Barnie Choudhury: British Asians must shun ‘politics of envy’ in modern UK

Boris Johnson and Priti Patel
Boris Johnson and Priti Patel

Former BBC journalist

“I HEAR you’re the most hated Asian in the BBC,” the national newspaper journalist said.

It was December 2001, and I was at a Radio 4 Today Christmas party. “I was told by one of your Asian colleagues that you’re a sell-out, an Uncle Tom and a coconut doing the BBC’s bidding to make us look bad,” he continued, “Any comment?”

For most of that year, I had broken scoop after scoop, lifting the rocks in the south Asian communities, and seeing what crawled out. We all knew about the problems – racial segregation, grooming, organised crime, drug addiction, Hindu-Sikh-Muslim tensions, honour-based violence, forced marriage, to name but a few, yet we kept them hidden.

And because we didn’t talk about what was in our own communities, because we actively denied we had a problem, and because we branded any white person critical of us racist, we turned our faces away from the consequences. For my revelations, I faced attacks in the media and death threats.

I was reminded of this when I read a tweet by the political commentator, Ash Sarker: “The ascendance of Priti Patel and Sajid Javid to positions of power is only a sign of progress if you see tokenism (in which people of colour must assimilate to oppressive ideologies in return for representation) itself as progressive. I don’t.”

I defend to the death her right to tweet this. But before I explain why I have a problem with it, a caveat. In my almost 40 years as a journalist, no one has been able to say which party I support. I have never joined a political party, and my voting record is between the sanctity of the booth and me. Truth be told, my attitude towards politicians is summed up by a line from the film The Hunt for Red October, “Listen, I’m a politician, which means I’m a cheat and a liar, and when I’m not kissing babies, I’m stealing their lollipops.” So please don’t waste your time speculating about my political affiliations.

We south Asians must acknowledge that some of us have a big problem. We simply cannot be happy when other south Asians get the limelight, are promoted or succeed. The parody of the two mothers outdoing one another in the BBC’s Goodness Gracious Me skit, ending with the immortal line “Yes, but how big is his danda?”, is mirrored in this truth.

It is the politics of envy, and it has been this way since we arrived all those decades ago. Remember, when we first arrived, the Brits always sought out the ‘community leader’. He was the man who could speak English and bring others to heel.

Only recently have the political parties understood the idea of ‘community leaders’ is a myth they perpetuated. Over the past 50 years we have slowly entered, and now lead, fields once closed to us, and that can only be a good thing.

Yet, we face huge barriers. Research from Oxford University suggests that BAME MPs face a tougher time being elected, with their majorities lower than if a white candidate from their party ran for the same seat. We also know that parties are vying for the ethnic vote, and that Labour retains the lion share, but the gap is closing. Research from the British Future group also suggested that former prime minister Theresa May could have done better in 2017 if she had courted the ethnic vote.

Several BAME MPs have commented about the hurdles they have faced to become parliamentarians. Tulip Siddiq, Labour MP for Hampstead and Kilburn and niece of the Bangladeshi prime minister Sheikh Hasina, remembers how she was taken to one side by party members who suggested she looked for another seat.

Once in the Commons, ethnic minorities must be ‘whiter than white’, for it is a predominantly white club where you are expected to conform. Your every action is scrutinised, and you must behave, work and perform to a higher standard. Remember, too, that your very being can be a target for attack.

These are reasons why I have an unconscious bias towards people of colour and, all things being equal, I champion their hard-won efforts. But woe betide them if they transgress, for I do hold them to a higher standard. I know. A paradox only I can settle in my own way.

What the Conservatives have achieved is something other parties have failed to deliver.

Two female prime ministers. Two south Asians in top four jobs. And at least one potential south Asian prime minister. Tokenism? I would like to think not. This is something long overdue and much needed.

For now, I’ll take that, and humbly suggest we south Asians get behind and celebrate it, no matter our political allegiance.