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Ahir Shah: “The Empire is to Britain what the slave trade is to the United States”

The comedian on Brexit, minority identity and why he doesn't mind offending white people. 

Ahir Shah is one of British comedy’s fastest rising stars. Eccentric, explosive, and unapologetic in his views, the fierce liberal standup is taking audiences on a piledriver tour through politics and race against the backdrop of Brexit and President Donald Trump. Shah wants to get people talking, he says, even if that means stunning them into silence first. 

While darkly hilarious in its assessment of the unenlightened world, Shah’s show is not meant to be uplifting. “It’s meant to make people think and through the laughter, they might understand what’s going on and how the world is getting even more shit by the day," he explains. “I’m angry and I won’t hide that. But it’s a choice between screaming into a pillow or shouting it from a stage. I know which I’d rather do.”  

Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, Shah reckons, finds its roots in misinformation. “Brexit, man. Leave voters talk about taking this country back. From who? Britain subjugated most of the world, lest they forget.” The irony of the Empire features heavily in Shah’s routine and he questions the legitimacy of British people claiming that they are suffering the effects of globalisation. “Do you want know who the real victims of globalisation are? Ask the former colonies of the Empire.”

Shah doesn’t pull his punches when it comes to discussing Britain’s history, but insists: “I’m very fond of this country.” In fact, Shah’s Twitter bio simply reads: “British Comedian.” 

“I guess what makes me British is an accident of birth and the fact of socialisation. I guess what makes me a comedian is an accident of birth and the fact of socialisation. To be honest, I like insisting on the notion of being a specifically British comedian, both because I think that the style of comedy that I do is very British, and also because it riles people who insist that I’m Pakistani.”

What does Shah, born to Indian parents, say to those people? He draws attention to his amusingly posh accent shaped by a west London upbringing and a Cambridge University education – “Come on, I sound like a fucking butler.” He adds: “I think there are people who believe that national identity is something that is sufficiently rigid that it can’t include anyone of a particular ethnicity. What I think is important is to realise that actually people can occupy multiple identities within themselves. That was very important when, for example, you had [right-wing journalist] Douglas Murray the other week questioning whether it was possible to be Muslim and European. Of course it is. You realise that these people are doing exactly the same work as the worst people on the Islamist side of things – they’re destroying the grey zone. We can have multiple identities within ourselves and I don’t think that needs to be a situation of conflict.”

Presented with one of the most forthright quotes from his latest show Control – “If you think the British Empire was a good thing, the sun will never set on how far you can fuck off” – Shah shrugs. That a pensioner spent a lot of one of his Soho Theatre performances last month shaking their head doesn’t concern him. “People should be challenged. I don’t think my show is particularly anti-white.” Does Shah worry about offending white people? “Not in the slightest. We should all be aware of the structures around us and the circumstances by which certain communities might have more or less social power in the scheme of things. There’s no requirement of having to be brown or black to be interested in that. In fact, people in general should be interested in that. If it’s anti-anything, it’s anti-white washing, which I hasten to add, is a pun rather than an indictment of any particular race of people. I think if people understand my material as anti-white, they’re probably missing the point of what I’m trying to do.”

Patriotism, Shah suggests, is a very “layered concept that needs to be unpacked”. British history, he argues, is too often light on detail in schools and universities which results in “a rose-tinted perception that’s actually quite removed from reality”. He continues: “I think that British people en masse understand very little about the Empire. It’s almost glorified in history lessons. I think the principle thing that people understand is simply that it existed. They accept that there was a time when the British were top dogs, but the deeper facts of what actually happened are never really critiqued. Perhaps this is because the reality is too painful to critique. The Empire is to Britain what the slave trade is to the United States.”

Should ethnic minorities in Britain be predisposed to being left-wing? While unmistakably anti-right, Shah falls some way short of unconditional tub-thumping for the left. It’s not, he says, a simple choice between one party or the other and sometimes right-wing policies might suit ethnic minorities just fine. The intersection between their opinions and their identity, however, is where Shah believes the decision is ultimately made. “They have to weigh up what matters more to them – their status as an ethnic minority, socially, or their status economically. My grandfather, as with a lot of first-generation immigrants from the Indian subcontinent was, in theory, your prototypical Tory voter, with an exception perhaps being the fact he didn’t have a lot of money. But he agreed with them on most things. However, when it came to my mother’s first vote in a general election, he said to her: ‘I’ll never tell you how to vote. All I will say is that the Conservative Party doesn’t care about people like us.’ So you see that’s one issue of identity trumping everything else.”

Shah says it’s understandable for ethnic minorities to feel slighted and under-valued in modern Britain. The kick back against establishment politics and policies, he claims, should be expected. “Consider the effects of the Second World War and the dramatic labour shortage in Britain. People like my grandfather, in the midst of all that, were being asked if they wouldn’t mind terribly coming over here and plugging some gaps. They came over here to create something better and look how they get treated.”

Shah’s signposting as one to watch or the next big thing in British comedy is high praise, but how does he intend to shake the promising tag and make it on a mainstream platform? Fellow British-Asian comedians Nish Kumar and Romesh Ranganathan are now regular performers on national television. Is Shah worried that his material is perhaps too fiery for commissioners? “I want to engage in the representation of groups who might have been dehumanised by policies and the tone of society around us. I want to portray an honest perspective of someone who is angry with what is happening. If doing jokes about the post-colonial carve up of Africa means that I’m not going to get to do Live at the Apollo, then maybe I don’t want to do Live at the Apollo.”

Ahir Shah is touring nationwide with his stand-up show Control. See www.ahirshah.com for tickets.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.

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Thatcher’s long shadow: has the “miserablist” left exaggerated her legacy?

A new book argues that Britain is far from the “neoliberal nightmare” decried by Corbynites.

In the archives of Newsweek magazine is a 2,000-word article credited to Margaret Thatcher, published in April 1992, and headlined “Don’t undo my work”. It is an amazing thing: a vulgar rendering of the basic argument of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, mixed with the pain of a once-powerful politician who now had precious little to do with her time, and outrage at the European Union’s Treaty of Maastricht. “I set out to destroy socialism because I felt it was at odds with the character of the people,” she wrote. “We were the first country in the world to roll back the frontiers of socialism, then roll forward the frontiers of freedom. We reclaimed our heritage.” In its final flourish, she refers to herself in the third person: “Thatcherism will live. It will live long after Thatcher has died, because we had the courage to restore the great principles and put them into practice, in keeping with the character of the people and the place of this country in the world.”

Up – or down – in the hereafter, what must she make of the strange point reached by the country she once ruled? Britain’s exit from the EU is an essentially Thatcherite project, which may yet result in the kind of laissez-faire dystopia she and her followers always wanted. But at the same time, we have seen something they thought they had ruled out for ever: the revival of an unapologetically socialist Labour Party, which is seemingly backed by a convincing majority of people under 40, and is possibly on the verge of taking power. Meanwhile, no end of wider developments – from the crises of such outsourcing giants as Carillion and Capita to mounting public unease about corporate tax avoidance – suggest that a sea-change is coming. Perhaps, in the midst of Brexit’s mess, we might be starting to wake up from what some people see as the 40-year nightmare of neoliberalism.

But what if Britain was never that neo-liberal, and there was not much of a nightmare in the first place? This is the argument attempted by Andrew Hindmoor, a professor of politics at Sheffield University. He wants to discredit an oft-told story: that “Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979 marked the start of a still-continuing fall from political grace”, manifested in “dizzying levels of inequality, social decay [and]  rampant individualism”, and the surrender to free-market ideology of the Blair-Brown governments.

His contention is that “neoliberalism has had a surprisingly limited impact on our collective understandings of the world around us” – and that the realities of inequality, privatisation, and the shrinking of the state have not turned out to be as awful as some people think. He wants to nudge Corbynite readers away from the idea that the New Labour era represented a long period of political drought. Britain, in his reading, has obvious problems but is hardly the scene of a disaster – and the people he maligns as left-wing “miserablists” ought to recognise it.

At a time when polarised argument on social media has obscured the fact that politics is usually cast in shades of grey, his nuanced case ought to be welcome. Indeed, as a trigger for thinking deeply about what has happened in and to this country – particularly since the mid-1990s – the book just about does its job. Part of its argument is based on a familiar script, and a list of (mostly) undeniable New Labour achievements: “significant public expenditure increases, the introduction of tax credits, a minimum wage, devolution, and freedom of information”.

Hindmoor also eloquently sets out evidence that public opinion, in so far as it is measured by pollsters and academic researchers, is now more socially liberal than it has ever been, and also full of the kind of left-of-centre thinking (redistribution of wealth, nationalised utilities) that Thatcher thought she had expunged. From time to time, all this skirts close to the blindingly obvious, but it’s at least built on solid facts about the country’s recent history. Hindmoor’s problem comes when he pushes his arguments into much more contentious areas, and everything threatens to unravel.

Whether his points are always sincere or sometimes part of an academic thought experiment is unclear. Among his other arguments, he underplays the severity of post-2010 austerity by citing both slight increases in real terms in overall public spending, and the Conservatives’ failure to convincingly cut the deficit. But neither detracts from millions of people’s experience of cuts, whether through the NHS crisis or the savaging of services provided by local councils – something he half-acknowledges before dropping a real clanger. “The costs of austerity have not been loaded on to the poorest and most vulnerable,” he writes, which is most of the way to being absurd.

Elsewhere, Hindmoor claims that in education policy, “academisation [sic] is not a form of privatisation”, on the basis that schools run by independent trusts are funded by government and subject to Ofsted inspections. He apparently refuses to entertain the idea that if schools are snatched away from elected local authorities and put in the unaccountable hands of often questionable organisations (some of which are now in grave financial difficulties), something significant has happened. In an equally flimsy treatment of the health service, he says that there should be an argument “whether the contracting out of NHS services to private companies is… tantamount to privatisation”, which is some logical somersault to attempt. And he has almost nothing to say about what has happened to the benefits system, in which a once collectivist, benign set of institutions and arrangements has been replaced by a machine that represents individualism – or, if you prefer, neoliberalism – at its nastiest.

A section about inequality is stuffed with graphs and desiccated numbers that ought to strengthen his case, but end up adding to its weakness. “The UK is a country in which a significant redistribution of income still occurs,” Hindmoor says, which is true, but still leaves open the question of whether “significant” equates to “enough”. His evidence for an upbeat verdict largely rests on a rather laboured concept – also used by the Office for National Statistics – which includes basic public services in its definition of “final income”. The problem there is that you end up trying to make a positive case for the state of the country based on the continuing availability of free roads, schools and hospitals, which strikes me as an argument built on somewhat lowly aspirations.

His reliance on macroeconomic statistics, moreover, cuts him adrift from reality. Inequality is not just about numbers but people’s sense of opportunity, having a stake in the future and connection to the rest of the country. In the end, even Hindmoor does not seem convinced. “Inequality did rise significantly in the 1980s,” he writes. “Wealth inequality is growing. Social mobility is poor.” The abiding impression is of someone needlessly tying themselves in knots.

Does believing that Britain has been repeatedly pushed in the wrong direction over the last three decades make you a “miserablist”? Not at all. Like many others I think Thatcherism wrought damage that has never been healed, and that New Labour swallowed far too much of its legacy and set precedents for subsequent Conservative politicians. The invasion of Iraq was probably the single biggest policy disaster in post-war history, and compared to the hallowed Labour government of 1945-51, the Blair administrations’ institutional legacy – beyond Sure Start centres, which are now being closed at speed – was pitiful. At the same time, I well know that Blair and his colleagues improved the country in lots of ways, and it would perhaps be nice to go back to the halcyon period of 1997-2003. But that is now impossible, thanks to a range of watershed developments that point to the need for something very different.

Hindmoor’s text only briefly touches on them, but in case anyone hasn’t noticed: wages have been stagnating for more than a decade, near-zero interest rates have not triggered any surge in investment, unsecured private debt is at its highest level since the 2008 crash, and the idea that profit-making corporations are the answer to the modernisation of the state looks increasingly threadbare. Put another way, an era that began in the early 1980s may well be in its death throes, a realisation etched on to the upbeat faces of the people who now crowd into Jeremy Corbyn rallies, and rarely look like “miserablists”.

For many reasons, their politics is not really my thing, but I can see why their movement fits its time, in a way that this book’s glossing-over of deep political and economic failures does not. Its author should maybe bear in mind the closing lines of Thatcher’s Newsweek piece: “You always have people who take the soft option. The apparently easy way out is the way that gets you into deepest trouble. The lesson is, you don’t soften fundamental principles. You positively push them forward into the future.” 

John Harris writes for the Guardian

What’s Left Now? The History and Future of Social Democracy
Andrew Hindmoor
Oxford University Press, 285pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist