How British Asians came to be political powerhouses

·6-min read
Anas Sarwar, Sadiq Khan, Rishi Sunak, and Humza Yousaf
Anas Sarwar, Sadiq Khan, Rishi Sunak, and Humza Yousaf

Humza Yousaf’s elevation to leader of the Scottish National Party is one of the great triumphs of social mobility. He said this week that when his grandparents migrated to Glasgow in the 1960s unable to speak English they “could not have imagined in their wildest dreams” that their grandson would one day lead Scotland. In the space of two generations, the Yousafs have made the ascent from tailoring in the Pakistani town of Mian Channu to First Minister of Scotland.

Yet the Yousafs’ story is far from unique in modern Britain. The Prime Minister, the Mayor of London and the Scottish Labour leader are all children of migrants and the first generation of their families to be born in the UK.

The parents of Mr Yousaf, Rishi Sunak, Sadiq Khan and Anas Sarwar all came to Britain determined to build a better life, then worked hard to provide their children with every advantage they could give them. All of the families had an instinctive grasp of the value of education. Three of the men went to private schools – Sarwar and Yousaf even went to the same school in Glasgow – and all had parents who supported them to the hilt.

The end result is that British-Asian leaders occupy four of the most senior roles in the country, across the political spectrum, which tells us much about race relations in the UK in 2023.

Yousaf has described himself in the past as “a typical son of immigrants” whose parents Mian Muzaffar Yousaf Arain and Shaaista Bhutta were in turn “typical of first-generation immigrants” who came to the UK to improve their lot in life.

In the case of his paternal grandfather, he was “your typical economic migrant”, Yousaf said. In 1964, despite speaking little to no English, his grandfather brought his wife and children to the UK.Yousaf’s mother came to the UK for different reasons: born in Kenya, her father was a train conductor who felt increasingly unwelcome in his adopted country when the African nationalist Jomo Kenyatta came to power, and sought a new life in Scotland. (Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s father left Kenya for Britain at a similar time, while her predecessor Priti Patel’s parents fled from Uganda during the corrupt regime of Milton Obote).

Yousaf attended the local state primary school, but by the time he reached secondary school age his father, an accountant, was earning enough money to send him to private school.

Yousaf has joked that his parents fitted into a certain stereotype, telling Holyrood magazine before he became SNP leader: “I’m Asian and growing up, you’re either going to be a doctor, dentist, pharmacist, accountant or lawyer, that was it. And perhaps the stereotypes were true about parents like mine who had come to this country in the 1960s, but those five professions were it – you didn’t really have much choice.”

He said the “scariest thing ever” was telling his parents he wanted to study politics rather than law, but in the event his father told him that the British Asian community needed more representation and so politics would be a good choice.

“Nothing else really mattered to me other than getting that parental backing,” he said. While others questioned his choices, “I knew my mum and dad supported me and that was the main thing.”

At the same private school, three years ahead of Yousaf was Anas Sarwar. Also a Muslim of Pakistani heritage, Sarwar’s paternal grandfather Mohammad, a farmer, moved to Scotland in 1976 when he was 26 and built up a cash-and-carry business. It enabled him to pay for a private education for his children, and Anas Sarwar was so convinced of the value of that education that he sent his own sons to the same school, even though Scottish Labour wants to end the charitable status of private schools. He has said accusations of hypocrisy are “fair criticism”, but that “every parent wants to do what’s best for their children”.

One man who is less bashful about the value of private education is Rishi Sunak. He has said in the past that “my parents sacrificed a great deal so I could attend good schools”, and when he was asked about his public school education during the Tory leadership contest said: “I’m not going to apologise for what my parents did for me, you must be joking.”

Sunak’s family story, like Yousaf’s, passes through Africa. His father, like Yousaf’s mother, was born in Nairobi, and in 1966, at around the same time that Yousaf’s mother arrived in Scotland, Yashvir Sunak emigrated to Liverpool to study medicine. He then moved to Southampton, where Rishi was born in 1980.

Sadiq Khan, 52, is the only one of the four men not to have been privately educated. He was born in Tooting, south London, to Amanullah and Sehrun Khan, who had emigrated to Britain from Pakistan in 1968.

While the parents of Sunak, Sarwar and Yousaf had made the jump to the middle classes, Khan’s parents were solidly working class: his father worked as a bus driver (as did the father of former Tory leadership candidate Sajid Javid) and his mother was a seamstress.

Khan, in common with the other three men, was often the victim of racism as a child, and their success is a measure of how much Britain has changed since each of them was growing up. “It wasn’t uncommon for us to be called the P-word and get into fights,” Khan said in one recent interview. He even switched his allegiance from the England cricket team to Pakistan after being racially abused at a Test match at Lord’s, before later switching back.

Yousaf has explained that being a victim of racism can act as a powerful driver for political engagement. He has recalled how his mother successfully took an estate agent to court when she suspected they were preventing her from viewing a house because she was Asian, and that after he experienced racism, particularly after 9/11, his father “directed my anger in a really helpful way” by telling him to write to his MP, which led him into politics.

Khan has said that the experiences of his parents’ generation, his own generation and his children’s generation should be seen as a reason for optimism.

“My girls have not experienced overt racism, not been called names, have not had to get involved in fights,” he said. “That shows the progress that has been made.”