The Conservative Party and British Indians, 1975-1990

Today’s blog is from our 2017 undergraduate dissertation competition winner, Jilna Shah of Cambridge University for her thesis on the Conservative Party and British Indians in the long 1980s. Jilna was presented her prize by Chair of Trustees Gordon Marsden and Director of the History of Parliament, Dr Stephen Roberts during our annual lecture in January, ‘The Second Reform Act of 1867: Party interest or the road to democracy?’. We will be running our dissertation competition again in 2018, details will be posted on Twitter and our website shortly…

The long 1980s deserves to be seen as a watershed in the history of the Conservative Party and its relationship with Britain’s ethnic minorities. Contemporary commentators, such as Stuart Hall, Ambalavener Sivanandan, and Paul Gilroy argued for as much at the time, highlighting a new racism that punctuated crises of unemployment, crime, and immigration and led to ethnically-narrower conceptions of the nation. Such characterisations of conservatism have percolated into the academy. Thus the few works that discuss the relationship between the Thatcher governments and British Indians focus on the promotion of an exclusive social, cultural, and economic ideology in which the majority of the non-white population were unable to participate and on moments of visible confrontation between the state and its coloured citizens. In short, scholars have tended to operate within the blunt discourse of ‘racist Tories/non-racist Tories’ that emerged at the time.

Long overdue is a more subtle analysis of the Conservative Party and its relationship with the plural society in the 1980s, one that recovers the full diversity of encounters and does not confuse what was most visible with what was representative. This is not to deny the persistence of racism throughout the decade, but simply to acknowledge that more collaborative relationships between the Conservative Party and ethnic minorities coexisted alongside those historically marked by mutual suspicion and hostility. Underused sources, such as Indian-language periodicals, the records of the Conservative Party’s Ethnic Minority Unit (est. 1976), and oral interviews with British Indian Tories, reveal a Party eager to strengthen its ties with select cadres of the ethnic minority population. These sources also debunk many uncritically-accepted stereotypes of British Indian lifestyles, such as the passivity of Indian women voters.

Building allegiance

Much like they did with Jews decades earlier, the Conservative Party contended with the realities of a plural society by pioneering implicit and explicit allegiances with upwardly-mobile British Indians in the 1980s. Features of Indian culture and lifestyles helped the Thatcher governments to fulfil three aims. Firstly, the respect nurtured by strong Indian families allowed politicians to pursue a laissez-faire approach to race relations without increasing the size of the state. Secondly, the possibly imagined, but nonetheless widely accepted, consonance between Indian values and ‘Victorian values’ assisted the Thatcher government in its crusade to remoralize the nation. Thirdly, the number of British Indians engaged in business helped to grow the ‘enterprise economy’ and reduce raw figures of unemployment. Far from being excluded as ethnic minorities, successful British Indians were invoked as model citizens in Thatcher’s Britain, with features of their ethnicity reified, repackaged, and extended into new national ideals.

…we so much welcome the resourceful Indian community here in Britain. You have brought the virtues of family, of hard work and of resolve to make a better life. Children are encouraged, grandparents cherished, family links preserved. And in countless firms and shops up and down the country, you are displaying splendid qualities of enterprise and initiative which benefit not just you and your families, but the Indian community and indeed the nation as a whole. – Margaret Thatcher, ‘Speech at the Diwali Banquet’, 16 September 1981

As a result, British Indians found themselves inadvertently developing and executing the goals of Thatcherism: as nuclear families (91% of Indian families were headed by two parents compared to 77% of white families and 46% of Afro-Caribbean families in 1991), as homeowners (92% of Sikhs, 78% of Muslims, and 65% of Hindus owned their own homes compared to a national average of 57% in 1981), and as the self-employed (13% of British Asians compared to 8% of white citizens and 3% of Afro-Caribbeans in 1981).

Significantly, the relative success of Indians was often determined by their experiences of British rule in East Africa and India. Many Hindu and Jain ‘twice migrants’ had entered the financial, medical, and government professions whilst still in Africa, enabling them to accumulate considerable cash savings prior to arrival in Britain. In Punjab, educated Sikhs had allied themselves with the British to create a subaltern ruling class that benefitted from an English-language education. Although the social sciences have produced some useful writing on the resettlement of Indian lifestyles, too often immigration is conceptualised as rupture rather than an ongoing legacy shaped by incomplete decolonisation. The opportunities offered to select subjects by the British colonial government in India and East Africa meant that some Indian communities had a far better chance of economic success post-migration. It was these British Indians that came to occupy a special place in Thatcher’s Britain. Their upward social mobility, facilitated in part by the opportunities that they had encountered in their ‘home’ countries, was proudly publicised by the Tories as evidence of what could be achieved under a Conservative government with a bold new vision for the nation.

Wooing the British Indian voter

This perceived affinity between British Indian and Conservative ideals was weaponised into a new electoral strategy. Although the Thatcher governments chose to erase race as category in official ideology and any suggestion of ‘ethnic voting’ was vehemently denied by several minority groups, there was no definitive consensus on ethnicity in this period. Even those Tories that chose to disregard the impact of ethnicity on an individual’s life course accepted that it was still an indispensable category of group identification with important linguistic and cultural implications that could help the Party to develop more precise appeals to voters.

As such, the Conservative Party’s Ethnic Minority Unit began to field British Indian candidates, such as Narindar Saroop and S. Popat, and established an Anglo-Asian Conservative Society, which had over 1000 members in twenty-six local branches by 1983. The Party also began to generate content for the ethnic minority press. During the 1987 general election, an English-language poster criticising Labour’s education policy was published in Gujarati to emphasise the shared dislike for liberal education amongst right-wingers and traditional families. However, whilst the English-language version contained very little text, the Indian-language version specified how ‘The Conservative Party believes that your children’s education should respect every community’s religious and moral values.’ It also exploited the growing divide between Indians and Afro-Caribbeans by stating that Labour would expose Indian children to the social pariah that was the ‘Black lesbian in white America’. The differences between the English and Gujarati versions suggest that the Conservative Party had developed increasingly targeted ways of winning the British Indian vote by 1987.

Conservative Party Election Poster and its Gujarati-language adaptation, 1987.

In this way, a study of the Ethnic Minority Unit reveals the increasing precision with which the Conservative Party conceptualised and made appeals to British Indians across the decade, often exploiting the ideological affinity between the social conservatism of British Indians and the proclivities of Thatcherism. Although there is evidence to suggest that many British Indians still felt alienated by the racist and classist image of the Conservative Party, especially once the Anglo-Asian Conservative Society became dominated by privileged, Anglicized Indians who were once complicit in the British Raj, the Ethnic Minority Unit succeeded in making ethnic minority involvement an indispensable priority for the Tories by 1990.

Of course, it is impossible to separate the impact of the Unit from other factors that mobilised British Indian support. For example, oral interviews with former British Indian Tories suggest that they found their personal views of self-improvement reflected in the Party’s seemingly deracialised tenets of ‘merit’ and ‘open competition.’ Nevertheless, the statistics are clear: the Conservative share of British Indian votes, particularly in the suburbs of Greater London, increased from 9% in 1979 to 24% by 1987. This understudied and unprecedented defection from the Labour Party is yet another reason why the relationship between the Conservative Party and British Indians in the 1980s demands further scholarly attention.


We are currently launching our undergraduate dissertation competition for 2018. Undergraduate students must enter through their history departments. Sammy Sturgess will be contacting university history departments over the next week with information about the rules and how to enter. Please email with any questions or if you are interested and do not hear about this through your institution within the next few weeks. Good luck!


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