When Priti Patel told Labour MPs that she didn’t need any lectures on racism, they seemed to take it as a declaration of war. Last week, 32 of them signed a letter accusing the Home Secretary of ‘gaslighting’ black people’s experiences. The social media warriors were out in force, rebuking her for not being authentically ethnic. She was attacked for being a ‘coconut’, brown on the outside and white on the inside. It’s not the first time she has faced hostility for not conforming to expectations: one article last year called her ‘a product of internalised whiteness’.
Mahatma Gandhi is also now under fire, with a petition to remove his statue in Leicester attracting more than 6,000 signatures. Patel and Gandhi have something in common: their Indian Hindu heritage. Could it be that we’re witnessing the birth of another fear — Hinduphobia?
Some Hindu groups are beginning to feel that way. When the Guardian published a cartoon depicting Patel as a distorted cow with a ring through her nose, the president of the Hindu Forum of Britain said it had caused ‘huge offence’. It would be ironic indeed if the left, having dragged itself out of the swamp of anti-Semitism, was now to fall into another mess of its own making.
I am not convinced that Hinduphobia is a thing — yet. But understanding the cause of the ill will towards Patel might strengthen attempts to nip it in the bud. As I see it, anti-Patel feeling is often tangled up with a sense that she has got above her station. Initially, her life story was inoffensive, if not aspirational. She was brought up by corner shop-owning parents, went to university and worked for a time at Diageo. So far, so good.
The trouble began when Patel found a heroine in another daughter of a shopkeeper: Margaret Thatcher. She went on to become a Tory MP and to fill one of the great offices of state. An extraordinary journey for a newsagent’s daughter of any colour. Yet her story doesn’t slot easily into the playbook for British ethnics as written by the left-leaning establishment. According to that rubric, the ‘right’ type of ethnic is a person who votes Labour and identifies as a victim of Britain’s irremediable racism.
Seeing Patel called a ‘coconut’ brought back memories: the same was said about me when I worked on a current affairs programme in London in the 1980s. Things were peachy when I was involved in shows that tackled Thatcherism, but the namecalling would kick off when I worked to expose the inadequacies of Michael Foot’s policies. The idea that ethnic minorities should be left-wing runs deep.
At one level, it is a matter of class: many immigrants start out as working class and are likely to see their concerns reflected by the Labour party. At a deeper level, left-wing ideology has often emphasised racial equality and social justice. Ethnic minorities have long provided a reliable kitty of votes for the left.
Or so it was, until Thatcher’s government spotted something striking about the British Asian community. Norman Tebbit was the first to notice. ‘You know, Samir,’ he told me once in an interview, ‘Asians are natural Conservatives. Strong commitment to family values, resolute work ethic, keen on education, entrepreneurial and business–minded.’ Of course, there is a reason for this — British Indians, and in particular East African Indians (including the £50-in-your-pocket Ugandan Asians), arrived with a distinct advantage: a wealth of what sociologists call social and cultural capital.
What Tebbit grasped was that ethnic minorities are as different from each other as they are from the rest of society. Some prosper more than others. It’s clear that one group is doing particularly well: the British Indian Hindu community. Just look at the Sunday Timesrich list; it is full of them. And they are also thriving in politics. Joining Patel at the cabinet table are Rishi Sunak and Alok Sharma. When Sunak took the oath to become an MP, it was on the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu scripture. ‘I am thoroughly British,’ he once said. ‘This is my home and my country, but my religious and cultural heritage is Indian. My wife is Indian. I am open about being a Hindu.’ Winchester, Oxford, and a former Goldman Sachs banker: this Tory Chancellor is the apotheosis of Tebbit’s insight.
For a certain sort of politician, the success of the British Hindu community is a slap in the face. How very dare they? It drives a coach and horses through the idea of an ethnic minority pact, yoking disparate groups together in an embrace that has become a feature of modern Britain. It threatens the idea that ‘BAME’ — black, Asian and minority ethnic — is a one-stop shop of victimhood whose plight provides a feel-good emancipatory role for the liberal left. It’s hard to argue this now that British Indians are earning 12 per cent more than whites. And the less said about the Chinese (who earn 30 per cent more) the better.
It is tempting to say it’s time to consign this whole agenda to history — but sadly we can’t. Not yet. Racism remains all too real and attempts to redress those wrongs are to be welcomed. But it is time to recognise that some minority groups no longer fit the victim status category. Many in these communities are achieving distinction in fields as varied as science, finance, medicine, management, economics and technology. And with that success the notion of a Labour vote bank is crumbling — as class replaces race as the dominant factor in political allegiance. It’s that realisation that’s provoked the backlash.
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Samir Shah is a former BBC head of politics and head of the production company Juniper.
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