By Sunanda K. Datta-Ray
May 10, 2016
It’s a tribute to British democracy that two sons and a daughter of Pakistani bus drivers are at the top of the political heap. Sajid Javid, the business secretary, and Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, minister for faith and communities and former Conservative Party chairman, have now been joined by Sadiq Khan, 45, the new mayor of London. London has come a long way since the 1950s when an elderly Londoner boasted she jabbed coloured people in the underground with her handbag so that she could smile sweetly and apologise just to show them whites could be nice.
Although Rotterdam has had a Muslim mayor, Ahmed Aboutaleb, since 2009, no capital city can match Mr Khan’s credentials. He was elected with the largest personal mandate of any politician in British history, defeating Zac Goldsmith, the Old Etonian son of a billionaire businessman and financier whose daughter, Jemima, married the Pakistani politician, Imran Khan, by a margin of more than 1.2 million votes.
Mr Goldsmith’s charge that Mr Khan had “given platform, oxygen and cover to extremists” led to a bitter row, with even British Prime Minister David Cameron being accused of racism. As the Guardian newspaper wrote, “Goldsmith waged a campaign soaked in racism, in one of the most ethnically diverse cities on Earth, shamelessly exploiting anti-Muslim prejudices in an effort to secure a shameful victory.”
Mr Khan’s Conservative predecessor, the flamboyant upper-class Boris Johnson, was educated at Eton like Mr Goldsmith, read classics at Balliol, was Oxford Union president and editor of the Spectator. In contrast, life has always been a struggle for the working class Khans. Mr Khan’s grandparents migrated from India to Pakistan, and his parents moved to Britain just before he was born. His mother supplemented his father’s bus driver’s wages by working as a seamstress. They lived in a cramped three-bedroom house in a council estate with their eight children, Mr Khan sharing a bunk bed with a brother until he left home in his 20s.
“I was surrounded by my mum and dad working all the time, so as soon as I could get a job, I got a job”, he explained. “I got a paper round, a Saturday job — some summer days I laboured on a building site.” The family still sends money to relatives in Pakistan “because we’re blessed being in this country”. Being a trade union member, his father got “decent pay and conditions” whereas his mother, working from home on her own, “wasn’t, and didn’t”. That convinced Mr Khan of the trade union movement’s relevance and propelled him towards the Labour Party. He fought and retained the marginal parliamentary seat of Tooting for Labour in 2005, one of that year’s five new ethnic minority MPs. Gordon Brown included Mr Khan in his Cabinet, first as minister for communities and then transport.
Not that his electoral success means all communal discord has disappeared. Benjamin Disraeli, the 19th century Conservative Prime Minister, called race the ultimate reality, and it still remains as powerful a social force as religion. Behind Mr Khan’s back, bigots might refer to him as “Mayor of Londonistan”. The defence secretary in Mr Cameron’s government, Michael Fallon, who said during the election campaign that Mr Khan was unfit to be mayor, implied that as a Muslim, he was a security threat. This may have been partly on account of the London bus bombings by three Pakistani-origin youths only two months after Mr Khan entered the Commons. His speech then still resonates in political circles. “Today Londoners and the rest of the UK have even more reason to be proud of Londoners — proud of the way heroic Londoners of all faiths, races and backgrounds, victims, survivors and passers-by, acted on Thursday; proud of the way ordinary courageous Londoners carried on with their business and stopped the criminals disrupting our life,” Mr Khan told fellow MPs. He lamented there were so few articulate voices of reason from British Muslims. “There were angry men with beards, but nobody saying,” ‘Actually, I’m very comfortable being a Brit, being a Muslim, being a Londoner’.”
Those comments may have been the saving of his career. Demonstrating that he felt as deeply as any white about the bomb outrage, Mr Khan also proved he wasn’t reneging on his own birthright, which is not something the British admire. He passed a difficult test in a society that remains wary of outsiders and where the derogatory word “Paki” might still be heard in dark corners. However, a greater concern for racial sensitivities is also evident in London where 40 per cent of the inhabitants were born abroad. The tabloid Daily Star abandoned plans to publish a spoof page mocking Sharia law with a special feature to include censored “Burqa Babes” and “a free beard for every bomber”, when it realised that many newsagents who sold the paper were ethnic Pakistanis. Economics is an important determinant of social attitudes.
Other ethnic Pakistani notables in British politics include Lord Nazir Ahmed who feels passionately about the Gujarat massacre, the Conservative Lord Tariq Ahmad of Wimbledon, and Labour’s Mohammad Sarwar, the first Muslim member of Parliament. Mr Sarwar returned to Pakistan in 2013 where he briefly served as governor of Punjab.
In that he followed the precedent Dadabhoy Naoroji and Krishna Menon set. Perhaps such exchanges will be the pattern one day. What excites speculation now is Mr Khan’s future in British politics. If the rumbles heard against Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader from whom Mr Khan distanced himself during the mayoral campaign, lead to his ouster, the bus driver’s son from Tooting might be a candidate for the job. What then? Mr Johnson quit the mayoralty to try his luck with the prime ministership. Whether or not he succeeds, Mr Khan could one day be the first Asian in Number Ten.
Sunanda K. Datta-Ray is a senior journalist, columnist and author