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by Mandy Rhodes
28 May 2012
Interview: Anas Sarwar

Interview: Anas Sarwar

This is an interview of two parts; of Scottish Labour, before and after the local government elections

Part one:

With the council elections just a matter of days away, Anas Sarwar, newly elected deputy leader of Scottish Labour, MP for Glasgow Central and self-confessed ‘passionately proud Glasgow boy’, knows there’s a lot riding on the ballot box; not least the first real test for the new party leadership in Scotland of which he is a principal part but also for the Labour Party more generally which has not been having a good time at the polls of late.

But if he is worried, Sarwar is showing no sign.

He’s not overly confident but thinks Labour ‘will do alright’ if they ‘get out there and get their message heard’. He’s kind of hedging his bets but given the last couple of elections and the way the SNP is talking up its prospects for 3 May, then you can excuse his reticence to unfurl the bunting.

Sarwar has that languid eloquence and elegance that comes as a result of privilege and an expensive private education but more than that, for such a new politician – he was only elected in 2010 – he is a prematurely polished operator. He smells expensive, is as sharp as his dress sense and is well rehearsed in current party speak. But then he was born to this role.

His father, Mohammad Sarwar, is a veteran of Scottish and Pakistani politics. He was a longstanding Glasgow councillor, an MP for 13 years and the UK’s first elected Muslim to Westminster, before that he was an active member of the Pakistani People’s Party and has dedicated much of his life to both politics and charitable causes, both at home and abroad. He is also a multi-millionaire, reputedly worth more than £16m, and is no stranger to controversy.

Indeed, his decision to leave front-line politics and open the door for his son followed threats to himself and his family by people associated with the three men convicted of the racist murder of teenager Kriss Donald in Glasgow that the politician had helped get extradited from Pakistan. The men were jailed for life for their part in the kidnap, torture and murder of Donald in 2004.

“Life is not the same, to be honest with you,” said Sarwar when he eventually announced his intention in 2007 to stand down at the next general election. “Since I brought them back, I was subjected to threats. I was told they wanted to punish my family and make a horrible example of my son – they would do to him what they did to Kriss Donald. I received threats to my life, to murder my sons, to murder my grandchildren.” None of this upset was surely helped by the fact that Sarwar’s eldest son, Athif, was awaiting sentence after being convicted for his part in an £840,000 money-laundering scandal involving mobile phones. However, the MP said his decision was not related to this family matter.

Athif was sentenced to three years but released after two weeks pending an appeal and was later found not guilty of the crime. His father has since claimed his son was the victim of ‘institutionalised racism’.

Sarwar senior remains very involved in the Pakistan Foundation International, which helps build hospitals and schools in his native country and he has been an active chairman of the UKwide Muslim Friends of Labour organisation, which had seen him campaign across the UK.

He was and remains, a high-profile figure who splits opinion and his political career was, admittedly, not without inflicting its own scars. He was suspended from the parliamentary Labour Party over allegations of bribing political opponents during his 1997 election campaign, and although he stood trial for fraud, he was acquitted in March 1999 and restored to the PLP. His nomination by former PM Gordon Brown for a life peerage in 2010 was blocked on the advice of HM Revenue and Customs but has since been lifted, although no title has been forthcoming.

There is no doubt that all in all, he is a hard act to follow and for a variety of reasons, perhaps his son tries a little too hard to be his own man.

Things that many others would have seen as important influences and possible life changers, like having a father who was the UK’s first Muslim MP, mixed with the Bhutto family, had powerful links to Pakistan and believed passionately in the rights of the Palestinian people, are airbrushed ever so slightly in favour of the current race to be more Scottish, more Glaswegian and more pro-Union, basically, because that is what fits the current party script.

And that’s a shame because for someone so young – he is 29 – Anas Sarwar has lived a fascinating life as the son of a wealthy man who, despite everything, remained loyal to his political roots in socialism, his ethnicity, his passion for fairness, justness and equality, no matter what.

Sarwar junior prefers to talk up his Scottishess and dismisses, with some irritation, the idea of being a Muslim MP, instead, he prefers being described as an MP who is a Muslim. “I have been asked if I am a Scot first or a Muslim first and I don’t think that is a choice I need to make,” he says. “Ask me my nationality and I’ll say Scottish and ask me my religion and I will say Muslim and I don’t see them as conflicting identities, far from it.” He continues: “I am Scottish first before I am British but does that mean I want a separate Scotland, absolutely not.

I am a passionate Glaswegian, passionate Scot and someone proud to be part of the UK. You can be really proud of your Scottish identity and your Scottishness and still want to be part of the UK.” Further, he tells me that he has not been to Pakistan for over 15 years and only made two or three visits there in his life, ‘no more than that’ and says that while Benazir Bhutto was a visitor to their home, that he can’t really remember these things because he was so young. Sarwar seems inclined to minimise some of his past in favour of a life more ordinary.

Born and brought up in Glasgow, he grew up attending Labour hustings and meetings and was out delivering Labour campaign leaflets as soon as he was tall enough to push them through the doors. He was also privately educated at Hutcheson’s Grammar where he remembers not being terribly political but where former classmates recall him writing precocious essays on international democracy. He went on to study dentistry at the University of Glasgow and worked as an NHS dentist before entering politics proper. He joined the party at 16 and was part of the successful team which campaigned to save the Govan shipyard in 1999, collecting more than 80,000 signatures. At the 2007 Scottish Parliament elections, he was selected to stand as the number one candidate on the regional list for Glasgow but failed to get elected when his party was also pushed out of government but when his father decided to step down in 2010, it seemed he was the obvious successor, although interestingly, it was his mother rather than his father who really pushed him into making that decision.

“My mum was more keen than my father because I think, basically, she was just desperate for my father to retire,” he laughs. “Actually, Drew Smith and Neil Bibby, both of whom were in Young Labour with me at university and are now both MSPs, were the two people that first suggested that I should stand...not my dad at all.” So, how hard was it being the son of a millionaire and one whose political career and safe seat you were almost destined to take over?

“I think if you look at where I am today, it is not because I have gone out there and said who my father is. I am my own man. I never stood as the son of someone. I stood not as Sarwar’s boy but as a Glasgow boy. I think other people make the differentiation between us and you do it yourself by getting out there. Anyway, I like to think I’m the younger, better looking model,” he quips.

“Don’t get me wrong, I am immensely proud of all my father has done in politics and in community activism as well as charity and things he has done here and all around the world but I am not going to pretend that it has always been an easy journey or path being the child of, an at times, controversial politician but I have always been immensely proud of what he has achieved.

Were there times when his own circumstances or the political climate were off-putting, in a political sense? Of course there were. And were there times that you learnt from it and said to yourself, ‘this is a man of immense strength who has taken on such huge challenges because he wants to do the right thing and has kept going no matter what’? Of course you have. And was he a source of inspiration for me? Of course he was. He is a tremendous father figure but he is also a tremendous role model.

“I think if you look at the family background, where they came from in the rural parts of the Punjab pre-split of India and Pakistan, then my father came from a farming background, from a rural part of Pakistan and from a very poor situation. My maternal grandfather came over in 1939 to Lossiemouth in the north east and my father’s father came over a good 10 to15 years after that. My father came over when he got married to my mother and his first job was as a door to door salesman of clothes and then eggs before he set up his own shop and built his business from there but he was always involved in politics, firstly, as a student activist and with the Pakistani People’s Party which was the socialist equivalent of the Labour Party in Pakistan. So he has always been politically aware and active and that was the natural journey when he came here too and despite being a very successful businessman, he has never forgotten his roots and that in life it is important to remember those less fortunate and where you came from and the challenges that you faced.

“I often say that I have had my father’s brain and my mother’s heart and I mean that as compliment to both. My mother is probably one of the most compassionate people I have come across in the world and my father would not have been so successful in either business or in politics without my mother behind him and we have to be honest and say that when my father was setting up the business and when he was getting active in Parliament and as an MP for 12/13 years and having some difficult periods, then our mother was being our mother and our father and has had a huge role to play in where we all are today.” Indeed it was his mother who stepped in to take her young children on a trip to Palestine when Sarwar senior was unable to go. Anas was just 12 and the trip was seminal. “Actually, my dad couldn’t make it at the last minute and so I went with my mum on the visit and that was a huge eye opener. It wasn’t them trying to influence us politically at all but they clearly had passion about what was happening there and myself, my sister and one of my cousins went on that visit. At that point, I clearly had no visions of being in politics but my parents wanted us to be aware of what was happening to human beings around the world and both my parents are passionate about the causes they care for and one of the things that our father has said is that money can be here tomorrow and gone tomorrow and there is more of a legacy on what you do for people.

“What I saw there was I saw a generation of young people having their hopes and fears snatched away from them as they fought for justice and fairness. Let’s face it, I was a 12-year old boy, I wasn’t on a mission but I took it all in and one of the stories I remember most was going into Luxor mosque, one of the holiest sites in Islamic faith, and there was a man who had lost both legs in an attack from Israeli forces; his English was poor and my Arabic was non existent and honestly, I was frightened by the sight of him but I warmed to him as we struggled to speak and he said, ‘I don’t want your sympathy and I don’t want your money but I want you to go back and tell young people in Scotland what we are going through and get them to stand side by side with us in our battle for fairness and justice’. That was a powerful message for a 12 year old.

“I don’t think I went back to Glasgow with some political message and I would be pretending if I said that as a 12 year old I came back from a war-torn region of the world on a political mission to tell the world, I just shared stories. I actually remember writing a story about it for my classmates and sharing that story. In fact, I met one of my classmates a few weeks ago who is standing as a candidate for the council in Aviemore, thankfully, for the Labour Party, and he told me he remembered I had written a story about international democracy, particularly around south Asia, as part of the process for Standard Grades. You know, I never thought I was political at that age but clearly I was. Actually, one of my constituents, and I’m sure she’ll forgive me for saying, is a staunch Conservative supporter and she was my P1 teacher – Mrs McKee, I remember her fondly – but let’s just say there was a swing vote to Labour at the last election.” I wonder how far he might recognise any contradictions and struggles in his feelings about Palestine and those of his close colleagues, like Jim Murphy who is active in Labour Friends of Israel and obviously represents a large proportion of Glasgow’s Jewish constituents on the city’s southside. “Absolutely not. Not even thought about it, if I am honest with you.

I think you can be passionate about fairness, equality and justice and passionate about finding a just resolution in the Middle East and passionate about wanting to see a two-state solution where the people of Palestine can live with peace, freedom and justice and dignity and at the same time, respect the security and the exact same principles for the Israeli community.

You should only wish for others what you wish for yourselves and I think we take too much for granted in Scotland; we may complain about the NHS or our education system and other things but we know that on a Monday morning there will be a school for our children and if a loved one becomes ill, there will be a hospital and no matter what happens, there will be food on the table but for many millions of people right around the world that is simply not the case so in politics, you must focus on creating a more equal society but must never forget the challenges that are faced by millions of people right around the world every day.” It is this desire to please all and not attract critics by coming down on one side or another that is uniquely true of many new Labour politicians in their desperation for their party to regain traction but it can also create an impression of them just being bland and that is frustrating in relation to Sarwar because his back-story would suggest he is anything but. He knows, perhaps better than others, because of his own father’s experiences in elected politics, that to court controversy, to be too black or too white in opinion can leave you open to criticism but conversely, it can also gain you admiration for displaying passion and heartfelt conviction.

We leave his Westminster office and as we step out of the lift into the vast glass atrium of Portcullis House, where politicians of all political shades mill around the tea rooms, exchanging gossip and matters of import, excited Labour MPs bound up like puppies, ‘Have you heard about Salmond?’ they whisper. We both shake our heads. While we have been chatting, the Leveson Inquiry has heard damning revelations about the extent of the First Minister’s relationship with Murdoch and his willingness to lobby on his behalf over the BSkyB bid.

Part Two:

The allegations about Salmond and Murdoch have gathered pace and the council election results are not what the SNP may have hoped for. Sarwar and I meet up in the sumptuous surroundings of the Blytheswood Hotel in Glasgow for an update. The election results have had a clear effect on Sarwar.

He doesn’t ‘do’ downbeat but he is certainly emboldened by the positive council results for Labour. He sounds more passionate, more sure and it is that renewed psychological boost that could serve the party well for the constitutional fight ahead. I ask him what he thought about the revelations from the Leveson Inquiry that broke as we met for the first part of this interview.

“The SNP didn’t think it was a problem. Part of it is that they believed the hype and part of it was they thought they were untouchable and they thought they were invincible, and I think we have seen something really dangerous in them. We saw it surface in some of the blogs and that is, they thought people wouldn’t notice. I think it is shocking that we have an individual that had gone through the hacking scandal and is where no other politician wants to be anywhere near or touch but he is still welcome at the First Minister’s residence.” But surely that’s no different from his own party cosying up to the Murdoch empire?

“I wasn’t part of the Blair/Brown years and the New Labour Government. I wasn’t part of it because I wasn’t around. I was elected in 2010 so I wasn’t there. But I am not washing my hands of it and saying that just because I wasn’t around it is nothing to do with me because I was still a passionate advocate of the Labour Party and Labour values but the crucial point is this, when that story broke and people realised the seriousness of the Milly Dowler case and some of the other things that were happening behind the scenes, they put their hands up and said they got too close to this guy and they took a step back but while every politician in the UK and abroad was thinking, ‘hold on, we got it wrong and need to step back’, there was only one politician that was taking a step forward and giving the guy a hug and that was Alex Salmond.” But can the leader of a country pick and choose the kind of person they do business with when it comes to creating jobs?

“But that is the myth, there were no jobs. The key point is that I do not for one second believe that Alex Salmond was meeting Murdoch because he thought there were jobs for Scotland in it. He was meeting him because he thought having a relationship with a powerful media mogul who can influence public opinion through his newspapers two years out from a referendum would give him a political edge, an advantage, come that referendum. It was pure politics and nothing to do with Scotland and that is a very serious charge and I don’t make it lightly.

“I don’t hate the SNP or fear Alex Salmond, far from it, I relish the opportunity to take them on in the argument and win it for the sake of Scotland. Going forward, it is about taking the hate out of it and actually focusing on the issues that matter and saying that essentially, we all love our country, we just have a different vision about what is in the best interests of our country’s future.

“As someone who enjoys politics then of course, I have to respect the SNP for fighting for their purpose but the harder thing is defining what you are fighting for. It is very easy to say we will be whatever you want us to be as long as you vote for a separate country but actually saying what kind of separate country [you want] is a much harder task. Do you, for instance, want the tax regime of Monaco but the public services of Scandinavia? You can’t have both so they need to spell it out because the central question is, what kind of Scotland do you want to live in. I don’t think people care about borders or barriers but they do care about is what is the future for themselves and their family, what is the economy going to be and what will the driving forces of the economy be and if you really want something that bad then you must make sure that you lay it out and the SNP is getting rid of the toxic things, like changing their position on Nato and the monarchy but the reason they don’t want to set it out and say what kind of Scotland they believe in is because they will believe in whatever kind of Scotland you want from them, as long as you vote for them.

“I am part of the devolution generation. I wasn’t in politics when there wasn’t a Scottish Parliament – it has been there almost all my political life – and the same goes for Neil Bibby, Drew [Smith], Jenny [Marra], Kez [Dugdale], Mark Griffin and others and the challenge for us is an acceptance that if Scotland wishes to, it can go it alone, and it is not a crash and burn scenario if it chooses to do so. We talk down Scotland if we say it is and we insult the intelligence of the Scottish people to suggest that Scotland could not survive alone because of course it could survive but the choice when it comes in the referendum is not one of survival, it is whether you believe Scotland is a fairer, more prosperous, country as part of the UK or as a separate country and we believe it is better within the UK. So we have to make the positive case for that in the referendum.” So what is his positive case for the Union?

“How long have you got? Let’s break it down into three things; political, economic and social.

I think Scotland benefits massively in its place in the world as being a permanent member of the UN Security Council and of Nato, not for prestige, as Salmond has claimed, but for being able to fight tyranny and oppression right around the world. Scotland benefits from being a member of the G8 and it was a Scottish Prime Minister as Prime Minister of the UK that led the global response to that and struck a blow for a recession not becoming a depression.

Scotland’s compassion is better demonstrated as being part of the Department for International Development whose HQ is based in Scotland, that employs 500 people and has a budget of £7.5bn and saves hundreds of thousands of lives every year. Scotland benefits from the shared defence infrastructure and of foreign affairs with hundreds of properties around the world and hundreds of embassies around the world.

Scotland benefits economically from a single market where our businesses can compete across the UK. It benefits economically from being part of the most successful monetary union in history and leaving the UK would mean having to set up our own currency, joining the euro, or losing influence on the Bank of England and would mean your biggest business partner becoming your biggest competitor, setting your interest rates, lending limits and borrowing limits and I don’t think that’s credible. Scotland benefits from sharing the risks and rewards and what I mean by that is we benefited from the collective strength of the UK economy to bail out Scotland’s banks and Scotland also benefits emotionally and socially. We have 44,000 Scots who leave Scotland every year to make their home in England, 50 per cent of Scots have family that live in other parts of the UK, do we want them to be in a foreign country? And even if you disagree with those nine reasons then every poll in the last 20 years, the majority of people say they want to be part of the UK.” Does he, like some commentators, believe that the council election results tell us that the wheels are coming loose on the SNP bandwagon?

“Let’s just say we got the right result,” he laughs. “Look, we clearly had a difficult election last year and the only party that made any predictions about the outcome of this election was the SNP being bullish and confident that they would win across the country and win outright in Glasgow and Lanarkshire. We were always confident that if we got the right message, the right campaign, right structure and right organisation that we could, given the fight of our lives in some respects, that we would remain the largest party in Glasgow and I am not going to pretend that we thought we would get the numbers that we got but we were confident that we could do well.

“We consistently believed in terms of having the right message and the right people to run the city of Glasgow [that] we had the strength and they had the weakness and it was clear from the SNP members it was a stepping stone to independence whereas we thought it was a stepping stone to building a fairer, more prosperous country which is why we focused on issues that mattered to people in local communities and that is why we got the result we did.

“What would Labour have to do to lose Glasgow? I can only tell you what Labour has to do to keep it and that is by keeping our feet on the ground, always ensuring that, yes, they promote the positive record they have and the changes they have made because the city hasn’t changed by accident, make sure we always have the right vision for making sure Glasgow goes forward and having the right values and also never assuming that every result is automatic and if you ever assume, that is when you get into problems and the SNP assumed and that was to their disadvantage. We never assumed and we fought this campaign like it was the fight of our lives.

“I love Glasgow politics. Glasgow is a city I was born in and brought up in and learnt how to be a human being and learnt how to be an adult. Glasgow is a city that has changed immensely in the last 10 to 15 years and that change has not happened by accident and it is easy for people to say that some of the things you have seen, whether it is regeneration in Gorbals, or new primary schools, whether you look at [the] Commonwealth Games village in my constituency in the East End and they have not happened by accident, they have happened because a Labour administration has taken a longterm strategic approach to creating a better city and that is something I am passionately proud of.

“I think the SNP thought they were invincible and some parts of the media thought they were invincible and some in our party thought they were invincible too but what we showed was that they are beatable when you have the right message, vision, structure and organisation, that they can be beat and I am not going to pretend the Labour Party is in the right place to win future elections but we are on the way.

“The mistake we made for 2011 was that we thought the success of 2010 would get us over the line in 2011 and in some respects, the SNP made the same mistake of thinking their success of 2011 would be repeated and what this election has done is firstly, shown that the party of the establishment is not Labour but is the SNP; secondly, that they are beatable not invincible and that has given our people confidence that we can take them on and beat them and also maybe put them in their correct place and thirdly, they created an air of inevitability, that it was inevitable they would win elections, inevitable they would have the road to separation and nothing is inevitable now.”

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