Priti Patel’s parents fled Uganda in the 1960s, just prior to the decision by the dictator of that East African country, General Idi Amin, to deport all Asians, predominantly Gujarati Indians, who had lived there for almost a century, prospered in business and dominated the local economy.
Patel’s parents (as British passport-holders) arrived in the United Kingdom during a period of intense hostility to Commonwealth immigration. Nonetheless, the Patel family succeeded in Britain in small businesses, and now their daughter, the 40-year-old Priti, is a Member of Parliament for the Conservative Party.
Great Britain has changed beyond all recognition over the past four decades -- part of this dramatic change lies with how the Conservative Party (once the home of prominent anti-immigration firebrand Enoch Powell) is now actively seeking members of ethnic minorities to join its ranks.
Thus, Priti Patel, who represents the virtually all-white rural parliamentary constituency of Witham in Country Essex, may be viewed as the “new face” of the Conservative Party in an increasingly multicultural Britain.
Indeed, Patel’s views on a number of issues -- including immigration and the European Union -- are identical to those of the traditional, white, male Tories, suggesting that Britain has not only integrated the majority of its South Asian immigrants, but largely accepts them as fully British.
“We are British, indeed,” she stated. “We work here, raise our families, and go to school, run businesses. We have just as much stake in Britain’s future as anyone else.”
Still, the bulk of Asians in the UK tend to support the Labour Party, as electoral polls suggest. Patel believes, however, that the new generation of British-Asians -- that is, the second- or even third-generation in the country – may be looking at the Conservatives for answers to their problems and aspirations.
“Forty or 50 years after large-scale immigration of Asians to the United Kingdom, most British-Asians are still behind Labour,” she said.
“However, I think we are seeing the current generation start to free themselves from such conventional thinking.”
Indeed, Patel points out that the core ideology and values of the Conservatives -- family, faith, hard work, education, community service, self-reliance, business -- are perfectly aligned with the values of Asian culture.
Prime Minister David Cameron, Patel cites, has played a key role, in opening up the Conservative Party to Asians and other minorities.
“To his credit, the prime minister has expressed a lot of enthusiasm over increased inclusiveness and diversity within the party, and has emphasized that he is not interested in mere window-dressing,” she noted. “But we will not see big changes overnight.”
Indeed, just two weeks ago Cameron called for the Conservatives to recruit more Asian and black parliamentary candidates in order to expand the appeal of the party in the next election and to detoxify the Tories’ image among minorities.
In the last election, only 16 percent of ethnic minority voters in Britain pulled the levers for the Conservatives, while a whopping 68 percent chose Labour.
Alok Sharma, an Indian-born Conservative MP for Reading-West and Tory vice chairman in charge of strategy, told The Independent newspaper that his party must keep pace with the changing demographics of the UK or they will find themselves losing out to Labour.
"I very much hope that over a period of time there will be many more people from ethnic minority backgrounds on the Conservative benches, but also all benches," he said.
Gavin Barwell, a white Tory MP for Croydon Central in London, issued a dire warning of the Conservative Party’s future if it did not broaden its appeal to all ethnic groups.
"The Prime Minister, and people around him, understand this and are focused on it,” he said.
“The party as a whole is increasingly focused on it, and the number of colleagues who understand this is growing all the time. In the long term it's an existential issue for the party. In the short term, we have got to focus on everybody who didn't vote for us at the last election."
Patel noted that developments across the Atlantic Ocean have caught her eye -- the two most prominent South Asian politicians in the United States, Gov. Nikki Haley of Louisiana (a Sikh) and Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana (a Punjabi) are not only conservative Republicans, but also touted as future potential vice presidents or even presidents.
Conceivably, the success and broad popularity of Haley and Jindal could turn conventional notions of ethnicity and party loyalty upside down (as we may see in the UK in the coming years).
In 2010, ethnic minorities (mostly those of South Asian and Afro-Caribbean descent) accounted for about 8 percent of the total British population. That figure, the University of Leeds projects, will climb to 20 percent by the year 2051 --- at which point, Britain’s population will be nearly 78 million from about 62 million at present.
As such, Patel expects to see an ethnic minority prime minister in Britain during her lifetime, although it may take 20 years for such a monumental event to take place, she estimates.
For now, however, Britain is facing two major domestic problems that precludes concerns about racial diversity within the Tory Party: the fragile British economy (as exemplified by at least 1 million unemployed young people) and uncontrolled immigration, which Patel warns is “transforming the landscape of the country.”
These are issues, she believes, that British-Asians like herself can find common ground on with the majority white population in order to find a solution.
Patel also said that she didn’t just recently become a Conservative -- she formally joined the party when she was a teenager more than two decades ago, during the administration of Prime Minister John Major. And she has been a loyal member ever since.
But she certainly hasn’t forgotten her Gujarati Hindu roots. Indeed part of her political mind-set is based on the experiences her parents endured during their difficult first years in the UK.
Like most of the Ugandan Asians who were deported by Idi Amin to the far-flung corners of the world (or departed just prior), Patel’s parents just picked up and carried on with aplomb.
“Their initial experiences in Britain were completely unpleasant,” Patel said of her mother and father.
“But through sheer determination and a profound work ethnic, they persevered and prospered.”
And it is those values, she insists, that are perfectly in tune with the Conservative ethos.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.