Priti Patel: ‘Literally Nothing’

The Home Secretary has been duplicitous for years about her family background. As befits the Tory daughter of Ugandan Asian shopkeepers made good, Priti Patel has spun a Thatcheresque origin story to advance her career, and the tale of African rags-to-British riches isn’t just opportunistic. It started with a parliamentary speech about parents who arrived ‘with literally nothing’, and in its retelling by media outlets like the Daily Mail, it’s become dishonest. That doesn’t make her emergence as a hardliner very unusual. Other supposedly self-made politicians who’ve been keen to kick away the ladders that enabled their success include Nigel Farage (descended from a German economic migrant: and Donald Trump (his grandfather, a draft-dodger from Kallstadt, made his first fortune by running brothels for Klondike-bound gold-diggers: Patel’s fakeness rankles enough for me to have written about it for the LRB though: There’s more to say, and I’ll be writing a sequel soon . . .

On the Edge (Part II)

Just over a year ago, I wrote about a trip through eastern Poland that took me almost as far as Belarus: What I didn’t say then is that my arrival at the border got me arrested. Now that 15,000 Polish guards are policing places like the crossing pictured above, I decided to come clean . . .

Sibghatullah Kadri QC (1937-2021): Anti-racism pioneer, co-founder of the Society of Black Lawyers, and the UK’s first Muslim QC

My dad just died. His career as a barrister was defined by his lifelong opposition to racism, and though that provoked fierce criticism from legal reactionaries during the 1970s and 1980s, it’s fair to say he won the argument in the end. Tomorrow, 4 November 2021, the Inner Temple will fly its flag at half mast in his memory.

When his health seriously declined a year ago, we started talking regularly about the past. They’re years I’m all too familiar with – even as a kid, me, my mum and my sister would go with him to rallies against skinheads and neo-Nazis in places like Whitechapel and Lewisham and Southall – but his career forms part of a history that’s often forgotten. So, though it suddenly feels very much like a lifetime away, I figured I’d post something that I contributed to a forthcoming exhibition at the Inner Temple. It wasn’t drafted as obituary, but it’s become one. . . .

Sibghatullah Kadri, known to colleagues and friends as Sibghat or Shiblee, was born in Uttar Pradesh ten years before the partition of India. In late 1949, he moved with his entire family to Karachi in West Pakistan. Sharing a single room with his parents and seven siblings, he taught younger children to fund his own education, and enrolled for a chemistry degree in 1954.

At Karachi University, his scientific studies were soon complemented by broader, political concerns. Elected head of the students’ union, he spoke up for constitutional democracy and civil rights during a volatile period of Pakistani history, and was among those detained after General Ayub Khan’s coup of 7 October 1958. Though he was released six months later (having learned to draft his own habeas corpus petition), the price was expulsion from university and exile to a city a hundred miles outside Karachi.

The move to London in November 1960 was an unhappy accident – occasioned by the need to visit a dying sister who was already in England – but it proved permanent. And the injustice he’d experienced under a military dictatorship now gave him a new focus: he would study law. In August 1961, the Inner Temple admitted Kadri despite his lack of a degree, on the basis that he shouldn’t suffer twice for his arbitrary imprisonment, and he began Part I of the Bar Exams. That was a part-time course in the 1960s, and it took him two years to sit the five papers, working as a postman, a clerk for a mail order firm specialising in ‘ladies slimming garments’, and a waiter at a Kilburn curry house. The third job was almost literally his last; it ended when a white customer drunkenly refused to pay his bill and stabbed Kadri in the face. The attack sent him to hospital for three weeks.

Not everything was tough; 1963 was also the year that he married Carita Idman. The couple soon had two children, and to support the family as it grew, Kadri found work again. After contributing to the BBC as an ‘immigrant spokesman’ for the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (an organisation established in 1964, soon after a visit to England by Martin Luther King), Kadri was offered a staff job at the Urdu Service.

In the autumn of 1968, Kadri was finally ready to study for the Bar Finals – and his year at the Council of Legal Education would be transformative. The CLE of the 1960s was structurally skewed to benefit British university graduates, and Kadri was soon articulating grievances that were widespread among Commonwealth students. Speeches propelled him to prominence, and a Bar Students’ Reform Committee, formed in September 1968, then staged a sit-in that made the front page and letters section of the Times. Kadri was promptly sacked by the BBC Urdu Service; when he turned up to read the news, his displeased boss said his services wouldn’t be required because ‘you are the news’.

Most of the protesters’ demands weren’t met, but the BBC eventually took him back and Kadri’s leadership was vindicated by the sit-in’s one durable success: the creation of representative student bodies at the Inns of Court. He was elected to be the first president of the Inner Temple Student Association, defeating John Laws (later, a Lord Justice of Appeal).

After leading a second CLE sit-in the following November – supported by fellow radicals who included the future Baroness Helena Kennedy and Jack Dromey MP – Kadri was called to the Bar. Early in 1970, he collaborated with two other barristers, Rudy Narayan and Byron Hove, to establish the very first organisation concerned with racism in the legal profession. The Society of Afro-Asian and Caribbean Lawyers (renamed the Society of Black Lawyers in 1981) aimed to eliminate racial discrimination among lawyers and to facilitate equal justice for all.

Kadri became headline news in April 1970. As legal adviser to the Pakistan Workers Association, he responded to the recent stabbing of a Bengali immigrant in London’s East End by reminding fearful Asians at a rally that the law allowed people to defend themselves. Likely victims of racist violence weren’t looking for trouble, Kadri told a Daily Telegraph reporter – ‘but they will be ready to deal with it.’ The forthrightness was too much for the BBC, which sacked him for a second time – on the grounds that it had to ‘tread with the most extreme care’.

It wasn’t just the BBC that seemed to be more troubled by opposition to racism than by racism itself. Kadri obtained a pupillage under (Lord) Tony Gifford at Cloisters, but though he enjoyed several notable early successes, his outspokenness meant no chambers would offer him tenancy. Two years later, confident that this wasn’t for lack of ability, Kadri found a typically radical solution. Aged 35 and fresh out of pupillage, he set up the UK’s first multi-racial chambers at 11 King’s Bench Walk.

That was in March 1973. Over the next two decades, Kadri developed a practice that was all but defined by his commitment to equal rights. Along with immigration and judicial review challenges, he took on criminal cases that became almost iconic: the defence of alleged rioters in Bristol and Brixton, for example, and members of the so-called ‘Bradford Twelve’ and ‘Newham Seven’, who were charged with defending their communities against violent racism. Working through bodies including the Society of Black Lawyers and the Standing Conference of Pakistani Organisations (SCOPO), Kadri combined lawyerly skills with a campaigner’s acumen. At a time when racist murders were multiplying across England, he mobilised beleaguered non-white communities in districts like Southall and Whitechapel; as a barrister, he regularly spoke out against racial bias among legal practitioners. As he recently described in a video presentation to the Inner Temple, Lord Denning was among those who admitted their mistakes; many did not.

In October 1981, Kadri addressed an international conference about race and the legal profession at Sussex University. His assessment of the situation in this country was bleak, but also impressive enough for Mr Justice Browne-Wilkinson (as he then was) to visit Kadri a day later at 11 Kings Bench Walk. Their constructive conversation led to the creation of a working committee on race relations chaired by Browne-Wilkinson. It evolved into a Race Relations Committee, and new anti-discrimination initiatives that are now institutionalised across the Bar.

In March 1989 Kadri took silk, and eight years later he was appointed a Bencher of the Inner Temple. Those are high honours, but a greater achievement is surely his lifelong pursuit of racial equality. In ways that were never easy, he pioneered essential reforms within a profession that is institutionally resistant to change, and sometimes hostile to it. Discrimination hasn’t vanished – as Kadri recently reminded younger barristers in his Inner Temple presentation, ‘the struggle continues’ – but the trail he blazed has cleared obstacles for countless others who followed. In itself, that illustrates the value of diversity. His entire life also stands as a timely reminder that justice loses its meaning without lawyers prepared to fight for it.

Rule of Law, Sharia-Style

The Taliban’s comeback has got me reminiscing about my trip ten years ago to Pakistan, where I visited mosques and madrasas to find out what people thought about the sharia. Opinions varied, but one perspective was pretty universal. In the slums I visited, sunk in poverty and fought over by armed gangs, people weren’t worried that laws might be too repressive; they just wanted stability. With that in mind, I wrote a short post for the LRB about the Taliban takeover:


Nuclear rocket silos aren’t everyone’s idea of fun, probably, but they turn me on. So much so that I talked about exploring one of them on Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent. About eleven and a half minutes in, if you’re interested. In order to milk the experience maximally, I also wrote about it for the London Review of Books:

‘Entangled Like a Fly’

That was the fate a senior Belarusian official in Tokyo saw in store for sprinter Krystsyna Tsimanouskaya last weekend, after she publicly criticised coaches in the national Olympic squad. It looks as though she’s actually broken free, but for millions of her compatriots – functionaries keeping Alexander Lukashenko in office, as well as people who long to see him leave – the hazards are more perilous than ever.

News out of Belarus has hardly been slow of late, but it feels as though the drama is accelerating. I’ve just written an LRB post ( about the Tsimanouskaya drama – which coincided with the mysterious death by hanging of a 26-year-old opposition activist in Kyiv – and that’s made me reflect on the fear and malevolence that’s now hanging over Lukashenko’s determination to retain power. A couple of years ago, knowing little about Belarus except that I fancied a holiday there, I saw him as a benign figure by neo-Soviet standards: almost avuncular, as dictators go. No longer. His regime isn’t just victimising people who make their opposition public; it poses a challenge to everyone’s integrity and self-respect. To survive, it insists on positively indulgence, no matter how unreasonable Lukashenko’s demands. And that’s not going to end well. As I’ve said before about the pseudo-president’s ‘reasons’ for grounding a Ryanair jet, threats of external aggression he invokes are delusional – but within Belarus, there’s a bomb on board.

In reverse order, my earlier pieces are here:


Last week’s Supreme Court ruling that Shamima Begum has no right to return to the UK isn’t the last we’ll hear of her. It certainly doesn’t establish that the Home Office can abandon citizens suspected suspected of bad things, just because they’re foreign enough to have vague chances of getting citizenship elsewhere. It’ll make it far harder for the 21-year-old to mount a substantive challenge, however. Sajid Javid’s original decision in February 2019 didn’t happen in a vacuum, and just in case anyone’s interested in remembering how we got here, I thought I’d repost a piece on citizenship-stripping that I wrote for the London Review of Books back in 2015: It’s behind the LRB paywall, but if memory (and cut-and-paste skills) serve me right, the full text goes something like this . . .

“The removal​ of citizenship has been used as a penalty for disloyalty only rarely in Britain. A handful of spies with dual nationality were denaturalised during the Cold War, but the last case in the 20th century was in 1973. Change came slowly even after 9/11: only five people were stripped of British citizenship by Labour home secretaries, and the emblematic bogeyman of the era, the hook-handed Abu Hamza, repeatedly dodged moves to annul the Britishness he had gained through marriage. He didn’t manage to elude extradition to the United States, where he has now been jailed for life, but for what it’s worth, he remains notionally a British subject.

The obstacle to swifter executive action is the rule against statelessness. Originating after the Second World War, it reflected a belated concern about the removal of citizenship from Germany’s Jews in 1935. With the consequences of postwar decolonisation also at issue, the UK helped draft two treaties aimed at limiting the freedom countries had to abandon their residents. The rule counterbalanced a new power given to the home secretary in 2002 to withdraw citizenship from people who had ‘seriously prejudiced’ vital national interests. The criterion was broadened under the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006, which made it possible to withdraw citizenship whenever it was ‘conducive to the public good’. Even in Abu Hamza’s case, the rule wasn’t challenged: the government argued instead that it wasn’t relevant, because the preacher remained Egyptian. The judges weren’t convinced: on the evidence they’d heard, Egypt seemed to have disowned him.

Soon after Theresa May became home secretary in May 2010, the Home Office lost its tussle with Abu Hamza, but she was determined to be more effective in her attempts to remove citizenship – and to do it more often. In her first six months in the job, she issued five revocation notices – as many as had been issued over the preceding 37 years – and the rate has accelerated steadily. By early 2013, she had moved against 32 more individuals, including at least five born in Britain. But last October, another inherited case got her in legal trouble. Hilal al-Jedda entered the UK in 1992, seeking asylum from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. He was granted British citizenship in 2000. In 2004, he was detained by British forces in Iraq on suspicion of terrorist offences and held without charge for three years. Shortly before his release in 2007 the then Labour home secretary Jacqui Smith notified him that his citizenship was being removed. Home Office lawyers resisted his subsequent appeal by contending that he was still entitled to Iraqi nationality and could reapply for that if he wanted. The Supreme Court was unpersuaded. Al-Jedda argued that he shouldn’t be put in the position of having to ask Baghdad to take him back. The judges agreed: whatever Iraq’s response might be, it was Britain’s actions, not al-Jedda’s failure to act, that threatened him with statelessness.

None of this stopped May issuing an order to deprive al-Jedda of citizenship a second time. But the Supreme Court’s refusal to speculate on the future attitude of a foreign state spurred her to rewrite the rules. She told MPs in early 2014 that the court’s ‘disappointing’ decision had made it necessary for her to ask Parliament for further powers. The outcome was section 66 of the Immigration Act 2014, which gives the home secretary the power to reverse the granting of citizenship if a reasonable reading of another country’s laws suggests the individual could gain nationality there. The new powers could have been even more sweeping. May initially wanted the right to denaturalise British citizens without regard to statelessness. But section 66 is far-reaching enough. May had already shown herself ready to strip citizenship from dual nationals born in Britain. Now, so long as there is a chance of their gaining dual nationality, naturalised citizens will be at risk.

All the revocations that May has issued so far have survived judicial challenge, and an authoritative Supreme Court decision in March suggests that the legal wind is finally behind her back. An unusually large panel of seven judges, convened because of the importance of the case, upheld her withdrawal of citizenship from Minh Quang Pham, an alleged al-Qaida activist born in Vietnam. The judges ruled that Vietnam’s refusal to have him back imposed no obligation on the home secretary. The only fault they (implicitly) found was with officials in Hanoi, because Minh’s right to citizenship was clear under Vietnamese law, yet was being ignored.

If citizens can be forsaken on the off-chance that another country will take them on, who bears responsibility for the ones who end up with no nationality at all? The evidence so far suggests that, one way or another, it will be the US. Minh was extradited there even before the result of his appeal was known, and the Americans have taken on at least three more ex-Britons. One was spirited from East Africa to Manhattan by FBI agents, who swooped in soon after May declared him un-British. Two other Londoners didn’t get that far: after being stripped of citizenship, Bilal el-Berjawi and Mohamed Sakr were killed in Somalia by US drone strikes in early 2012.

The Home Office strongly denies that it is co-ordinating the withdrawal of citizenship with the US Justice Department and the CIA, yet all but two notices of revocation on national security grounds have been served while their subjects were abroad, and both GCHQ and a facility at RAF Marham are permanently engaged in supplying the US drone programme with real-time intelligence. It may be that some of May’s decisions on citizenship aren’t promoting the public good of this country so much as serving the American desire for British Islamists to be taken out of circulation.

It might well seem that delegating the disposal of ex-Britons to the US would be vulnerable to legal challenge – but it probably isn’t. In the same month that the home secretary asked MPs to extend her powers over citizenship, the Court of Appeal drastically reduced the judiciary’s right to oversee any contribution Britain might make to US-led military operations. In response to a Pakistani who blamed GCHQ for guiding the drone that killed his elderly father, Lord Dyson held that a respect for foreign governments precluded further investigation: otherwise, he argued, facts might be ascertained and conclusions expressed that ‘would be seen as a serious condemnation of the US by a court of this country’.

The decision pretends deference, but it’s disingenuous. Actions taken by another government often have reverberations that merit legal scrutiny here – as, indeed, the Supreme Court recognised when it noted Vietnam’s failure to observe its own citizenship laws. And Dyson’s reasoning obscures a growing recognition that even in wartime, arbitrary violence is wrong. The British military vaunts its strict rules of engagement, but if our courts have to look away whenever a friendly country is involved in the fighting, the only legal safeguards will be the ones enforcable in the courts of that country – and in the US, to take the case in point, judges have denied themselves the power to examine even the targeted killing of American citizens. Suspicious seeming ex-Brits stand no chance.

So what? Hasn’t everyone deprived of British citizenship in recent years done dubious or violent things; didn’t most of them put themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time? Perhaps, but citizenship isn’t ordinarily forfeit on proof of bad conduct, and for good reason. Many governments would like to rid themselves of unwanted residents, and those that countenance statelessness threaten to increase rather than reduce the problems associated with any who are poorly integrated. Their efforts are also wrong in principle. Citizenship, Hannah Arendt said, is ‘the right to have rights’. Citizenship isn’t a transient privilege, but an ancient status on which legal order is built. If individuals are accused of wrongdoing, they should be brought to trial, not issued a notice by the Home Office that cuts them loose and exposes them to unregulated and potentially lethal action by another country.’