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The NS Interview: Nitin Sawhney, musician

“I wouldn’t like anything with the word ‘empire’ in after my name”

You've played a wide range of roles in the arts. How would you chiefly classify yourself?
I'm a producer and a composer. I work with lots of different forms - theatre, film, dance, video games, orchestras, albums.

Is there anything you wouldn't like to do?
Lion taming? I like to push myself. I used to try to do one challenging thing a month that would be out of character. I was scared of heights, so I did trapeze for a bit at a circus place and I learned to fly a plane.

Your new album intersperses narrative with song. What's the thinking behind that?
It started as a script. The idea was to try and find a way of expressing what I felt during the last general election. Whenever there's an economic downturn, they try to blame immigrants first. It's a device of political opportunism, that parochial small-mindedness that surfaces every time there is hardship. I wanted to try to personify it in some way, through a character.

It sounds very political.
I wanted to avoid being political. It's much more of a human story. It might be a metaphor for political ideas, and it might have been inspired by political events, but it's about a character, the epiphany of a man who's caught in his own cage. It's an ode to Little England.

Do you think British culture is inclusive?
Integration shouldn't necessarily mean that we need to assimilate people; it should mean that we are able to accommodate lots of different ways of thinking.

What did you think of David Cameron's speech on multiculturalism?
That was absolutely disgusting and so inappropriate. The Tories are using immigrants as the scapegoats to distract attention from their doing a lot to rip apart the fabric of society.

How did you find being involved in the inception of Goodness Gracious Me?
Sanj [Sanjeev Bhaskar] was a very good friend of mine. We started off a double act a long time ago. At that time, there had only been a series of programmes that were very stereotypical and derogatory to Asians and made them the butt of the joke. My thinking was that we needed to find a way of subverting stereotypes, and that was something that we started doing with The Secret Asians and Goodness Gracious Me. Then it started taking on a different agenda and I walked away from it. Not that there was anything wrong with what they did - it was just very different from my way of thinking.

Do you think British Asians are pigeonholed?
The media do that a great deal. At one point things were moving on, but then 9/11 happened and political opportunism on the back of that created an atmosphere of fear of "the other", which then led right into 7/7 in 2005. Those two events did more to put back the acceptance and understanding of multicultural England than anything, and we all suffered.

You turned down an OBE. Why?
I wouldn't like anything with the word "empire" after my name. One of my heroes, [the Bengali polymath] Rabindranath Tagore, gave back his knighthood to the British after the Amritsar Massacre. I felt very strongly about what had happened in Iraq, and I thought it would be hypocritical to take any award that said "empire" in the wake of this country invading another country and killing women and children. I don't want to be part of that world. Having said that, I didn't know who put me up for it. I was very grateful to whoever did, so I didn't make a big deal of it at the time. I just said, "No thank you."

What do you make of the coming cuts to the arts?
How are you going to stimulate an economy if you starve everyone of anything? By cutting the arts, you're cutting the lifeblood of inspiration for people. That's how you preserve a sense of hope. They've already crushed the hope out of a generation with the student cuts.

Is religion a part of your life?
I don't believe in any orthodox religion. I have my own perspective, which is based on a weird combination of ancient Hindu philosophy and theoretical physics. That sounds quite mad, but the two are actually quite compatible. Hinduism in my world doesn't work as a religion; it just works as a philosophy.

Is there anything you would rather forget?
No. Everything is about experience and experience makes you who you are, so I don't want to obliterate any memories. I'm always trying to recover memories so that I can learn from them or develop something from them. Memories are how you inspire yourself creatively.

Was there a plan?
I try to stick to my intuition.

Are we all doomed?
We're not doomed as long as we have collective responsibility and respect.

Defining moments

1964 Born in Rochester, Kent. After quitting a degree in law, works on the radio version of Goodness Gracious Me
1994 Releases first album, Spirit Dance
2001 Fifth album, Prophesy, wins a Mobo
2006 Receives honorary degree from South Bank University, London
2007 Turns down an OBE
2009 Collaborates with the dancer Akram Khan to stage Confluence
2011 Releases Last Days of Meaning

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the next Prime Minister

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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