited and photo opportunities grabbed. The furtherance of their personal agenda was brazen.
Another person who had acquired a PhD from an ‘American University’ insists on being referred to as ‘Doctor’, oblivious of any embarrassment. I contrasted this with my MBA class of 34 students at Imperial College; 11 had PhDs of which five were from Oxbridge. None used the title of ‘Doctor’ and were uncomfortable if someone referred to them as such.
We have all attended weddings and other events where community leaders are asked to speak glowingly of the host and his family. On occasions, I too have been coerced into mouthing the myriad successes, real or imagined, of certain people. We have also all also seen how so many people, once successful, become ashamed of their humble beginnings and use their affluence to rewrite their family histories. In trying to glorify their family, they ironically show disrespect as this need for glorification arises from the shame they feel about their origins.
So what makes us so self serving and completely devoid of shame when it comes to these honours, be they educational or ‘gongs’? Clearly as a community, we do not appear to subscribe to Aristotle’s thinking when he said that “dignity consists, not in possessing honours, but in the consciousness that we deserve them.” The desire for recognition is natural; having acquired the physical luxuries and trappings of wealth, crave acknowledgement. When that is not forthcoming, we resort to ‘buying’ it, be that through becoming donors to political parties or establishing charities to ‘burnish’ our reputations.
This craving for recognition is of course not the sole preserve of immigrants, in the early part of the last century, a well known British Prime Minister openly sold honours for cash. That however, does not make it right. People should be recognised for their achievements; however to demand it or to find dishonourable ways of getting it, devalues both the achievement and the subsequent honour. As a community, we still have some maturing to do.
Centuries ago, Socrates asked a fundamental question of such wannabees: “Are you not ashamed of heaping up the greatest amount of money and honour and reputation, and caring so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul?” He never got a satisfactory answer and I suspect that we will not get one now.
People say that fame and fortune changes men; I disagree. I would suggest that it merely unmasks them.