Small wonder Britain is my God (The Sunday Times)
When Dolar Popat stood up to face the opposition in the House of Lords, where he is the first British Gujarati life peer, he says he saw “anger in the eyes” of the Labour peers who questioned him. “There was always the message, ‘You brown skins should be with us,’ ” he says. “So many people think that, as a British Asian, Labour must be my natural home. But I’m a natural Conservative.”
Equally, in 1980, when Popat — a Hindu who arrived in London from Idi Amin’s Uganda in 1971 at the age of 17 — joined the Tory party, his friends were “shocked”, he says. “They were all going to socialist meetings: the Conservatives were certainly not then the party of minorities. And they were right: you’d go to a black-tie Tory thing and see 600 middle-class, elderly people — I’d be the only coloured guy there. But now that’s all changed.”
Judging by Boris Johnson’s cabinet, there has certainly been progress. Four of the 33 people who attend are of British Asian origin, making it the most ethnically diverse we have known. The chancellor, Sajid Javid, is of Pakistani heritage, while three others — Priti Patel, the home secretary; the international development secretary, Alok Sharma; and the chief secretary to the Treasury, Rishi Sunak — are British Indian.
Popat, 66, must be delighted. “It makes a difference to our representation in this country,” he responds serenely. “Probably Boris has overdone it a little bit but he’s done it.” Overdone it? Popat grins. “Look at the numbers. British Asians make up around 7.5% of the population but about 12% of people who attend cabinet are British Asian. Two would have been great, three is fine but four is . . . you know. But it’s fantastic to see these very talented people coming forward.”
Johnson, he continues, became mayor of London by wooing the ethnic vote. “He went to every temple and gurdwara, so to win the next election he knows what he has to do.”
Some have claimed that by espousing right-wing values, these new ministers have betrayed their origins. “It’s nonsense,” Popat says. “They’ve integrated so well into the mainstream, and why not? I told Mrs Thatcher, ‘British Indians are the original Conservatives. We believe in education, hard work, family and paying less taxes.’ She laughed.”
Popat himself has taken flak from his community for announcing that he has passed Norman Tebbit’s infamous “cricket test”, to check if an immigrant has fully integrated. “I will always support my country in the cricket — and my country is England.”
We are sitting in the sunken, white-carpeted living area of Popat’s modernist home in Stanmore, northwest London, beneath huge chandeliers. Outside, a swimming pool glints in the sun. Clearly Popat, the son of a shopkeeper, who arrived here with £10 in cash and no qualifications and built an empire of care homes and hotels, is an immigrant success story. (This year’s Sunday Times Rich List puts his fortune at £121m. “Those figures are probably wrong,” he sighs.) Now he has written a memoir, A British Subject, to inspire others.
“I didn’t want to write it,” he says. “I thought it would be showing off.” He was persuaded by Lord (Michael) Dobbs, the author of the House of Cards trilogy, with whom he shared an office in the Lords. “And now I’m glad, because the book is a love letter to this amazing country.”
Popat’s patriotism stems from a traumatic childhood in Uganda. One of eight siblings, as a schoolboy he was brutally beaten almost daily by his headmaster, resulting in his teenage years being dominated by depression.
This angst worsened after Amin’s coup against Milton Obote in January 1971, when Popat’s family, who happened to be travelling cross-country, witnessed much of the carnage.
Taking advantage of his British overseas citizen status to obtain a passport, Popat left four months later. “I wasn’t frightened. When you’ve gone through hell and seen people being shot and murdered and bodies lying on the ground, you just think, ‘Oh Christ, this is not a country I want to live in’.”
In contrast, on his first day in London he was lost, so nervously approached a policeman. “He was so polite and nice I couldn’t believe it — where I came from you were frightened of the military or police.”
Having been granted refugee status — 47 years ago this week Amin announced the expulsion of all Ugandan Asians, and Popat’s entire family ended up in London — he worked in a Wimpy bar, while studying accountancy. “There was quite a bit of racism, sometimes they called me ‘P***’, mostly it was ‘w**’. But it was usually very friendly and to me it was acceptable — there’d been racism at home from black people, so it was nothing different.”
Racism is never acceptable, though. “In this day and age, no, but in those days I thought, ‘I’m living in their country, so if I hear the odd comment, so be it.’”
By the end of the decade, he had launched a company financing small businesses. Now in an arranged marriage to Sandhya, the mother of his three sons — all entrepreneurs (“They know they’re getting no inheritance, it’s all going to charity”) — in 1989 he bought their current home. It was in a predominantly Jewish area and some were unhappy about their Asian neighbours.
“One family moved out immediately, but the people on our left became good friends,” Popat smiles. “I say if you’ve come to someone’s country and they don’t like you, the onus is on you to make them like you — you must engage and integrate and learn.”
In that spirit Popat joined the Tories. “If you want to control your destiny within a society, you need to get involved but sometimes it seems to me those with immigrant heritage seem more interested in promoting their sense of being an outsider,” he says.
Popat also says he was strongly aware that Ugandan Asians had met their downfall partly because they had not engaged. “They had 95% of the economy but no say politically.”
He worked furiously to forge links between his community and the party, on one occasion offering to pay people’s bus fares to travel to meet Thatcher. She had grasped the importance of the ethnic vote (“As a shopkeeper’s daughter she had a lot of commonality with us”), but many politicians were less enthused. “Half the time they didn’t bother turning up to my functions.”
The tide shifted under David Cameron, author of the foreword to Popat’s book. “Cameron realised Conservatives had to reach out beyond the traditional heartland and really got engaged.” The schmoozing paid off: in 2015 the Tories became the most popular party among Hindus and Sikhs. Cameron offered Popat a peerage but he was uneasy about accepting it.
“I’m very into simplicity — I sit on the floor for a prayer meeting and now there’s a special chair put out for me and I don’t like it.” His guru urged him to accept, telling him to see the House of Lords as a temple. “He said we wear white and orange clothes and serve humanity — all you’re doing is wearing a tie and a suit and serving humanity.”
Still, Popat felt sensitive arriving at the Lords after cash-for-peerages headlines about his party donations (an estimated £200,000 over the years). He still suffers from impostor syndrome.
“[The Lords] is overwhelmingly white, British and public school,” he says. “You need to make sure you are not in the position of messing it up, which gives people the opportunity to say, ‘That chap Popat shouldn’t be here.’ ”
He shows me a photo of a Jaguar from the Queen’s car fleet outside his house to carry him to meet the president of Tanzania. “When these things happen I have to suppress the desire to giggle, thinking how as a boy my family were too poor to buy shoes. My story is impossible anywhere else in the world except Britain.
“People talk Britain down and it upsets me, especially when the immigrant community do it,” he continues. “I can understand the British criticising their own country — fine. But how dare you come here and talk so low of this place? If you don’t like it, go back to where you were. I love Britain’s freedoms, its tolerance. This country is my second god. It’s corny, but it’s true.”