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. 

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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.