The amazing story of Mohammad Sarwar shows how Sturgeon can be defeated

22 Jan

Global Britain need not wait to be conjured up by Boris Johnson. It already exists.

Mohammad Sarwar is not among its most fashionable manifestations. The British press, which has difficulty in attending to more than one thing at a time, does not hang on his every word.

Sarwar is described by one who knows him as “a very affable person”, but has never given a memorable speech. He lacks charisma and passed through the House of Commons without making his name.

And yet he has achieved something astounding. After spending 13 years as an MP, he went off and became Governor of Punjab, and now enjoys in the middle of Lahore, surrounded by 80 acres of gardens, an official residence which is said to make Buckingham Palace look like “a suburban villa”.

We have become accustomed to Cabinet ministers such as Rishi Sunak, Priti Patel and Kwasi Kwarteng whose parents moved to the United Kingdom from various parts of the Commonwealth, but in 2013 Sarwar travelled in the opposite direction, and became a senior figure in Pakistani politics.

The two-way traffic between the UK and the former British Empire, so routine in other fields that it attracts no notice, is being re-established in politics, or perhaps had never gone away, but just slipped from view.

In Sardar’s case, as perhaps in most others, he has not forsaken the UK. His younger son, Anas Sardar, is frontrunner to become the next leader of the Scottish Labour Party.

Here is a development which will rejoice the hearts of those of us who regard the hereditary principle not merely as inevitable  but as beneficial.

No need to distinguish between nature and nurture. If parents pass on their abilities to their children, society is enriched.

In 2010 Mohammad Sarwar passed on his parliamentary seat, Glasgow Central, to his younger son, Anas Sarwar, who could now be about to save the Scottish Labour Party from extinction.

No less a figure than Alan Cochrane, doyen of Unionist journalists, testifies to ConHome that Anas Sarwar is “very good”.

Here at last is a Scottish Labour politician who knows how to carry the fight to Nicola Sturgeon by exposing the grievous damage inflicted on Scotland by incompetent SNP ministers at Holyrood.

Egalitarians who protest at the flying start in Labour politics which young Sarwar got from old Sarwar might pause to consider not only the son’s ability, but the father’s courage.

He was born in 1952 in a village near Lyallpur, now known as Faisalabad, in the Pakistani province of Punjab. His parents had fled in 1947 from what became India. His grandparents and his eldest sister, who was a baby, died on that flight.

When Mohammad was four years old, his father left in search of a better life in Scotland, where he sold goods door to door. Mohammed followed 20 years later and himself became at first a travelling salesman, after which, in order to be considered fit to marry his cousin Perveen, like him a Pakistani Muslim, he took a shop on Maryhill Road, in Glasgow.

With his brother, Mohammad in due course set up a cash and carry business which prospered:

“People who come from Pakistan and from working-class families in other countries know what it means to be poor, and when they come here their priority is to earn some money and send back some to look after their families. They often work seven days a week to start up. Then you make money, and the money you make starts to make money. It is difficult to make the first million, but then the first million makes more.”

In 1984 Sarwar joined the Labour Party and in 1987 he was asked whether he would like to stand for Glasgow City Council in the hopeless ward of Pollokshields East. He ran, cut the Conservative majority from 700 to 70, and five years later won the seat.

While a councillor, he was told of two Glaswegian Asian girls who had been abducted while visiting Pakistan and subjected to forced marriages. A timid man might have reckoned this was a family matter in which it would be safer not to interfere. Sarwar went to Pakistan and secured the girls’ release.

In 1997, he fought the bitter Labour selection battle for the parliamentary seat of Glasgow Govan, with accusations of electoral malpractice flying to and fro.

Sarwar emerged victorious, and was later cleared of all the charges against him, but some observers thought the bloodletting had done such damage that Labour would lose the seat at the general election, especially as Sarwar, who suffered racist abuse and was somewhat wooden in manner, faced a personable young Scottish Nationalist candidate called Nicola Sturgeon.

He beat her by 2,914 votes, becoming the first Muslim MP at Westminster and the first to take the oath on the Koran. He upheld Pakistan’s claim to Kashmir, and the rights of Palestinians, but proved himself “very sound on the extremism issue”, as a Conservative observes.

When a white, 15-year-old boy was murdered in Glasgow by a Pakistani gang, Sarwar went to Pakistan and with great difficulty arranged the extradition of three of the culprits who had fled there.

While still a student in Faisalabad he had met Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was Prime Minister of Pakistan from 1973 until overthrown in 1977 in a military coup. Sarwar’s first political campaign in Scotland, a vain one, was for Bhutto to be spared the death penalty, carried out in 1979.

Two decades later, Sarwar got to know Nawaz Sharif, a former and future Prime Minister of Pakistan, and his younger brother Shahbaz Sharif:

Sarwar got to know the Sharifs while they were living in exile in London after the 1999 coup in which they lost power. He is said to have won their gratitude by lobbying for them to remain in the UK.

“Yes, they had some problems when they were first on British soil, but they deserved to stay on merit, and I think they got it on merit,” he says. “I don’t think they are in debt to me, or I got this job because of that reason.”

The job to which he refers is the Governorship of Punjab, a grand ceremonial role which at moments of crisis can become of great political importance.

A previous Governor, Salman Taseer, was in 2011 assassinated by his own bodyguard for denouncing Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

Sarwar, who had to renounce his British citizenship in order to enter Pakistani politics, held the post of Governor of Punjab from 2013-15, when he fell out with the Sharifs and transferred his allegiance to Imran Khan.

In 2018 Khan became Prime Minister and Sarwar was reinstated as Governor.

Anas Sarwar had meanwhile lost his Westminster seat in the SNP landslide of 2015, had entered the Scottish Parliament in 2016, and in 2017 had failed to become leader of the Scottish Labour Party.

Various atrocious crimes were attributed to him. His parents had sent him to Hutchesons’ Grammar School in Glasgow, an independent school whose alumni include John Buchan and Derry Irvine.

And although Anas had read dentistry at Glasgow University, and had afterwards practised as a dentist for a few years, he was known, thanks to his father’s business career, to be a man of independent means, which was reckoned to be incompatible with being a socialist.

So Labour chose instead the Momentum candidate, the hapless English-sounding Richard Leonard, under whom its fortunes in Scotland continued to decline, with socialist Scots flocking instead to support the SNP.

Anas will not have long to get those voters back before the elections in May. But he is at once more local than Leonard, and more international than Sturgeon.

He will never be able to enter Pakistani politics, for unlike his father he has not spent the first 24 years of his life there. But he might just be able to make Sturgeon, with her desire to rejoin the European Union, look a bit limited, a bit parochial.

Why Conservatives should cautiously welcome fresh leadership for Scottish Labour

15 Jan

Yesterday afternoon, Richard Leonard announced that he was stepping down as leader of the Scottish Labour Party. (The announcement carefully timed to avoid topping ‘Red, White, and Blue’, no doubt.)

An ally of Jeremy Corbyn, there has been something of Admiral Kolchak about Leonard’s increasingly forlorn attempts to maintain a redoubt for Labour’s left-most wing. He actually fought off a challenge as recently as September, but his position had apparently become unsustainable.

LabourList has a useful summary of what went on behind the scenes. Apparently high net-worth donors were threatening to withhold support from the party unless there was a change in leadership. More significant, however, was the fact that “the balance of factional power on the Scottish executive committee has changed” since the autumn’s abortive putsch.

What happens now? Jackie Baillie, a combative MSP on the right of the party known for her pro-Trident views – her constituency of Dumbarton is home to Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde, where docks the fleet – is stepping up in the interim whilst Anas Sarwar, whom Leonard defeated in 2017, seems to be the front-runner. There may be a challenger from the left, but not the Corbynite left. There is some excitable talk about Gordon Brown taking over, but Unionists should sincerely hope he doesn’t.

Coming just a few months ahead of this year’s elections to the Scottish Parliament (albeit that these will likely be delayed), any new leader will have their work cut out to try and regain the ground Labour has lost under Leonard’s hapless leadership.

Yet counter-intuitive as it might seem, there will more than a few Scottish Conservatives hoping for just such a revival. For whilst the two may be often bitter rivals, a certain measure of Labour success may be essential to maximising Tory performance.

Why? Because despite all the progress the latter have made over the past decade or so, there remains a substantial section of even the pro-UK electorate that a Conservative candidate cannot reach. Absent a strong Labour candidate, many of those will either stay at home or, worse, vote SNP.

In 2017, when the Conservatives won 13 seats in Scotland at the general election, Labour also saw a small recovery and won seven. In 2019 – after Leonard had taken over – they lost six of those. Meanwhile the Tories also lost seven of theirs – despite several of the defeated MPs seeing their vote go up. (This is why the old chestnut about setting up a united ‘Unionist Party’ in Scotland is such a bad idea: it takes a range of options to maximise the pro-UK vote.)

Obviously there are limits to this goodwill, and Tory strategists will be concerned by polling which suggests they might cede second place. But a stronger Scottish Labour Party is essential to defending the Union, which makes their determined hopelessness on the constitution deeply concerning. Can Sarwar turn the tide? Could anyone?

Henry Hill: Having called for Swinney’s head, Ross refuses to back Williamson over A Level fiasco

20 Aug

Ross refuses to back Williamson over the A Levels fiasco

The new leader of the Scottish Conservatives has refused to support Gavin Williamson continuing in post as Education Secretary following the furore over the mishandling of A Level results, according to the i, saying that the Secretary of State needed to “reflect on what happened”.

Douglas Ross did not explicitly call for Williamson’s resignation, but told BBC Scotland: “That is a decision for Gavin Williamson. It’s a decision for the prime minister, if he continues to have the trust of the prime minister. I’m not here to say in your report that I think Gavin Williamson has done a great job and he should continue.”

He really could not have done anything else. When the Scottish Government dashed itself against the same reef a couple of weeks ago, the Scottish Conservatives led the charge in calling for John Swinney’s resignation.

Nicola Sturgeon’s decision to retain her key ally probably set the precedent which saved Williamson’s job, but the Tories couldn’t plausibly justify their attacks on Swinney whilst defending Williamson, who made exactly the same mistakes but with more warning.

In any event, one of Ross’s selling points as the new Scottish Tory leader was his willingness to take on Boris Johnson, who remains deeply unpopular in Scotland. He won’t be entirely unhappy about having been given a new opportunity to demonstrate it.

Welsh Government warns that single market plan endangers the Union

The devocrat campaign against the Government’s proposals for protecting the integrity of the British internal market continue. This week, the Welsh Government has warned that the plans will “accelerate the break-up of the Union”, the FT reports.

If you haven’t been following the debate, this is the latest development in a bitter clash between Westminster and the devolved administrations over what happens to a host of economic powers and regulatory responsibilities which are being repatriated from Brussels. The Government maintains (rightly) that these need to be held at the highest level, now London, to ensure the harmony of the UK common market. The devocrats argue that these powers are ‘devolved’ in principle, and their retention by Westminster is a ‘power grab’.

In fact, as I have set out previously, the real danger to the Union lies not in frustrating the devolved administrations’ insatiable lust for powers, but in ceding them so much power that the core functions of the UK are undermined. Ministers must hold their nerve.

More evidence of the SNP’s domination of Scottish public life

Two stories this week which highlight quite how deep a shadow the current Scottish Government casts over public life north of the border – and how difficult this makes it to hold it to account.

First, Nicola Sturgeon has been criticised for appointing a vocal SNP supporter to lead the ‘independent’ probe into her government’s mishandling of their own school exams scandal. Mark Priestly urged voters to vote for the Nationalists and against the Tories ahead of last year’s general election.

This follows fresh anger at Devi Sridhar, a Scottish Government public health adviser, for once again appearing to blame England (and Wales) for Scotland’s coronavirus woes. (Professor Sridhar has form on this, having previously ‘mistakenly’ described unionists as ‘anti-Scottish’ and claimed that English policymakers were ‘content’ with a certain level of Covid-19 deaths.)

Finally, the Scotsman reports that a cross-party group of MSPs have complained after Linda Fabiani, the Nationalist MSP chairing Holyrood’s inquiry into the Scottish Government’s botched handling of the Alex Salmond investigation, after she appeared to shut down what they consider a legitimate line of questioning. Murdo Fraser was asking Leslie Evans, the Scottish Government’s most senior civil servant, whether or not there was a policy of not leaving female staff alone with the former First Minister.

Elsewhere this week, Evans and Swinney announced that they will not be releasing the legal advice given to Scottish ministers when Salmond took them to court over their bungled inquiry, which bodes well.

All of this comes amidst reports in the Sunday Times that bullying claims against Scottish ministers have ‘soared’ – with more complaints filed than in ‘all of Whitehall’.

Scottish Labour to campaign against independence

Richard Leonard, the embattled leader of the Labour Party in Scotland, has confirmed that his party will oppose independence in the event of a second referendum, according to the Daily Record.

As Tom Harris noted on the site this week, there has been speculation that Labour could try to adopt a more neutral stance on the question in a bid to win back former voters who have defected to the SNP or the Greens. But with the party still on the defensive, such a strategy risked shedding pro-UK voters to the Tories without the guarantee of winning any back. Selling progressive Scots on the Union is less of a quick fix, but represents the only stable path to a long-term future.

Meanwhile Leonard, a left-winger who was viewed as close to the previous national leadership, is facing mounting pressure to resign and make way for someone more effective – most likely Anas Sarwar – ahead of next year’s Holyrood elections, in which the party is still predicted to come third. He is refusing to budge.