Pakistan's dreamer

Imran Khan's aspiration to build Oxbridge in Pakistan is seen by his detractors as mere idealism in

An Oxford University in Pakistan? In a country described as potentially the “most dangerous place on Earth” by Newsweek? You'd have to be kidding, right? Well apparently not according to Pakistan cricket legend turned maverick politician, Imran Khan.

"I want a proper university like Oxford and Cambridge," says the determined Khan, himself an Oxford graduate. "So I have this beautiful place, miles and miles of land on a lake and mountains behind." He is talking about his dream project, Namal College, located in Pakistan ’s Mianwali district.

The newly inaugurated institute has already been granted the status of an Associate College by the University of Bradford, of which Khan is, incidentally, the chancellor. “With Bradford University we are setting up a Technical College to begin with,” he says. “And then a full blown university.”

But these days Pakistan seems to have best captured the world media's imagination as the land of the Taleban and Osama bin Laden’s last hiding place. However, it could be argued that it is education - or rather the lack of it - which is the real problem Pakistanis face. Remember this is the sixth most populous country in the world and, remarkably, the literacy rate for its 160 million people still hovers at around 50 per cent.

Arguably a very strong link exists between education and the poor electoral choices that haunt the Pakistani people. For this is one corner of the globe where the centuries old curse of feudalism is still alive and kicking, and the continuation of the Bhutto dynasty in the absence of any credible leadership is living testimony to this.

“The only private sector university in the rural areas,” says the enthusiastic Khan about his ultra-ambitious Namal project. “And the main thing is that majority [of students] will be from scholarships. We will attract bright students. Our agents will go and find them and bring them to the university.”

In today's Pakistan it is an established, well-honed practise for parents to send their children abroad for higher education, almost a rite of passage if you will. But this applies only if one hails from that tiny minority that can afford such luxury.

As Khan explains it: "Pakistan is an elitist economy. Everything is catered for a tiny elite.” Urdu is the national language, but in private “elitist” schools it is English that is given preference. Urdu medium schools are reserved for the poor and the struggling middle classes. Indeed the late Benazir had been the object of much derision in the local press for the state of her Urdu.

“You can’t have just English medium for the elite and for the majority... the whole school structure is collapsed,” says Khan. Ghost school are another phenomenon. These are supposedly state-run schools but which in reality exist only on paper.

So how does one tackle such dire inequalities of wealth and education? “The solution is direct taxation,” claims Khan. “Also subsidising the small farmer of Pakistan when 70 per cent of the people live in the rural areas.”

For a politician who is seen on Pakistani television stations debating so vociferously for democracy and the restoration of the judiciary, Imran was a quiet, albeit, determined child. “I was shy,” he recalls. “But I knew exactly what I wanted. I was undetered by setbacks and failures. I used to learn from my mistakes and keep going. When I went out collecting money and when I started in politics I had to change myself [by becoming less shy].”

The money collection Khan does for the cancer hospital he built in 1994 is said to provide over 70 per cent of its patients with free treatment facilities. He dedicated the hospital to the memory of his mother, Shaukat Khanum, who died from cancer and after whom the hospital is named. "We are working on a second cancer hospital in Karachi," he says.

What Khan is doing, through his Shaukat Khanum Cancer Hospital and Namal College, should actually be the job of the government. But this is a country where the idea of state hand-outs are very much an alien concept.

With the new administration in place - a shaky coalition of parties that appears to be in a constant battle to survive - it seems to be left up to Khan and others like him to run mini welfare-states within Pakistan.

“I think people like us who have been given so much by our country have a responsibility,” he says. “The only way to fight for a change is through politics, there is no other way.”

So how has Khan been rewarded for his efforts? Back in the 90s he was accused of being party to a Jewish conspiracy by his critics for marrying Jemima Goldsmith. In more recent times Musharraf is said to have branded him a terrorist without a beard. And last year Khan was temporarily arrested following the infamous imposition of emergency rule as the country's judiciary got the sack.

Asked on who he counts among his supporters he is silent for a moment. "The youth, women" he says finally.

Khan is a frequent visitor to the UK, home to his now ex-wife Jemima and their two sons.

And judging from the attendance at the talks he delivers in London, he enjoys considerable support, or at least sympathy, from many British Pakistanis. As one woman last year confided during a demonstration outside Downing Street to protest Musharraf's emergency rule: "If we do not support Khan he is going to be finished."

Suggestions that Imran Khan's popularity is on the rise are, however, untested. He boycotted elections earlier in the year in what some would say was a missed opportunity to prove he does hold electoral clout.

But Khan insisted he would not take part in a vote until the restoration of the country's judiciary - part of tendency to take a moralistic stance which has been both to his detriment and his unique selling point.

Opponents assert Khan is a impractical man. And perhaps building Oxford University in Pakistan will prove his mettle. On the other hand perhaps it's just a step too far in a country struggling with growing militancy and the threat from Al Qaeda.

But for his young supporters it is Khan's professed principles and idealism that remain a draw. "I am an idealist - the rest, it doesn't matter if we create a utopia."

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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