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22 April 2015updated 25 Jul 2021 6:19am

Cobra beer founder Lord Bilimoria on Tories trying to be “nastier” than Ukip, and “economically illiterate” Theresa May

The crossbench peer and lager tycoon Karan Bilimoria lashes out at the government’s immigration rhetoric, calls our levels of defence spending "dangerous", and questions Ed Miliband's knowledge of business.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Considering most household name beers are centuries old, it comes as a surprise to me that it’s only the 25th anniversary of Cobra beer this year. That’s 26 years since Karan Bilimoria, then a 26-year-old graduate, became fed up with drinking gassy lagers when out for a curry, and decided to create something new.

“I came up with the idea at university,” he tells me. “It was very simple; I hated fizzy lagers and I loved English ale, real ale, and so I came up with the idea of a beer that would have the refreshment of a lager and the smoothness of an ale combined.”

After persuading the best brewmaster in India to create his new beer, and ditching the initial brand name “Panther” (it’s not pronounced the same throughout the world, and just wasn’t as “short, sharp and memorable” as Cobra), Bilimoria and his friend began delivering Cobra beer from the back of their “battered old Citroën deux chevaux called Albert”.

Now a crossbench peer and the owner of what has become one of the most globally popular beers, Bilimoria is concerned that students who wish to study in the UK are being deterred by anti-immigration rhetoric. He came to Britain in 1981 from India to study, and built a successful company. He fears that foreign talent is now being put off coming to Britain due to the government’s approach to immigration.

“I’ve found it really worrying, I’ve found it hugely damaging,” he tells me, shaking his head. “It has unfortunately been completely fuelled by Nigel Farage and Ukip, and it surprises me and worries me the following that they have in the polls…

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“Unfortunately the Conservative party has jumped on this bandwagon, Theresa May the Home Secretary in particular, and instead of having a sensible approach to immigration, almost trying to compete with Ukip on immigration as to who can be the nastier one.

“It’s created a very negative approach to immigration, which is wrong, and I believe we should have a more balanced view on immigration, looking at all its aspects.”

He adds: “There is no way Britain would be where it is today without the contribution of the ethnic minority and religious communities going back over the decades. And here is this picture being painted that immigration is bad, immigration is damaging Britain.”

Bilimoria despairs of the Home Secretary Theresa May’s attitude towards migrants. It was her department that trialled the loathed “Go Home” vans, fiddled around with visa rules, and mooted that international students should be sent home immediately after finishing their university courses in Britain.

“In countries like India, you hear ‘does Britain want us?’ The number of Indian students has plummeted… the rhetoric has been very damaging; it’s created this damaging impression abroad.

“And Theresa May, I believe is economically illiterate when it comes to immigration. When it comes to business. Look at the City of London, we would not be the Number 1 global financial centre if it were not for the international expertise that works in the City of London.

“Yet you hear of firms that have visa issues bringing in staff. The Indian restaurant industry has trouble bringing in chefs, because of the changes in the visa rules… Here’s an industry that employs hundreds of thousands of people, billions of pounds to the economy, contributes to the taxes, produces food that this country loves – we’re a nation of curryholics – and yet we thank the industry by not allowing them to bring in the skilled staff that they need.”

“And they [the government] are really out of tune with what the public wants on this matter. Foreign students should be encouraged to stay on and start their businesses over here. You poll the public, and they will say of course they should be allowed to start their businesses here. Look at me.

“It’s very damaging, it’s very short-sighted.”

Photo: Cobra

Yet Bilimoria also has strong words for the Labour party. “I don’t believe Ed Miliband understands business,” he says. “I don’t believe business has been a priority for him, that’s been demonstrated through the lack of mentioning it in major speeches, and through the way he’s tried now to demonstrate he’s pro-business by completely showing again a lack of understanding of business.”

The peer is particularly scathing about Miliband’s focus on zero-hours contracts. “Yes, zero-hours contracts is an issue, but making it the major plank of the major political debate that they had? It’s important to create jobs. Yes, you never want zero-hour contracts to be abused. But you never hear him talk about job creation, wealth creation, which is the most important thing.

“I’m also very critical of the current government,” he continues. “With defence, I really think they should commit to the 2 per cent NATO commitment. It’s negligent to have an army now that is so small; it’s dangerous in today’s world. Whether it’s the Russian situation, Isil, Middle Eastern situation, and who knows what’s going to come next? I [also] criticise this government for under-investing in higher education. We underfund our universities by half what the United States does, below the EU average, and below the OECD average. We should be investing more in R&D and innovation.”

As founding chairman of the UK-India Business Council, Bilimoria has joined various prime ministers’ trade delegations to India. He has accompanied Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron on such visits. He reveals that in a meeting ahead of his trip with Cameron, he warned him to be more positive about what Britain has to offer:

“I said to David Cameron in the last briefing meeting before we went out: ‘Come on, shout from the rooftops about all our amazing capabilities that we don’t appreciate in our own country, and this message has to be communicated within the country to give us the confidence of what we’re doing and never taking it for granted, but also for the outside world’.

“I never want anyone to think of Britain, as they did in India when I was a teenager, as a loser country and the Sick Man of Europe and a has-been. We are a country that always should be at the top table of the world, and always should be at the forefront, the cutting-edge of innovation and creativity.”

So in spite of such negativity from our politicians, does Bilimoria remain optimistic about Britain’s role in the world?

“Very optimistic,” he replies. “But I hate it when it’s damaged by this immigration rhetoric of the Nigel Farages and Theresa Mays of the world, it’s so unnecessary, it’s so damaging – it undermines all this.”

I’m sure a number of voters would drink to that.

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