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Anas Sarwar

Gavin Esler talks to the leader of the Scottish Labour Party about the weaponisation of identity politics, and the fall of the SNP
Anas and his wife Furheen, after speaking on the first day of the Scottish Labour Party Conference at the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh last February. PA IMAGES/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Richborough is a British cultural gem. Or an English cultural gem, since it’s on the Kent coast and run by English Heritage. It’s also a European gem, because this splendid archaeological site is Roman. Like so much of our “British” inheritance, Richborough is a mix of many distinct layers of identity. So are you. And me. That’s because – and I’m sorry to disappoint any Aryan supremacists who have stumbled upon Perspective by accident – the idea of a “pure” identity is not just dangerous, it’s stupid. In the era of Culture Wars we spend so much time hearing about the problems of supposedly conflicting identities – gender, race, nationality, religion. Maybe we need to think more about how identities coalesce instead of conflict and how that makes life in Britain better and more interesting. The idea of coalescing identities is why I wanted a conversation with Anas Sarwar, the leader of the Labour party in Scotland. We’ll get to his identities – Glaswegian, Scottish, British, European and with family roots in South Asia – in a moment. But Richborough teaches an interesting lesson. What remains are the ramparts and ruins of a Roman fort and amphitheatre fifteen miles from the modern port of Dover. For centuries from 43AD it was the Dover of its day. English Heritage describes Richborough as the “thriving trading hub at the entrance to Roman Britain” fortified by “towering walls and formidable ditches”. But unlike more recent attempts by Suella Braverman to create Fortress Britain behind the “formidable ditch” of the Channel, Richborough was not built as a “STOP THE BOATS” political stunt. Quite the reverse. It was constructed to welcome and protect those making the sea crossing from ancient Gaul and to stop troublesome ancient Britons and marauders from disrupting lucrative trade arrangements and migration.

Richborough is on my mind because I’m walking my dogs a few miles away on the Kent coastline with one of the editors of Perspective, Peter Phelps, when Peter mentions this edition will focus on “identity”. My first reaction is that the weaponisation of differing identities to create conflict is as ancient as human history. If you’re looking for a fight, pointing out differences in race, gender, religion, class and nationality is a good place to start. But Richborough is also a reminder that the opposite is also true. The story of Britain’s ancient shores is that we have been enriched for at least 2,000 years by people of different identities and different talents who have rarely been welcomed immediately by the “natives” of these islands – and yet eventually their children and grandchildren somehow assimilate. They stop being feared as “THEM”, the Other, the Foreigner, and eventually become accepted as one of “US”. And when that happens we witness the miracle of enrichment through coalescing identities. It has happened remarkably in 2023. Right now, four of the most important jobs in British public life are held by people whose families came here in the twentieth century as migrants from the old Empire – Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, London Mayor Sadiq Khan, Scotland’s SNP First Minister Humza Yousaf and the leader of the Scottish Labour Party Anas Sarwar. Of these four political leaders – one Conservative, one SNP, and two Labour – the least well known outside Scotland is Sarwar. Yet in some ways – as we will see – Anas Sarwar might yet hold the key to whether the United Kingdom stays united, with a shared sense of British identity.

The Sarwar family has roots in south Asia, but from the start of our conversation Anas says his identity is Glaswegian. In the slang, he’s a Weegee (so am I), and a Scot. His father, Mohammad Sarwar, became the UK’s first ever Muslim MP when he won Glasgow Central for Labour in 1997 and held it until his retirement in 2010. (For the record, not everyone was pleased about that achievement. Anas told me how the P-word was used about his father and others from the same community when he was growing up, although that use has diminished.) Anas trained as a dentist and followed his father into politics, beginning as a student activist. He demonstrated against Tony Blair’s support for the Iraq invasion in 2003. In the 2010 election Anas retained his father’s Glasgow seat for Labour, but this was a time of considerable hubris within the party. Under Gordon Brown they seemed unbeatable in Scotland, winning 41 out of 59 Westminster seats, yet under Ed Miliband’s leadership just five years later Anas lost his seat. Scottish Labour were almost extinct at Westminster, retaining just one seat out of 59. It was a brutal political cull. Then in 2017 Anas endured another defeat. He lost his bid to become Scotland’s Labour leader. His failures, he told me, were an education.

“It’s the old joke – are you a Catholic Muslim or a Protestant Muslim?

“The two best things that ever happened to me were losing the election in 2015 and losing the leadership election in 2017. I learned more from my defeats than I did from anything else I’ve ever been successful in, in politics. I’m a better politician for it. I’m a better human being for it, and I’m a better parent for it. There is nothing more liberating than being stripped of ambition and being able to be relaxed and comfortable in your own skin, to say what you think, to say what you mean, and to feel free to campaign on issues you care about and liberate yourself from thinking that party politics is the be-all and end-all, or that one political party is always right, another political party is always wrong. All of that was a massive, massive education.”

Sarwar is now a Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) at Holyrood and was elected Labour leader in Scotland in 2021. The party now is much less complacent than in 2015, reinvigorated while their main rivals, the SNP, continue their self-inflicted meltdown following the resignation of Nicola Sturgeon and police inquiries into SNP finances. The new leader of the Scottish National Party and First Minister, Humza Yousaf, has family roots in south Asia, Glasgow and Scotland, like Sarwar, yet they have chosen very different political paths. I asked Anas if he has sympathy for his opponent.

“I absolutely do feel sorry for him. I was saying that today to my own team… He’s been thrust into leadership and, taking the party politics out of it, I never take any joy in the demise of any individual regardless of their politics. Seeing what’s happening in the SNP right now, it’s challenging and difficult for them and for Humza in particular. He has been dealt a bad hand, the in-tray from hell and the hardest succession to first minister in the Scottish parliament’s history. Giving a political response, of course I question the mandate, I question the competence, I question the functionality of government, but from a purely human perspective I don’t think you can feel anything but sorry for him.”

Sarwar’s sense of being educated by events turns out to be a key theme in creating his layers of identity. He defines his core identity as Glaswegian. Then he “added a layer” of being Scottish. That was easy. Being British was more difficult. It was never “my first instinctive reaction when I was growing up or indeed when I first started in politics”, he says. That changed thanks to the conflicting identities that appeared in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. Sarwar was forced to think seriously about the consequences of no longer being in part of the UK. When Scotland narrowly said “NO” to independence Sarwar added another layer of identity, “around British” as he puts it. Two years later there was another choice, another referendum and another moment of self-recognition. Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the European Union. England and Wales voted to leave. As many Scots of different political affiliations said at the time, Scotland was forced out of the EU “against its will”. The Brexit campaign changed Sarwar too.

“I added European,” he tells me, to his many layers of his identity. “I’d probably add another one,” he continues thoughtfully, about an identity which has always been within him but he’d thought very little about until recently. He explains: “I got to a point where my kids were twelve, thirteen years old, and there was a rise in prejudice and hate. Islamophobia became a much more mainstream debate. I added my faith as part of my identity. So primarily I’m born a Glaswegian and then as each controversy has come, it’s added another layer.”

I tell him the only thing that makes me uncomfortable about my own Scottish identity is when religion and football become unpleasantly linked, especially when Rangers play Celtic. Sarwar smiles.

“It’s the old joke – are you a Catholic Muslim or a Protestant Muslim? I often get asked the question about which side of the divide I’m on in Glasgow. And the safest answer is always: look, I’m Asian origin, I watch cricket.”

Sarwar explains that he sees identity as a positive, when it brings people together, but very negative when weaponised by those who, for their own purposes, would rather pull things apart.

“I think it’s the politics of identity,” he says. “Identity itself isn’t an issue. People have multiple identities. Multiple identities can co-exist and overlap, sometimes interfere, but people are relaxed about them. When identity is added to political debate, that’s when you have a clash. Identity is used as a way of dividing and putting people into camps. That’s been such a big feature of our politics [in Scotland]. Where before you could be really comfortable in your identity between Scottish and British, it felt [in the independence debate] like identities collided. You could comfortably be British and European and then [after Brexit] it felt like those identities clashed.”

I suggest there are reasons to be optimistic in his own story and that of his political generation. Rishi, Sadiq, Humza and Anas are all signs of a United Kingdom in which we may be divided in our political opinions yet relaxed in our diversity, in ways unimaginable to Anas Sarwar’s father Mohammad a generation ago.

“Incredible,” Sarwar agrees. “Taking the party politics out of it, I think it is hugely significant for both the UK and Scotland. What it demonstrates is two things. One, I’ve always felt the selectorate is harder on these things than the electorate. I mean, the internal dynamic of political parties [who select candidates] worries more about these questions than the wider electorate does. I think it does say something significant about UK public life and the UK population that people who look like us, sound like us, come from our heritage, all four us from a South Asian background… it does say something great about this country.”

Sarwar accepts that this is a work in progress. Other groups and identities still feel marginalised. Conflicts about competing identities have not gone away either. There’s still ill-feeling, even bitterness about independence between some Scottish nationalists who love Scotland and think the UK is so messed up that Westminster must be left behind, and those like Sarwar who also love Scotland but believe a better future within the UK is still possible because Westminster can be fixed.

“When the politics of identity is flung in,” he says “it’s a way to divide. One of the big challenges politically as a country – in global politics as well – is how do we get back to identity being a way of celebrating difference and bringing people together, rather than being a way of dividing people? One of the big challenges we’ve faced is a battle of who truly loves Scotland or not. If you truly love Scotland, you support independence or you support the SNP. If you don’t truly love Scotland or you don’t truly believe in Scotland then somehow you support a different political party. I actually think we need to get back to where we can all love Scotland. We can all truly belong to Scotland. We can all truly want Scotland to succeed but we can have different political opinions and different political views.”

Brexit, he says, is another example of that same phenomenon, the continuing ill-feeling in the Leave/Remain debate. “It’s, kind of, whose side are you on?” he says. “If you’re on the side of your country, you’re in this camp, if you’re not on the side of your country, you’re in the other camp. I think we’re all on the same side, aren’t we?”

Personally, I’m not sure about that but I’d like to hope Sarwar is right. It’s certainly true that one part of the common identity of successful politicians is to be optimistic like this, especially in adversity. And Sarwar is also optimistic about Scotland remaining in the United Kingdom. A year ago – a time when Nicola Sturgeon seemed unassailable as first minister and independence was supported in polls by more than half the Scottish electorate – I asked two well connected Scottish Conservatives what would save the Union of the United Kingdom. Both Tories, separately, told me that the Union could be saved only by a Labour government at Westminster. Sarwar (no surprise here) agrees.

“I genuinely believe to my core that a period of Labour government is absolutely crucial in terms of the continuity and survival of the United Kingdom,” he responded, “but also in terms of some of the bigger challenges we face in the wider UK as well. Labour is now the only voice that can truly speak for every part of the UK. Given everything that’s happened with the Conservative party over recent years and what that has felt like (I can’t think of a more polite word, so I apologise for using this – a shit-show of a UK) you can completely understand why lots of people in Scotland have wanted to run a million miles away from it. The challenge you have is if people have thought, ‘Given that Labour can’t win, given we’re stuck with these Tories, maybe the only escape route is independence, maybe the only escape route is the SNP.’ I think what Keir [Starmer] has managed to do successfully is demonstrate that Labour can win.”

As we end our conversation I ask Anas Sarwar whether there is a special Scottish identity. His answer is carefully phrased. He is proud of his Scottish identity and says that many successful Scots tend to be further to the Left politically than their counterparts in England. He illustrates this with a story about meeting one of Scotland’s richest businesspeople. The multi-millionaire surprised Sarwar by defining the biggest problem in the UK in words that would not be out of place on the Labour Left, namely that “our economy and our country is gripped by
corporate greed and until we break corporate greed, we’re not going to be able to rebuild our economy and confront the cost-of-living crisis.”

“But,” Sarwar pauses. “I think we’ve got to be cautious against slipping into Scottish exceptionalism. There are good and bad people everywhere. There are good and bad things happening everywhere. I don’t think any individual identity always gets it right or gets it wrong – or is bad.”

Ah, our individual identity. I’m glad our conversation ends here. Whatever political tribe, gender, race or religion seems to fit, our individual identity is the thing that reminds us that we all want a better life and for our children to be happy, safe and secure. It was true for those who arrived at Richborough. It’s true for those bringing their children in small boats on the cold waters of the Channel right now. And it’s true of those politicians from different backgrounds who want to solve problems rather than create them. In an old Scottish phrase that Sarwar, like every other Scot, knows well, we’re all Jock Tamson’s bairns.

Gavin Esler’s new book, Britain Is Better Than This, will be published by Head of Zeus in September

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May 2023, People

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