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The Iron Lady’s vision for UK: No place for Asians

NewsThe Iron Lady’s vision for UK: No place for Asians

The anchor’s crestfallen face after interviewing Margaret Thatcher embodied the plight of the Asians in Britain then: permanent rejection from British society after having spent a lifetime in that country.


With Indian-origin Rishi Sunak in the race to lead the UK, it is important to realise how the United Kingdom has changed over the years as this excerpt from the book ‘VQE. The Tale of an Indian Physician in the UK of 1980s’ indicates.

Politically, Britain in 1980 was passing through an exciting phase, albeit a trifle rocky.
A year earlier in 1979, Margaret Thatcher had been elected as the first woman Prime Minister of Britain. She had led her party to a decisive victory over Labour headed by the previous Prime Minister James Callaghan. The 1979 election would prove to be a watershed in British politics for yet another reason: it was the beginning of 18 years of uninterrupted Conservative rule.
As a person, Margaret Thatcher was not an immensely popular figure. In fact, in the polls leading up to the election, voters had indicated a preference for James Callaghan, the incumbent Prime Minister, despite an overall Conservative lead. In the end, however, Labour’s poor governing record that had triggered a succession of strikes in 1978-79—commonly referred to as the “winter of discontent”—sealed James Callaghan’s fate and catapulted Margaret Thatcher to the top post.
Somewhere along her political career Margaret Thatcher had acquired the reputation of being a tough no-nonsense politician. A particularly strident indictment of the Soviet Union when she was the leader of the Opposition had resulted in a strong rebuke in the Soviet Defence Ministry newspaper which had dubbed her “The Iron Lady”.
It was an epithet that would stick and one that Margaret Thatcher gladly exploited to her advantage. In the December of 1979 in a foreign policy speech delivered in New York, Margaret Thatcher had affirmed her strong opposition to the policies of the Soviet Union and had willingly accepted the tag affixed to her:
The immediate threat from the Soviet Union is military rather than ideological. The threat is not only to our security in Europe and North America but also, both directly and by proxy, in the third world. I have often spoken about the military challenge which the West faces today. I have sometimes been deliberately misunderstood, especially by my enemies who have labeled me the “Iron Lady.” They are quite right—I am.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan a few days later on December 27, 1979 had only strengthened her suspicion of the Soviet Union and her fears seem to have rubbed off on the country as a whole. When I landed in Britain in 1980, the country was in a state of hysterical paranoia expecting Russian soldiers to land on its soil any moment. TV channels aired both serious documentaries that appeared almost farcical, as well as light-hearted sitcoms depicting life in Britain after a Soviet invasion.
On the domestic front, as the Prime Minister of an increasingly multicultural nation, Margaret Thatcher failed to exude the benevolent statesman-like persona that one would expect. She came across as an imperious hawk, an impression that was more in keeping with a leader of the Opposition than a Prime Minister. Most disconcerting was a sneering scowl that frequently made its appearance on her face. Added to this was her condescending tone of voice which broke into an irritating whine when overcome with strong emotion. In short, she appeared like a headmistress lecturing her students.
Specifically, she failed to infuse any confidence in the immigrant population. She had already made her position clear on immigration in the run-up to the general election: she was dead opposed to it. In a TV interview for Granada World in Action in January 1978 she had said:
“Well now, look, let us try and start with a few figures as far as we know them, and I am the first to admit it is not easy to get clear figures from the Home Office about immigration, but there was a committee which looked at it and said that if we went on as we are then by the end of the century there would be four million people of the new Commonwealth or Pakistan here. Now, that is an awful lot and I think it means that people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture and, you know, the British character has done so much for democracy, for law and done so much throughout the world that if there is any fear that it might be swamped people are going to react and be rather hostile to those coming in.”
Her stand on immigration had been severely criticized by political leaders and prominent clergymen, but her remarks had found a favorable audience among a significant section of the electorate. Following the interview, the Tories surged ahead of Labour in opinion polls for the first time. Margaret Thatcher had successfully played the immigration card, a strategy that would eventually carry her to victory.
So, when she did actually become Prime Minister, there was a definite sense of trepidation in the Asian immigrant community and Mrs. Thatcher did little to allay those fears. In fact, her utterances and uncompromising attitude increased the distrust. A particularly telling TV interview comes to mind.
At that time there were no TV channels that catered exclusively to the South Asian community. The only South Asian program was a variety show that was broadcast by BBC on Sunday mornings. It was a short presentation that lasted no more than half an hour and consisted of a news segment that narrated events from the subcontinent that were a week old, local happening and a popular Hindi song which acted as the finale. Nazia Hassan’s Aap Jaisa Koi Meri Zindagi Mein Aaye was the rage during those days and was invariably the curtain closer of this show. Putting all this together and serving as an anchor for this variety program was an aging, grandfatherly Asian gentleman who must have been an inhabitant of Britain for at least 30 years. He was the face of the Asian community on British TV.
On one of these shows this elderly gentleman happened to interview Margaret Thatcher. Throughout the interview the gentle and self-effacing anchor made a genuine and sincere effort to reach out to Margaret Thatcher, trying to extract some sort of assurance from her for the Asians in Britain. But all his pleading for Asians to be included in Margaret Thatcher’s vision of a future UK came to naught; they hit a stone wall. The “Iron Lady” did not wilt or exhibit any compassion. Although she did not say it in so many words, her steely composure said it all: immigrants were not welcome under her regime.
The anchor’s crestfallen face at the end of the interview embodied the plight of the Asians in Britain then: permanent rejection from British society after having spent a lifetime in that country.
To be fair, my colleagues who currently live in Britain tell me that the race situation in Britain did improve greatly over the next three decades leading to a greater acceptance of Asians into the mainstream of British life during the late 90s and into the first decade of the twenty-first century.

Adapted from Vivek Gumaste. VQE. The Tale of an Indian Physician in the United Kingdom of 1980s. Notion Press.2018

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