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In conversation with Lord Kamall, Tory Peer and former Cabinet member and MEP

30th Jun 2023
In conversation with Lord Kamall, Tory Peer and former Cabinet member and MEP

(Photo credit: European Conservatives and Reformists Group Making Europe Work Again)

Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, and Jewish members of the House of Lords played a crucial role in King Charles III’s Coronation last month, presenting him with four pieces of regalia during the ceremony. The ceremony at Westminster Abbey marked the first-ever involvement in British history of non-Christian faith representatives in the crowning of a monarch. Lord Kamall, 56, a London-born Muslim Tory peer, carried armills, or a pair of bracelets. In an interview with Editor of The Muslim News, Ahmed J Versi, Lord Kamall, a professor of politics and international relations at St. Mary’s University, spoke of his political convictions, and the significance of his role in the Coronation. He also addressed the persistent allegations of Islamophobia plaguing his party.

How were you selected to take part in the Coronation and how did you feel?
I got a phone call from Black Rod [House of Lord’s officer], and she said that the King is looking to include people of other faiths. And one way of doing it was to include peers of different faiths, and I had been recommended by the usual channels. It sounds bizarre coming from a Lord, but I’m not into pomp and ceremony. But I thought it was such a historic moment. And given the fact that the King had made a gesture like that, it would be churlish to just say no. And I was slightly worried about being seen as a representative of Muslims. I didn’t ask for that. And some people have written to me, “Who asked you to represent us?”. And that’s a fair point. I felt proud and honoured to be doing it. And it’s nice that he asked people of different faiths to take part.

So how did your mother feel?
She’s incredibly proud of me. I know my father would have been super chuffed. It brought tears to my eyes thinking about it—that he saw me in the European Parliament, that he saw me be the group leader. I took him to Brussels, and he was just so full of pride. Sadly, he died a few months before I got to the Lords. And the day I got into the Lords, I was walking into the Lords, and I imagined him next to me. And I just know that he would be bursting with pride.
I didn’t tell anyone I was taking part in the Coronation. Even my sister, who is in America, said, “Gosh, all my friends are telling me that you’re in the Coronation.” And my phone just blew up with lots of messages from people and family [members] from around the world. It was just a lovely reaction—people saying they’re very proud of me. In all honesty, I don’t think I did very much at all, like pick up a cushion with armills, lead in front of the queue, and then he touched it and I took it back. But for a lot of people, it’s very symbolic. A lady emailed me saying that I’d met her years ago, and she said that she was in a taxi with a Muslim taxi driver. And he had said to her that the fact that the King had tried to include the other faiths, not only my bit but also the faith leaders at the end, blessing him, made him feel more included in Britain. I thought that was a lovely thing to hear. I wasn’t sure whether it was pure symbolism. But the fact that people are saying that they feel more included is a positive thing. My wife was also so proud. She was at a friend’s coronation party. And then, when I finished, I joined them, and it was nice. And she was asking me, “We saw you on TV. How’s it there?” It’s just a lovely day.

Are you Indian and Guyanese?
No, my parents are both Guyanese. But my ancestry is from what is now Afghanistan/Pakistan. But it’s fascinating because no one’s exactly sure. My maternal grandfather sailed from India to Guyana in 1900. And there are various family stories. So, for example, my maternal grandmother’s father was one of three brothers whose parents died on the voyage. They were adopted by different religions. But I don’t know how to find any of this out. There was internal migration in the old, greater India, from what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan to Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. I’m not sure. My mother’s maiden name is Khan; there are so many Khans in the world. When I meet Pakistani and Afghan people and say my grandfather used to say we’re Pathan, half of them say to me, “Look at you; of course, you’re a Pathan,” and the other half say, “Look at you; there’s no way you’re a Pathan.” I have no idea.

You play the bass guitar?
I used to be a bass player, but in my new band, I play guitar. I’m an amateur. I love playing. I played at university, and I stopped playing for about 28 years. It was only when I was in the European Parliament that I went to Latvia. One of my colleagues, who was a Latvian MEP and a former finance minister, was playing on stage. I said, “I used to play,” and he said, “Get up and play.” And after that, we formed a band. And that’s why we did that.

How did you transition from academia to politics?
For politics, you always must have a parallel career because politics is a lottery. Some people are incredibly lucky and get it very quickly, others try a lot and get it; some people never get it. It’s just where the political pendulum is at the time. I fought and lost five elections until I finally got elected. This sounds bizarre. I used to just get elected to things, and people would say, “Will you stand?” When I was at school, I was a form captain and a member of the school council. When I was at university, I represented my department in the student union, and I was elected president of my hall of residence. There was something about me that made people ask me to stand. I went to university quite left-wing. And over time, I found myself voting with the conservatives in the student union. And they said to me, “You’re a Conservative.” And I said, “There’s no way I’m a Conservative! Look at my background. My dad’s a working-class immigrant, railway, and bus driver.” And as I joined local associations, I was also trying to work out what I wanted to do with my career. After my master’s, I went to work for a bank for two years. And I realised I didn’t want to make that same journey from Edmonton to Liverpool Street every day for the next 40 years of my life, so I took evening classes. And then a friend of mine said, “You obviously like studying; why don’t you do a PhD?” So I did a PhD and stayed in academia, after my PhD at Bath and then Leeds. In 1997, I was getting married. And my father said to me, “You’re not going to be able to bring up a family on an academic salary; get a real job.” I applied to banks and consultancies. I became a management consultant for a few years. Then I was self-employed for a while, and then I got elected in 2005.

Your father was a bus and train driver?
When he came to Britain, he worked on the railways. He worked on steam engines, shovelling coal, and guarding. I’ve been trying to find his work records. When I was Minister for Heritage, the National Railway Museum tried to help me because they thought it would have been a nice story. But we can’t find his records of when he moved from the railways to buses. But we think it was around the time that British Rail stopped using steam engines. So late 60s, or early 70s. As a child growing up, he was always a bus driver. I didn’t know about the railways.

What attracted you to the Conservatives?
I went quite left-wing to university. And I just saw the way the Student Union was spending students’ money irresponsibly on campaigns and hiring buses to go to London for marches. And there were lots of things the students wanted. I thought they should be spending money on students. I started to get annoyed with the left being quite patronising towards me because of my colour. “You have to vote for us because we look after people like you.” And I thought what do you mean you look after people like me, and I don’t look after myself? There are some things that the liberal left is good at, like fighting racism. But in some ways, the left was just too patronising. And economically, I became more of an economic liberal. I believe in business and markets, but I don’t like too many big businesses because they squeeze out small businesses. But as I grew in my economic knowledge, I became more interested in market economics.
If you want a political career, you must join a political party, that you agree with most or disagree with least. And I’ve evolved. I came from the left, and I joined the left of the Conservative Party. And over time, I found myself moving more towards the right. There are two rights in the Conservative Party: the authoritarian right and the liberal right. And I’m very much on the liberal right.

Have you faced racism?
My father faced endless discrimination in the 1950s. He couldn’t get rooms to rent. He told me I got a room with a urine-soaked mattress, poor facilities, and the way they treated people [of colour] in those days. And he said, “Even the trade unions are racist.” They were trying to protect their white workers from the influx, but this country needed immigrants. I grew up in the 1970s. There were skinheads, the National Front, and the British National Party. It was quite scary. I’ve been chased by skinheads, and I’ve had people jump on me. I’ve had to curl up in a ball when they tried to kick the life out of me. My father said to me that the progress that has been made since he came in the 1950s has been massive. My son has probably only had one or two racist incidents, whereas I’d be having that almost every week. In some ways, we’ve come this far. But I also understand why young people are still angry because they banked everything that we’ve come from; they’re saying, “Well, we’re not compared to the 1950s. We want it now.” And I understand that as well.

Have you faced racism nowadays, either in parliament or as an MEP?
There are different types of racism. Some people tell you to go back to where you came from. And people who are nice to your face. And think they’re not racist because they speak to a black or Asian doctor or newsagent, but they think a white European is superior. And I saw a lot of that superiority in the European Union. I remember even during the referendum when I said I was going to vote leave because I wanted a fair immigration system. I didn’t like the fact that we gave priority to people with European passports. I want to be treated equally. People were saying to me, “You just want more Pakistanis or Muslims to come here.” I said, “No, I just want it to be fair.” And it was very interesting that on both sides of the referendum campaign, you saw racism.

Despite that, you still became the co-chair of the European Conservatives.
It helped because the UK Conservatives were the largest party in the European Conservative Party. I got elected to the British Conservative leadership in 2013, and when the European elections came around and they were looking for a new leader, I wasn’t going to throw my hands in the ring, and people said, “We want you to be the leader.” And I was genuinely surprised. I thought I was quite happy to be the leader of the British Conservatives. They said, “No, we want you to lead the European conservatives.” And then I was the only leader for the first two and a half years. And then we had a referendum.

Why were you a Brexiteer? Surely, you’d want to stay as an MEP?
I did a lot of speaking during the referendum campaign, and I did a leaflet on both sides of the argument. And I didn’t tell people how I was going to vote, and I started this even before I knew how I was going to vote because I was still balancing the two acts. Some people had already made up their minds years ago, they would always leave or always remain. But some people said to me, “There are a lot of things I don’t like about the EU. But I’m going to vote to ‘remain,’ because I worry about the short- to medium-term impact of leaving.” There are a lot of things I like about the EU. But I worry about the long-term impacts of staying. And I do worry a lot about the long term. They couldn’t see beyond white Europe. And of course, there was the other issue of immigration. I wanted to fix the immigration system. I didn’t like the fact that people with European passports had priority. And most of those people are white. There’s another element to it, these are countries that have had and lost empires and were trying to build a European empire in some ways to get back that ground.

Did you face challenges when voting for legislation that might be against your conscience?
I remember talking to Muslims for Britain; Saqib [Bhatti, MP] was a member of that. And they came to me and said, “We’re getting a lot of stick. Are we doing the right thing?” And I said I couldn’t answer that. Only you know, and the only way you can know is to go and sit in the masjid, before or after your prayers, and ask Allah whether you did the right thing. There are things that I wouldn’t do. For example, last week, we had Bill go through, the Illegal Migration Bill. There are some things about which I feel uncomfortable. I didn’t vote. And I told my Whip I wasn’t voting for this. I can’t support the government’s position on this.

What of other ethical issues, like same-sex marriage and LGBTQ+ issues?
You can distinguish between personal and public morality. There are lots of things that I believe in, but I’d not impose them on others. For example, I don’t drink alcohol or smoke, but I wouldn’t ban it for other people. One of the things I like about Britain is the belief in “live and let live.” It’s a very tolerant place. I don’t care if my friends are gay or whatever; it doesn’t bother me. We all have our own lives to live.

Can voting on values jeopardise careers?
I have been in politics longer than I thought. I thought one day I’d hit some issue where I’d leave. I want to be true to myself. When I told David Cameron that I was planning to vote leave, I was fully expecting him to say, “That’s the end of your career; it’s all over.” I thought, “So be it; that’s life.” I must be true to myself. When I’m on my deathbed. Looking back at my life, I want to say that I did the right thing.

Do you get treated differently in Parliament as a practising Muslim?
I get asked a lot of questions, and you try to answer them. Even though I disappear so many times a day to pray, don’t drink alcohol, or whatever, I’m not waving a flag about it. I’m just thinking we can work.

There is evidence of structural Islamophobia within the Conservative Party, including comments made by the Home Secretary that sexual grooming gangs are almost all British Pakistanis, whose whole cultural attitudes are incompatible with British values.
I’ve written questions about this. And I put in a written question because there was a Home Office report in 2020 that said, grooming gangs do not belong to any ethnic group. So, I asked the question, “What new evidence has come to light to justify the Home Secretary’s statements?” And the answer that came back was that the Home Secretary only referred to cases in Rotherham. I’ve asked the follow-up question given that the Daily Mail printed her statement, has the government asked the Daily Mail to correct it? That’s how I work. I didn’t like the statement. I am pro-immigration. One of the reasons I voted to leave was because I wanted a fair immigration system. And this country needs immigration now.

How do you tackle Islamophobia so ingrained within the Conservative Party andrhetoric that affects ordinary people?
I don’t think we’re structurally Islamophobic, but we don’t deal with cases when they come up and that’s why it gives that impression. We must have a zero-tolerance policy. A few years ago, after the Arab Spring, I and Steve Baker travelled to Egypt, and we spoke to some of the new parties, to say, in the same way, that I am accepted as a Muslim in Christian Britain, make sure that you don’t persecute the Christians in Egypt.
I went for that reason with a Christian. One of my colleagues in the European Parliament put out a rumour that I was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. I was critical of [President Abdel Fattah] El-Sisi and the coup; I thought that in dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood, let people vote them out, not take them out with a coup. And those things hurt you. I just felt like I had nowhere to go. And some people asked me, “How do you deal with it?” I said, “There’s nowhere for me to go. Who do I go to?” And I don’t think that, as a party, we’re very good at dealing with things. Steve Baker suggested to a few of us that we see the party chief executive a few weeks ago about some of the concerns over some of the comments made by the Home Secretary. We said, “You’ve got to address this far more than the Singh Report.”
And Steve very kindly said you should have Syed chair the report. I’m not sure I want that. But we must be clear.
And yet Afzal Khan, who did a similar thing for the Labour Party, was open to it, and they tackled it, and we are just pushing for responses.
I’m waiting for a response. We’ve said, it’s not good enough what you’ve done. I genuinely don’t know what the top of the party is thinking.

Did this happen recently?
No, this happened a few years ago.

The APPG British Muslim definition of Islamophobia has been endorsed by all major parties, including the Scottish Conservative Party. So why hasn’t it been accepted by the Conservative Party?
I’ve been talking to Sayeeda [Baroness Warsi] quite a lot; she’s pushing this issue. We are having those conversations. That’s all I can say now. We’ve gone to the chief executive, and we’re pushing the thing. There are lots of different ways of working. Sayeeda works in two ways: public and private. I do more private.

When the Conservative Party engages with the Muslim community, they use minority Muslim bodies, rather than the Muslim Council of Britain, the largest Muslim organisation in this country. Shouldn’t the Conservatives work with communities of all views, rather than only those with whom they agree?
It’s a fair point. A lot of the MPs work very well with their local communities; they don’t go via the MCB or anyone else. Like Steve Baker, he’s well respected in Wycombe, and he makes a real effort. And it’s not just flag-waving. He’s a man of faith. And he has a connection of faith with a lot of his constituents.
I had Zara [Mohammed, Secretary General of MCB] in my office last week. She was open and said, “We’ve been seen not wanting to talk to the Conservative Party. I wanted to talk to all parties.” So, I very much welcomed Zara’s new approach. She’s much more open. And not expected to be conservative. But she said to me, “We have seemed to just criticise the Conservatives. And she said, I’ve been saying internally, you must work with all the parties.” I want to see Muslims at all parties. I don’t think it’s going to happen. But if we had a monopoly on Muslims, I’d be worried. Because the only way you’re going to make changes is when people are on all parties.

As a liberal economist, how do you rate Rishi Sunak’s economic policy? Priti Patel criticised his leftward shift.
It’s a challenge for someone like me, but if you want economically liberal policies, you also must have sound finances. And our finances aren’t sound now. Even before COVID, our relative spending on the state was going up, because we’ve got an ageing population.
When I was a health minister for a year, I realised how much demand there is for the health [service] compared to supply. We’ve got more doctors and nurses than ever before, but it’s still not enough. We need a radical rethink. And then, if you think about what we’ve been through economically, all the money on COVID. We’ve built up massive debts. Now we increased the money supply.
When I was the academic director of a think-tank, I commissioned Tim Congdon and Juan Castaneda from the University of Buckingham. They wrote this paper in September 2020, predicting, “We’re going to get double-digit inflation.” Everyone else said, No, this is madness. The money will all be absorbed. And they were right. What I worry about is that we’re supposed to have a Bank of England that has a target of 2%. It’s failed that target, and no one’s [held] accountable there. People will also ask, “You’ve got an independent Bank of England, but I’ve got a target. What happens when it fails to meet its target and they just haven’t controlled the money supply?”

Interview by Ahmed J Versi

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