MEGHAN Markle’s mixed-race heritage has been hailed as a sign of just how far our country has come in the 50 years since Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech.
But to my mind there is even more to celebrate in the appointment of Sajid Javid as Home Secretary.
No one would have thought this possible when I set up QED Foundation in 1990. At that time all but four of our MPs were white. Yet, in 2017, a record 52 come from an ethnic minority background. Pakistanis from opposing parties now hold two of the country’s most important political roles as Home Secretary and Sadiq Khan as Mayor of London.
I hope that these appointments will prove inspirational for our young people. They prove that if you have the right skills and you work hard, there is no limit to how far you can go.
Yet I know from personal experience that Sajid Javid’s road to one of the great offices of state cannot have been easy.
My father left Pakistan to work in the textile mills and was anxious for me to secure a good education so that I would not suffer the same hardships. When I joined him in Bradford in 1969 at the age of 13, I could speak no English. So I studied at a school for immigrants and went on to Huddersfield University before working as an industrial chemist back in Pakistan.
But my eyes were really opened when I returned to England and spent seven years helping Yorkshire’s ethnic minority communities into work. There was clearly a long way to go before people’s career success was determined by their skills, aptitude and application, rather than their race or religion. When the national charity that employed me folded, I decided I must go it alone.
It is now almost 30 years since I set up QED Foundation to help to create a fairer and more equal society. The success of some of our initiatives are plain to see. A nationwide drive to encourage high-flyers from Asian communities to apply for fast-track Civil Service jobs made a real difference to diversity at senior management levels.
Yet little has changed for the vast majority of Britain’s disadvantaged ethnic minority communities. Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are among those facing the most barriers to progress. They are almost three times as likely as white British people to be unemployed and they have the lowest average hourly pay. They are also greatly underrepresented in many professions, which continue to recruit and promote staff from a limited range of ethnic and religious backgrounds.
Even Sajid Javid and Sadiq Khan have triumphed against the odds. Both came from working-class families, with their fathers working as bus drivers at some point. When Sajid Javid left school, he was advised to take a job as a television repair man. He was told that he wouldn’t be able to work in the City because he wasn’t from the right social background. Yet he went on to become vice-president of Chase Manhattan Bank at the age of 25, before starting out on a political career that saw him become the first Cabinet minister of Asian descent as culture, media and sport secretary in 2014.
Sadiq Khan grew up in a council flat, laboured on a building site and joined a boxing club because of his family’s experiences of racism.
You have to admire their determination – but it should not be so hard to succeed. How many other Pakistani young people fall by the wayside when 16.2 per cent of those aged 16-24 are not in employment, education or training? Or when 18-year-old school leavers are more likely to continue studying than their white counterparts but almost three times less likely to find work? Or when our communities are concentrated in post-industrial areas of Yorkshire and the North-West with few opportunities to follow well-paid or highly skilled careers?
It’s no surprise that one study found that a quarter of Pakistanis were taxi drivers. I hope the high profile of successful role models like Sajid Javid and Sadiq Khan will encourage our youngsters to aim higher. But until we all make a concerted effort to identify and break down the barriers that prevent so many talented young people fulfilling their potential, the future for Britain’s Pakistanis looks bleak.
Dr Mohammed Ali OBE is the founder and chief executive of QED Foundation, a Bradford-based national charity set up in 1990 that supports the social and economic advancement of disadvantaged ethnic minority communities.