When Thatcher inspired NRI dreams

As a 15-year-old school kid in England, I still remember the remorse in my household that May 1979 night when Margaret Thatcher became the UK's first woman prime minister. We felt that the Labour Party would protect us, but this change had left us exposed.

Like most Indian immigrants, my family had a socialist leaning. Indians in the UK at that time were so overwhelmingly pro-Labour that it seemed both unusual and awkward to come across any Indian who supported the Conservatives. Anyone not supporting Labour was either considered a traitor or a coconut (brown outside, white inside).

Despite the fact that most immigration control laws had been introduced by Labour governments in the 1960s, the incoming Tory administration was viewed as racist and anti-immigrant in 1979.

Emigration from Punjab to the UK started from Doaba in the 1950s, accelerating to other parts a decade later. British factories welcomed industrious immigrants, who proved themselves to be good savers, homeowners and remitters of hard currency to ever-needy relatives back in Punjab.

In 1979, most British Indian households invariably had both parents working with young children. Few households had retired persons. Whilst most preferred the security of employment, some ventured into entrepreneurship as shop owners, restaurateurs and small-time manufacturers.

As a medical student at Oxford University in the early 1980s, I was driven from medicine to business both by Thatcher's swinging cuts to the National Health Service and by the bright lights of the businessrevolution.

Not just me, but countless others too, for it was during Thatcher's tenure that Indian migrants proved themselves as successful entrepreneurs. Her brutal economic reforms of the early '80s proved to be the perfect springboard for many an Indian fortune arising from the property boom of that decade. Countless Indians progressed from being mere homeowners to landlords of commercial and residential properties.

This empowerment through real estate extended to manufacturing and the services. Indian businesses were no longer restricted to the centres of migration. The length and breadth of the UK witnessed business after business being transferred from a retiring, generally white, family to a gleaming, often large, Indian family.

However, this new-found wealth still did not dramatically change political affiliations. The British Indians remained resolutely behind the Labour Party, still as suspicious of the Conservatives as they were of the tax man!

While the Labour Party had rewarded British Indians by allowing them political space initially in the local bodies and from 1991 in Parliament, the Conservatives steadfastly refused to promote candidates of Indian origin in winnable parliamentary seats for another 20 years.

The shift of the British Indian vote to the Conservative Party essentially started after Thatcher ceased to be PM. As young British Indians qualified in ever-increasing numbers as doctors, dentists, lawyers, bankers, accountants and other professionals, they found themselves the welcome beneficiaries of Thatcher's economic reforms.

Politically, this consumptive generation differentiated itself from the carte blanche support that their parents had extended to the Labour Party. Few British Indians under 40 were politically aware during Thatcher's tenure, but they remember her warmly. Not so their parents.


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