I was 12 when Nazi thugs sent a picture of mum tied up with guns at her head
His father was Britain’s first Muslim MP and as a child, Anas Sarwar witnessed sickening racism. Now he’s vying for the Scottish Labour leadership, but is determined to put his family first
This article was first published in the Scottish Daily Mail, 13 February 2021
By Emma Cowing
WHO is the best politician in the Sarwar family? Anas Sarwar doesn’t hesitate. ‘My Mum,’ he says. It’s quite the revelation from a man whose father was Britain’s first Muslim MP and is now the governor of Punjab in Pakistan.
He himself is heading towards an almost assured election win for the leadership of the Scottish Labour party. But Sarwar is resolute.
‘She’s not a politician, she’s never stood for office, but I would honestly say my Mum is the best politician in our family,’ he says. ‘Lots of people think I get my politics from the old man, but actually, I get them from my mother.’
Then again, the Sarwars are a family who have never quite done things by the book.
From his father Mohammad’s groundbreaking — and at times controversial — run as MP (he later relinquished his British citizenship to take up his current role in Pakistan) to his own position as the son of a millionaire who says he speaks for working-class Scotland, confounding expectations is something of a family trait.
Sarwar is speaking over Zoom from his home in Glasgow’s Pollokshields, where he lives with his wife Furheen, a dentist, and their three children. From there he has been running his leadership election campaign against fellow contender Monica Lennon, amid the chaos of lockdown, snowstorms and home schooling.
‘It’s been very strange,’ he says. ‘When you’re constantly talking to webcams instead of to an audience, there’s no way of reading a room.
‘Then there’s the constant battle over devices and the wifi connection. The other night I was doing a TV interview and I lost connection in the middle of it because the kids decided they’d rather watch Netflix on two different devices.’
Just as well then that his aforementioned mother is around to lend a hand. Perveen Sarwar returned to Scotland from Pakistan in December to visit family, and has found herself stuck here amid ongoing travel restrictions.
While her husband remains in Pakistan, the first lady of the Punjab is now juggling grandchild-sitting duties with dispensing leadership campaign advice to her grateful son.
H E SAYS: ‘She’s a real rock of the family. Having that stabilising force here during a leadership election campaign is in itself a massive help. She’s even getting involved, doing the odd bit of phoning to party members. But obviously we’re missing the old man, you know?’
Affable, laid back, with an easy charm that belies a sharp political mind, Sarwar’s boy wonder status within the Scottish Labour Party means it should come as no surprise that this is not the 37-year-old’s first bite at the leadership cherry. In 2017 he lost to Richard Leonard, an election which ushered in a woeful era for the party north of the Border, which has left them sidelined and increasingly irrelevant. It is a situation of which Sarwar is all too aware.
‘If we look ourselves in the eye we’ve got to be honest and say that over the last period we haven’t given our members, and more importantly the people of Scotland, the party they deserve,’ he says.
‘There is rising division in our country, rising injustice and rising inequality.
‘And at that time when all those things have been happening, the Labour Party has not been on the pitch. That’s not good enough.’
He is critical, if fair, about Nicola Sturgeon’s handling of the Covid crisis — ‘She was much better at communicating with Scotland than Boris Johnson was with the UK,’ he says — before going on to lambast her track record on care homes. He is particularly frustrated at the SNP’s continued insistence on independence as a political priority.
Indeed, it seems obvious to Sarwar that another referendum in the near future — something his fellow leadership contender Lennon says she is open to — would not only be a disaster for Scotland, but the last thing people want.
‘There’s this false binary people want to try to create in order to go back to old arguments, because they’ve got no answers about what actually affects people in Scotland now,’ he says.
‘People aren’t worried about the date of another referendum. They’re worried about when they’re going to get back to work, if and when the furlough scheme is going to end or if their business is going to continue to function. They’re worried about when their kids go back to school.
‘These are big things, yet we don’t seem to be having a political discussion about them, nor do we have any leadership on them. I want Scottish Labour to be giving that political leadership.’
He is under no illusions, however, that winning the leadership will see him stroll into Bute House at the next Holyrood election in May.
‘It’s the old political trap,’ he says. ‘I’ve seen lots of new leaders do it. You think that when you get success you’ve got to act macho, you’ve got to broaden the shoulders and say, “Bring it on, Labour’s automatically into government, we’re going to have a Labour First Minister again”.
‘No. It needs to be dealt with in a much more honest and humble way. This is a long-term project to rebuild people’s faith and trust.’
Yet some of Sarwar’s policies seem designed to appeal only to the Left- leaning party faithful, rather than the wider electorate.
Does he really think, for example, that his recent statement on raising income tax for top earners — by 2 per cent for those earning more than £100,000 and 5 per cent for those on over £150,000 — will improve the outlook of a Scotland that is struggling to get back on its feet and already shouldering higher taxes than the rest of the UK?
‘Look,’ he says forcefully. ‘Over the course of this pandemic and the years that preceded it we have seen child poverty rise exponentially in Scotland.
‘We are going to have to spend significant amounts to support business so we can save jobs.
‘We are going to have to put reinvestment into reskilling our workforce, so it can be alive to new realities post-Covid.
‘What people want to hear is not just political leaders making spending commitments, but backing up how we’re going to pay for them.’ Then there is the thorny issue of how much the son of a self-made millionaire can really speak for the Scottish Left.
In 2017 Sarwar put his £4.8million shares in the family business into a trust for his children, and his tax returns confirm his only income is his salary as an MSP.
But can he really claim to speak for those whose struggles he has never experienced?
‘The honest answer to that is if you look at the issues I’ve campaigned on, the causes I believe passionately in, which include challenging all forms of prejudice, I believe the Scottish people will judge me — and all their politicians — on what they can do for them, and their strength of character.’
He cites the example of his father who, despite smears about his race and faith, as well as questions over his own millionaire status as the founder of a successful cash and carry business, won a seat in 1997 in Glasgow Govan, where more than 95 per cent of the population was white and working class.
Sarwar says: ‘That says something amazing about the people of Scotland that they judge someone by their character rather than on the basis of any smear or attack.’
Strangely enough, Sarwar never meant to go into politics. In fact, so intent was he on not following in his father’s footsteps that he became a dentist instead, working for the NHS at a practice in Paisley, Renfrewshire. Was it, I wonder, the racist abuse and vile threats he witnessed his father receive that turned him off the political stump?
After all, Sarwar was only 12 years old when he discovered a letter on the doormat one morning with a picture mocked up of his mother tied to a chair with two guns to her head and a message saying, ‘Bang, bang, that’s all it takes’. Sent by Neo-Nazi group Combat 18, it was his first political experience.
‘Actually, we learnt a resilience from that,’ he says. ‘My Mum always used to say that these people want us to walk away, and the way we defeat them is by staying and fighting for what we believe.’
Despite being a member of the Labour Party from the age of 15 and a firm supporter of his father, Sarwar’s reluctance to go into politics was far simpler.
‘We didn’t get to see much of my Dad, to be honest,’ he says. ‘So as someone who aspired to have a family, I didn’t want my kids to have any kind of negative feelings around having a parent who wasn’t there for them.’
It was not until the electoral boundaries changed and Sarwar found himself in a different constituency to his father, able to carve out his own identity, that he started to consider politics.
He ran as a paper candidate in an unwinnable seat and enjoyed the excitement of it all, finding himself sucked in to the political hoopla and the rush of fighting for causes he believed in, such as racial equality and opposing the Iraq war.
In 2010 he ran in his father’s Westminster seat at the age of 27 and not only won, but increased his majority. The next year he was made deputy leader of the party in Scotland and for a while was being trumpeted as the next big thing in Scottish Labour politics.
Losing his seat in 2015 then, the year after the independence referendum, was a huge blow.
‘The two hardest things to take on a personal level in my political career were the defeats,’ he says, referring to the loss of his Westminster seat and, two years later as an MSP, the leadership election.
‘There’s no point pretending they weren’t painful, or hurtful, or pretending there wasn’t a period of self-reflection and doubt after them both.’
But, he says: ‘You’ve got to be able to handle failure and success in equal measure. The challenge that any politician has is that you cannot allow failure to defeat you as a person and make you walk away from what you truly believe.’
Given that initial reluctance to go into politics, however, I wonder how he balances his career with his relationship with his own children, Adam, 12, Ahmed, 10, and four-year-old Aliyan.
‘I am always very conscious of it,’ he says. ‘I make sure there are blocked out periods when I will spend time with them.
‘My greatest fear is that my children don’t love me when they grow up. And the reason why I say that is not because of any negative feelings I have towards my father or he has towards me. I love and respect him deeply.
‘But I have always been so consciously aware that I cannot allow the things I’m passionate about to mean that I make my kids feel I don’t care or I’m not passionate about them.
‘My kids will testify that I tell them I love them every single day. I’ll do that until the end of time.’
He worries about his children growing up in a country where he fears some people will not see them as Scots, because of the colour of their skin.
His grandfather on his mother’s side arrived in Scotland in the 1940s and eventually settled in Lossiemouth, Moray, selling clothes door to door.
He later brought Sarwar’s grandmother and their children over, and the couple loved Lossiemouth so much that they both insisted on being buried there.
‘That first generation believed their primary nationality was pre-partition India or Pakistan, and that perhaps they were guests in this country,’ he says. ‘My kids, however, will see themselves as nothing other than Scottish or British. If their identity is questioned and they have no affinity to anywhere else, that’s going to be a harder thing for them to take.’
T HE MSP’s oldest son, 12-year-old Adam, is, he says, very conscious of the news and, like Sarwar before him, what his father does for a living.
‘He makes the mistake of searching his Dad’s name on Google sometimes, and he’s come across the odd YouTube video that I think he finds a bit challenging,’ he says.
‘When I was growing up, in my household what we would have regarded as normal probably wasn’t normal for most other people. So we created a new normal about what was acceptable.
‘I have tried to minimise that for my own kids but undoubtedly they will have created a new normal for themselves as well.’
And so life rumbles on as the family adjusts to the idea that someday soon, Dad will likely become Scotland’s first Muslim leader of a major political party.
In his rare moments of free time he confesses, slightly shame-facedly, to an addiction to the Football Manager app on his phone, which he says he has been playing since he was a teenager. Does he support a particular team?
‘I come from the west of Scotland,’ he says with a twinkle. ‘So being from there and from South Asian background, it’s always easier to say I prefer cricket.’
It is, as you might expect from a member of the Sarwar family, a consummate politician’s answer.