Book Review: A British Subject

CB Patel Monday 12th August 2019 06:22 EDT

At any point over the last twenty years my friend Dolar Popat could have released a book worthy of our collective attention. With a moving foreword by David Cameron, Dolar uses this book to outline his love and affection for the country he is proud to call his home – the UK.

This is one of the few books I thoroughly enjoyed reading from start to finish. It is an amazing book I found that I – and many others - could easily relate to. A British Subject comprises a universal story for thousands of immigrants like us that spans hundreds of years of history but is most relevant to the world we live in now.

For those who have read his columns in Asian Voice over the years, there will be little surprise when I say that Dolar doesn’t pull any punches. Britain is, in his opinion, the greatest country in the world and succeeds because of its values. He speaks movingly of what it meant for the Ugandan Asians to be given a home in Britain after their expulsion, and goes as far as to call Britain his ‘second God’. He cites Britain’s values as the reason why so many want to move to this country, and addresses increased immigration directly.

The book champions integration, and highlights the lengthy efforts that the British Indian community and the Jewish community in Britain have undertaken to be part of the wider society. He’s critical of those who move to Britain who don’t speak English, don’t work and claim welfare, and even more dismissive of those who preach against Britain’s values. As he puts it, it’s about learning to embrace different parts of your identity: 

“You have to learn to embrace the hyphen – or hyphens – of your multifaceted ethnic status, but make sure that the main verb of your identity is being British. So you might be a British-Indian person or a British-Indian-Ugandan person, but you must still say definitively, ‘I am British.’ It’s a matter of actualising identity in the widest sense, of being true to yourself, with all your mixed-up DNA and experience, but also being loyal to the context in which you find yourself.”

Identity is a central theme of the book. From his early years in Uganda to his time in North London in the 1970s, Dolar speaks candidly about why things are different – or at least feel different – because of his brown skin. Many of us will identity with the often-covert racism we’ve experienced over the past forty years, and it’s nice that Dolar makes clear that he even sees it in the Mother of all Parliaments.

Perhaps that is why Dolar has found himself in some unusual circles. In the book he talks about his love of the Conservative Party, but how, when he started as an activist under Thatcher’s premiership, he was one of very few British Indians involved. He speaks of how difficult it was to fill a hall with British Indians willing to meet the then Prime Minister in Finchley, and how he was forced to improvise by paying people’s bus fares to attend.

It seems a world away, yet I remember attending some of these events. I too have seen the Conservative Party’s activist base move on from its pale and stale roots, reaching a new peak with the recent Cabinet. With Priti Patel, Sajid Javid and Rishi Sunak now at the top table. Dolar tells the story of how we got there; how John Major tried to blaze that path, but how it was really David Cameron who understood and built such strong links with our community.

In the book, Dolar speaks of arranging the Diwali reception in Millbank that was attended by nearly a thousand people. I remember thinking that it was unprecedented for the Conservative Party to make such a big overture to our community, and Dolar was always there in the background, plugging away. Yet, as Dolar proudly points out, it worked. In 2015 the Conservative Party got a majority of British Indian votes. Reading the book, it feels like this is his proudest achievement. 

Yet it’s clear that Dolar is a proud of how much progress has been made, both of how much racism has declined in Britain and also the giant strides the British Indian community has taken in Britain. An entire chapter is dedicated to documenting the statistics and names of some of our community’s pioneers, and it really does make astonishing reading when compiled in this way.

But beyond identity, immigration and integration, Dolar also envisions a very different future for Britain economically. His years as a Business Minister and as the Prime Minister’s Trade Envoy to Uganda and Rwanda show him at his most passionate, and it is increasingly clear that Dolar feels we have to position ourselves internationally alongside emerging markets like India and many African nations, rather than alongside our European neighbours.

As he puts it, “Our membership of the European single market and customs union has engendered apathy in many of our businesses. British businesses that have created what should be world-leading products have limited themselves to exporting to only our nearest trading partners and neglected emerging markets and the Commonwealth – the places we really need to be focusing on.”

It’s an interesting vision, and one that is backed up by considerable personal evidence. Although he had a substantial business career in the 1980s and 90s, these successes – and one near bankruptcy – are rattled through. It’s clear that Dolar isn’t particularly keen on bragging about his personal successes, and he humbly points out that he’s been luckier than most when it comes to business. But it’s also clear that Dolar much prefers discussing his current role rather than looking back. As he puts it:

“The envoyship marries my love of east Africa, my entrepreneurial spirit and my knowledge of business and finance, as well as my desire to get things done quickly: in ninety-minute meetings with Museveni and Kagame, I think I have been able to cover matters that would normally take the government six months to build up to discussing. I am very proud of this. It feels as if my complex national and cultural identity perfectly equips me to make the most of this opportunity at this particular point in time.”

Dolar’s work as a Trade Envoy to Uganda and Rwanda means the book goes full circle, with him now returning to a very different East Africa to the one so many Asians were expelled from. Within the book he talks about the transformation, and the strange feeling of walking the same streets and seeing the same landmarks that framed his childhood.

Yet it is perhaps in the early chapters about his childhood where we find the most surprising revelations. Humiliation, beatings and depression all hang over his formative years, and all of a sudden, we’re exposed to a side of this man that few knew ever existed. They’re constantly referred back to in the book, no matter how far Dolar travels, he still struggles to escape the feelings of inadequacy that plagued him as a youngster.

We are fortunate as a community that we have numerous people who can tell stories about how they arrived in Britain with no money and are now incredibly successful in their chosen professions. Yet few of those stories are told with the humility, warmth and honesty that Dolar brings. He may have arrived in London in 1971 with £10 in his pocket and a point to prove, but he’s ended up at the forefront of business, politics and our community.

And it is perhaps most fitting to Dolar’s own positions on integration and identity that the book features a foreword by David Cameron and a closing chapter from Morari Bapu. Walking the walk and not just talking the talk, Dolar shows in his own story that you can be British, British Indian, Ugandan Asian and a Hindu all at the same time, and celebrate all of those different facets. Very few authors speak with such modesty and frankness. This is undoubtedly a book worth reading by every British Indian.

A British Subject is available to buy from Amazon this week. 

(– A British Subject – How to make it as an immigrant in the best country in the world)

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