Prominent industrialist Swraj Paul has been a long-standing observer of British and Indian politics. A member of the House of Lords, Paul has supported and donated to the Labour party, but became an independent peer in 2010. Since then, he has not supported any party, but continues to make forceful interventions in key debates in parliament. Paul, 84, spoke to HT in the build-up to the 7 May elections. Excerpts:
Q. Some think-tanks have suggested that the ‘Indian vote’ will have a more influential role in the 7 May elections than was the case earlier. How do you see the Indian role in UK elections over the years?
A: Now there is a recognition that the Indian vote matters. They have started putting Indian and Asian origin candidates in more constituencies, but not many safer seats are given to them. This needs to seen in the wider perspective which includes racism. There used to be racism in the British working class in the 1960s, 1970s. Now nobody bothers about racism at that level, but as the Indian and Asian communities have prospered, racism has creeped into higher echelons of British society, which gets reflected in politics as well. They are putting Indian and Asian candidates to win the Indian/Asian votes, not because they want them. Unlike other sections of society, Asians don’t necessarily want state benefits but they would like jobs and the creation of jobs.
Q: Each of the three main parties – Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrats – have been caught in recent sting operations related to donations. How transparent or not is the system in the UK, given that you have been one of main donors to Labour in the past?
A: The system is fairly transparent but on and off there is always someone who likes to try to dodge and bypass the safeguards. The good thing is the Press is fairly active and once it comes to light action gets taken. We need to constantly watch that people adhere to the rules of donations and not try to bypass this. We cannot allow any dodgy way of donations, otherwise the democracy will be destroyed.
Q: How would you compare the system of political donation in India and the UK? You mentioned ‘cozy and sleazy establishment practices’ in Britain in one of your recent speeches. Could you elaborate?
A: There are some differences. In the UK the system is fairly solid, however there has been a tendency to bypass the system. There is a limit to the donation and one should respect that. However lately it has been found that people give money through different names. There have only been a few cases so far. In my personal view, the large donations are dangerous. No one gives a huge amount of money unless these is some ‘quid pro quo’. We should have a system where, for example, if a donation is larger than say £25,000 (or whatever the maximum figure that is decided), then an explanation should be given as the reasoning for such a large donation and parties should openly confirm there is no ‘quid pro quo’ because of this donation. If this does not happen then corruption will creep in.
When I talked about ‘cozy and sleazy’ practices I was referring to the amount of cover-up that appears to be going on in British public life – whether it is the financial cases, the paedophilia cases, various disasters etc., it seems that the establishment is doing everything it can to supress information rather than making it public. British financial institutions used to be seen as world leaders in integrity. Nowadays they seem to be world leaders in duplicity.
Q: You figured recently in parliament over the controversy over holding an HSBC account in Geneva and over Labour leader Ed Miliband stating that your donation to the party did not happen under his watch.
A: The Prime Minister dragging my name into a question in the House of Commons about HSBC account holders was unfortunate. It had no relevance. Nobody had denied that I held an account with HSBC in Geneva. Nobody says that is wrong to have an account with HSBC. Everyone knows I supported the Labour Party before and up to the time I was a member of the Labour Party and an active Labour Party Peer. The donations were made by my company Caparo and declared on their balance sheets. I think the Prime Minister wanted to mention mine and Gordon Brown’s names for no reason at all. Ed Miliband’s reaction ‘that my donation to the party did not happen under his watch’ was quite right. I did not pay any money to the Labour party after he became the leader.
Q: How do you see India-UK relations under the new government that will soon come to power?
A: All parties would like to have better relations with India, politically and commercially. Labour has always been more friendly with India but now all parties are keen on India, so whoever forms the government after 7 May, they will improve rules as much as they can. A key issue is visa for Indian students and visitors, which is causing lot of unhappiness in India. On the student visa, the British government is doing more harm to Britain than India. We are living in a globalised world and by denying visa to Indian and other non-EU students we are denying opportunities for British students to be more global. I think the next government will have to keep students out of immigration targets and bring back the post-study work visa for international students.
Q: What made David Cameron announce the other day that he won’t stand for a third term as prime minister?
A: My own experience of politics always tells me that when a Prime Minister issues this kind of statement he seems to be having some trouble within his own party. I wish Mr David Cameron the best of luck.