Leicester lessons

Willy BachWilly Bach celebrates 40 years of the Ugandan Asian community in both Britain and his own city

It is a joy to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the arrival of Ugandan Asians to Britain. They have added a huge amount to our national life, whether in business, the Arts, politics or education. But above all they have been exemplary fellow citizens, with their love of family and entrepreneurial spirit. 

It is a particular pleasure for me to speak in today’s debate because 10,000 of the 28,000 Ugandan Asians who came to the UK in the autumn of 1972 settled in my own adopted city, Leicester. Indeed I arrived in God’s Own City in the same year. And a few years later, as a councillor for the Belgrave area I would represent a large number of Ugandan Asians on Leicester City Council.

Edward Heath’s government deserve credit for keeping its legal obligation to accept those with dual nationally, who found themselves suddenly ordered out of Uganda by President Idi Amin with 90 days notice and no compensation. It was a brave decision by Heath, as the issue stirred up much opposition in the Tory Party. But it begs the question whether the current government would do the same thing?

Many Asian families had lived in Uganda for generations; some brought over from the subcontinent by Britain to build the railways, and others who followed. Asians in Uganda were from different religious and cultural backgrounds. The largest group were Hindus, and many came originally from the Gujarat in India. In Uganda all groups lived peaceably together, so much so that it has been written: “Be it Diwali, Eid, or Baisakhi, they celebrate together”. Overall, until Amin’s cruel directive, life was good for most Asians in Uganda.

40 years on, it is clear what an extraordinary force for good the arrival of the Ugandan Asians has been for the UK. It is much to the credit of those already living in cities like Leicester that within a short time the newcomers were accepted and welcomed. Especially so, in the face of extreme right wing pressure, both from Enoch Powell and his supporters within the Tory Party, and the appalling National Front

Unsurprisingly, the most common way people came together was through work and the shopfloor, often in factories and businesses such as Imperial Typewriters, Thorn Lighting, and the British United Shoe Corporation. Barriers were gradually broken down, and it soon became clear the Ugandan Asians were using their entrepreneurial flair to create employment. Leicester public life has benefited too, from sportsmen and sportswomen to distinguished councillors, magistrates, lawyers, and senior local authority officers – all giving great service to the whole community.

A good example today is Labour councillor Sundip Meghani, the Leicester born child of Ugandan Asian parents. A bright successful young lawyer, who represents a large white working class ward, Sundip is both proud of his heritage and of his city, and works to combat the deprivation and poverty that still exists. In September, he brought a motion to the City Council which recognised the hard work and the significant contribution Ugandan Asians have made, and celebrate the diversity and unity that make Leicester ‘a unique place to live and work’.

I agree with Sundip, as would anyone who has seen the city become a richer, more tolerant, more exciting place during the last 40 years. On Saturday, I will be having lunch with City Mayor Peter Soutsby at Bobby’s vegetarian restaurant on Melton Road, with its Diwali and Christmas lights outside. Bobby’s is a landmark in Leicester, and of course owned by a Ugandan Asian. 

Lord Willy Bach is backbench Labour member in the House of Lords and was recently voted ‘Peer of the Year’ by the The House magazine

Published 6th December 2012

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