Theresa May wants to rid Tories of the ‘nasty party’ tag

In April, it will be 50 years since the enigmatic Enoch Powell made his famous ‘rivers of blood’ speech in Wolverhampton, railing against mass migration from India and the Commonwealth. As his shadow looms large over Brexit-bound Britain – immigration and Euroscepticism were the twin pillars of his ideology – his fellow Conservative, Prime Minister Theresa May, did something last fortnight that he would scarcely have approved of: she inducted children of Indian immigrants into her ministerial team, Rishi Sunak, Suella Fernandes and Shailesh Vara. (Alok Sharma was already in).

Powellism is at the heart of the ongoing cut and thrust of Brexit politics in London and Brussels, but May’s expansion of her team is part of her efforts to remove the perception that the Conservative party — in her own words at the 2002 party conference — is seen by many as the ‘nasty party’. The party had earned the tag over decades; in the eyes of the Indian and non-white communities this was mainly due to its policies on immigration. The 1.5 million-strong Indian diaspora has traditionally voted Labour, but assiduous wooing of the Indian vote by David Cameron since 2005 has won it dividends.

Claims of Indian voters now moving away from Labour in large numbers are exaggerated, but the fact is that the Conservative party has five Indian-origin MPs (the most recent Tory who held Powell’s Wolverhampton South West seat was a Sikh, Paul Uppal). In the 2017 election, Labour not only held on to its strongholds in constituencies dominated by the Indian/Asian vote, but also increased its vote share and added two more Indian-origin MPs to its earlier group of five. But of greater significance has been the election of the Conservative party’s five Indian-origin MPs from seats that do not have large Indian/Asian populations.

May’s ministerial expansion is symbolically significant for the message it sends to young, aspirational voters in the Indian community, who have less patience with Labour’s welfare and other policies. It also reflects a larger reality: that in spite of the challenges of terrorism, xenophobia and racism, Britain is increasingly becoming comfortable with its multicultural society. The 51 non-white MPs elected to the House of Commons in 2017 still do not reflect the ethnic composition of the United Kingdom, but their election is a story of positive integration since the landmark 1987 election when five non-white MPs were elected for the first time in British parliamentary history (one of them was Keith Vaz).

The integration story was also reflected during recent elections: call it minority appeasement British-style, but it has become something of a rule that Conservative and Labour leaders visit Hindu temples and gurudwaras in the right attire, and get themselves photographed wearing a tika and holding a puja thali. As the Conservative leader before the 2010 election, Cameron would attend large Hindu gatherings, while May makes it a point to attend Indian community events in her constituency of Maidenhead; these are symbolic gestures, but were unthinkable in the days of Powell. And as evident in India and elsewhere in recent years and decades, symbolism and perception are central to electoral success.

May and her party’s outreach to the Indian community runs deeper. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour sees the Narendra Modi government from the perspective of human rights, while the Cameron and May governments have been distinctly closer to its world view. Cameron and May have also gone along with influential sections of the Indian community on the sensitive issue of introducing legislation to outlaw caste-based discrimination in Britain. There is clearly a conflation of world views between the Conservative Party and influential sections of the community, many of whom are also enthusiastic supporters of the BJP, as was evident during Modi’s November 2015 visit to London, when he and Cameron shared the stage at the packed Wembley Stadium.

It was May who appointed the first Indian-origin cabinet minister in British political history: Priti Patel. Her tenure as the international development secretary barely lasted six months. But her elevation to the high table of British politics and the recent appointment of Sunak, Fernandes, Vara and Sharma have already made waves. Political pundits in the mainstream British news media are already talking of them as future Conservative leaders, even potential prime ministers. That may or may not materialise, but the talk itself is a sign of the distance Britain has travelled since the days of Powell.

One of Powell’s memorable contributions was his belief that “all political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at some happy juncture, end in failure”, but he continues to be relevant in more ways than one, and the underpinning of Powellism in the days of Brexit may suggest that his career was anything but a failure.

By : Prasun Sonwalkar

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