Victory! This word was not often needed by Conservatives in London as last week’s election results came in.
But in the London Borough of Harrow it was required, for here the Conservatives took control of the council from Labour, with the party winning 31 of the 55 seats.
How was this victory won? Why did Harrow prove more favourable territory than Wandsworth or Westminster?
A great part of the answer lies in the growing propensity of British Indians, who make up about a third of the population in Harrow, to vote Conservative.
This is not a phenomenon which can be conveyed in purely statistical terms, however impressive the statistics may be (and for this phenomenon they are still for the most part deficient).
At lunchtime yesterday I took a Metropolitan Line train from Finchley Road to Northwick Park, the stop before Harrow-on-the-Hill, a journey which still breathes the last enchantments of John Betjeman.
But one does not engage on this line only, or even mainly, with the past. One also sees something of the future.
A short walk from the station between well-maintained, 1930s pebble-dashed houses, often with expensive cars parked outside, brought me to Kenton Road, one of the borough’s principal thoroughfares, lined with mainly Indian businesses.
For no particular reason, other than hunger, I entered Ram’s Pure Vegetarian Restaurant, and ate a delicious lunch before engaging one of the proprietors, Prashant Upadhyay, in conversation.
He is 41, came to London from Gujarat in 2004 on a student visa, worked for five years without a holiday, acquired British citizenship and took over Ram’s, which he had observed to be a popular establishment.
In 2015 he was one of 60,000 British Indians who gathered in Wembley Stadium to cheer Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India and previously Chief Minister of Gujarat, who was on a visit to the United Kingdom.
Upadhyay did not pretend that all British Indians admire Modi. He put the split at 60 per cent who are in favour, and 40 per cent who are against.
He said Modi was a bit like Boris Johnson: people could tell you straight away whether or not they liked him.
David Cameron, then British Prime Minister, acted in 2015 as Modi’s warm-up act in Wembley Stadium. I confess that at the time, this event passed me by.
Having now watched a recording of Cameron’s speech, I can attest that the whole occasion is extraordinary. With what ebullient enthusiasm the Prime Minister is over and over again cheered to the echo as he declares that British Indians are “putting the great into Great Britain”, and that many of them are from Gujarat, information which elicits a particularly ecstatic cheer.
Johnson recently became the first British Prime Minister to visit Gujarat. “The timing was perfect,” a British Indian councillor in Harrow told ConHome with reference to the local elections.
Cameron pointed out in his Wembley speech that there are more MPs of Indian origin than ever before, named Rishi Sunak, Alok Sharma, Suella Fernandes, Shailesh Vara and Priti Patel, and declared: “It won’t be long until there is a British Indian Prime Minister in Downing Street.” Tremendous cheers.
As I left Ram’s, Upadhyay was making his way next door, where he has an estate agency and a logistics business. He has moved to Watford, so his children can go to Parmiter’s School, which happens to be the alma mater of Oliver Dowden, Conservative Party Chairman, recently to be found canvassing in Harrow, where one of his staff commented that the local Conservatives knew all the right doors to knock on.
On the other side of Kenton Road, I entered Sazz Jewellery & Beyond, which was founded and is run by Shumyla Khan, a Muslim from Kashmir.
Labour’s pro-Muslim, pro-Pakistani line on Kashmir has in recent years helped drive many British Indians towards the Conservatives.
Khan said: “Because it’s so beautiful, one of the most beautiful places on earth, everybody wants it.”
She goes there every year to visit her parents, who worked in Reading but retired to Kashmir. She and her family voted Conservative in the recent elections and she refused to take a sectarian view of her local community: “We are Londoners. We are people of Harrow. Everybody lives together. That’s the most important thing in Harrow, respecting each other’s views and faiths and beliefs.”
She lives in Harrow, but her children go by cab each day with some other children to the Royal Grammar Scbool and to Wycombe High School in High Wycombe.
On my way back to the station, as I passed Churchill Parade, erected in AD 1929, I entered on impulse a convenience store, small and clean and neat, where 18-year-old Paras Masand was at the till, reading an A-level economics textbook.
He was born and lives in Brent, goes to Park High School in Stanwell, and thought Labour had done badly in the local elections because they had not been good at filling in potholes and clearing away rubbish.
I asked him whose shop it was. He said he and his sister, who is 22, set it up in November 2020, because a convenience store was then, because of the pandemic, pretty much the only kind of shop they could set up.
They are doing quite well, selling drinks and snacks to school children. She is reading law, but has been able to follow a lot of her lectures online while minding the shop. He intends to study accountancy and finance.
It never occurred to me, when I was Masand’s age, to found a business, but here in Harrow a new generation of entrepreneurs, natural Thatcherites, is getting going. They are helped by the still relatively modest level of rents, which in Westminster or Wandsworth might prove prohibitive.
I rang an opinion pollster. He did not want to be quoted by name, but said of the turn in recent years of British Indians towards the Conservatives, Jains and Sikhs as well as Hindus: “Everyone is afraid of this subject. It is emotive and difficult and complex. It has basically been ignored.”
There is a danger of stirring up anti-Muslim feeling in order to appeal to British Hindus.
As an example of the complexity of what is actually happening, the pollster said that although in Leicester there is clear evidence that British Indians are turning, as in Harrow, towards the Conservatives, in Sparkbrook, in Birmingham, it is another story, and Labour are doing well.
Local factors matter, and so does long-term engagement. In 2015 Paul Goodman wrote a piece on this site called The Conservatives’ Indian Spring?
He alluded to research by Michael Ashcroft and Andrew Cooper which showed that Britons of Indian origin were more receptive to the possibility of voting Conservative.
Last week’s result in Harrow has helped to demonstrate the truth of this contention. A question mark no longer needs to be used in the headline.
But this phenomenon has to some extent been concealed by the growing tendency of well-educated white Britons to vote Labour. When, as often happens, they live in the same area as British Indians, they obscure the tendency of the latter, no matter how well-educated (and they take education very seriously), to vote Conservative in increasing numbers.
Rishi Sunak was often mentioned with pride by Hindus in Harrow. But so far as I know, my plea when I reviewed Ashcroft’s life of Sunak has not yet been answered.
I therefore reiterate the hope that just as Max Weber wrote The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, so some scholar is even now hard at work on The Hindu Ethic and the Spirit of Conservatism.