How did British Indians become so prominent in the Conservative party? | Neha Shah

Since Thatcher’s day, the Tories have held the community up as a model minority. The tactic appears to be paying off

Last week, the “most Indian cabinet” in British history realised a long-standing dream of the Tory right: the introduction of a purposely cruel “points-based” immigration system. Finally, as many were quick to point out, we saw the limits of “representation politics” laid bare – the home secretary, Priti Patel, and the three other British Indians appointed to Johnson’s cabinet will only embolden Tory racism. But there is a more important story to tell here about how the modern Conservative party came to embrace British Indians – one that runs through Nairobi, Harrow East and occupied Kashmir.

Indian migration to Britain took place in two significant waves. The first was in the late 1940s and 50s, when migrants were recruited directly from India by successive governments to fill the labour shortage that resulted from the second world war. They mostly settled in the Midlands and the north-west of England, working in foundries and textile manufacturing. These migrants were heavily involved in building Britain’s antiracist and trade union movements in the 1950s and 60s, drawing on lessons learned from anti-colonial struggles back home to organise their communities in Britain. To this day, these communities are disproportionately working class and Labour voting.

The second wave of Indian migrants to Britain were the so-called “twice migrants” who arrived from east Africa in the 1960s and 70s, having been expelled or encouraged to leave by the newly independent regimes in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. The families of our chancellor, home secretary and attorney general are all part of this latter group.

So how and why have their descendants become so prominent on the Tory frontbenches? The answer begins in 1895, with the creation of the British East Africa Protectorate. British officials envisioned the protectorate, which occupied roughly the same area as modern-day Kenya, as the “America of the Hindu”, a settler-colonial project to be led by Indians on behalf of the British.

In the early 20th century, thousands of Indians (mostly Goans, Gujaratis and Punjabis) were imported into east Africa as subcolonial agents of civilisation. They were required to work in colonial administration and serve in the colonial police and army, to keep the “native peoples” in order. At the same time, more than 30,000 indentured labourers were brought over from India to build the Kenya-Uganda railway.

Many of these labourers chose to settle in the protectorate after the railway was completed. They were soon joined by many more Indian subjects, who moved freely to the protectorate in search of economic prosperity. Functioning as a subordinate ruling class, Indians in east Africa enjoyed success in business, finance and the professions throughout the colonial period, and gained significant control over the economy. By the time Kenya won its independence in 1963, Indians – who accounted for less than 3% of the population – owned more than two thirds of the country’s private non-agricultural assets.

Ugandan Asians arrive at Stansted airport, October 1973.
Ugandan Asians arrive at Stansted airport, October 1973. Photograph: E Hamilton West

When this group of Indians arrived in Britain, many brought with them the considerable wealth they had accrued (along with a hostility towards black Africans). Others brought with them the benefits of English-language education. These advantages virtually guaranteed the economic success of east African Indians in Britain, especially in the retail businesses of Margaret Thatcher’s “enterprise economy”, for which they soon became known. Rishi Sunak’s pharmacist mother and Priti Patel’s newsagent-owning parents were typical of their generation.

The Conservative leadership of the time identified this demographic as potential voters. From the 1980s onwards, the Tories began to court an imagined “Indian community”, limited to east African Indians who had settled around London. Successful British Indians were held up as evidence of what could be achieved under a free-market Conservative government. In 1988, Thatcher welcomed the new Indian high commissioner to Britain with the following words: “We so much welcome the resourceful Indian community here in Britain. You have brought the virtues of family, of hard work and of resolve to make a better life … you are displaying splendid qualities of enterprise and initiative, which benefit not just you and your families but the Indian community and indeed the nation as a whole.”

Fast-forward to 2010, and the Conservatives held 30% of the British Indian vote. After 30 years of Thatcherite ideology, British Indians were the most pro-Conservative ethnic minority, after the Jewish community. After decades of gradual advance, this number soared to 40% in 2017. In the 2019 election, as the Conservatives chased a realignment towards white northern voters based on racist scaremongering, support in constituencies with high Indian populations increased substantially again. At every point, this has included members of both groups of Indian migrants. Now British Indians make up 15% of the Tory cabinet.

The Tories have now managed to extend their appeal beyond the “two time” migrants by finding common cause in a project of Islamophobia. Supported by the Indian government and its far-right ruling party, the BJP, the Conservatives have exploited a sharp rise in Hindu nationalism within the British Indian community to play Hindu, Sikh, Jain and Muslim communities off against one another.

Conservative MP Bob Blackman on the campaign trail in East Harrow ahead of the 2015 election.
Conservative MP Bob Blackman on the campaign trail in East Harrow ahead of the 2015 election. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

The Conservative campaign in Harrow East, a marginal constituency in which 25% of the voters are of Indian origin, provided the clearest example of this. The constituency’s Conservative MP, Bob Blackman, whose Twitter background photo shows him smiling next to Prime Minister Modi, saw fit to retweet a post by the far-right commentator Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (alias Tommy Robinson) that highlighted Muslim violence against Hindus. He stated that he had done this in error, but along with others in the Conservative party, he has encouraged the portrayal of Labour as “anti-Hindu” and pro-Muslim, citing Labour’s perceived support for the Kashmiri struggle for self-determination as evidence. In the 2019 election, his majority increased by more than 6,000 votes, and he was sworn into parliament on the Bhagavad Gita.

Seventy years after India liberated itself from colonial rule, the old colonial tactics of divide and rule continue to govern Indians in the metropole. Overcoming this is not an impossible task. However, the relative ease with which we Indians in Britain have found ourselves in this situation should be of serious concern. That the latest expansion of Britain’s punitive border regime can be drawn up and legitimised by the sons and daughters of migrants reveals the limits of an antiracist discourse that claims a common “lived experience” as the grounds for political action.

Our community’s history of antiracist struggle in Britain can show us another way to confront these issues. When Indian migrants first arrived in Britain in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, they joined forces with recently arrived African-Caribbean migrants to form a unified “black” community of resistance. They responded to state neglect, racial violence and racist policing with a range of radical self-help initiatives, run through organisations such as the United Coloured People’s Alliance, the Black Liberation Front and the British Black Panther Movement. This is a story of community and class solidarity based on shared resistance. It should be recovered to prepare us for the fight ahead.

• Neha Shah is an activist and researcher at the University of Oxford

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Neha Shah

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