Chapter 25 Brexit Boris and the Media : Big enough to see, too small to count

Opinion Mongrel
9 min readJul 6, 2020



First published as Chapter 25 in Section 4 The Election and Identity Politics in Brexit, Boris and the Media edited by John Mair, T Clark, N Fowler, R Snoddy and R. Tait (pre pandemic)

Bite-Sized Books January 2020

“Everything we see and enjoy comes from the heritage and contribution of the British Jewish community, which right now feels vulnerable.”

Rushanara Ali, MP for Bethnal Green and Bow at election hustings

Docklands and East London Advertiser 6 December 2019

“The thing about Bangladesh was (pause) These were our people. In West London, we grew up in a really mixed-race place… The Bangladeshis tended to work very hard, so we respected them… we wanted to help. It was a terrible tragedy. Flood wasn’t it?”

Pete Townshend of The Who speaking to the Foreign Press Association at

The Sloane Club, London 7th November 2019

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Nobody learned much new from the 2019 UK Election.

Opinion polls had consistently predicted the Conservative party would regain the majority it achieved in 2015. Its victory should not have been a surprise. For all their parliamentary votes and wins, it was soon clear opposition parties could not and more fatally for them, would not, agree an electoral alliance that could defeat Boris Johnson.

Sadly, for journalists at least, December’s result made even less difference to the UK’s relationship with Bangladesh or perceptions of the British Bangladeshi community,

‘Made in Bangladesh’ clothing labels might be a common sight, but from the UK perspective, the size of trade with Bangladesh is not hugely significant. Unlike India which has the size and clout to make post Brexit visa demands, the mutual Bangladesh-UK interest is on keeping the current trajectory. When global media deigns to cover Bangladesh, it is far more often as a byword for climate change and disasters than for its c.8% GDP growth.

As for the British Bangladeshi vote, it was similarly predictable, being mainly pro-Labour and concentrated in safe seats. Just as the population of Bangladesh is less than a tenth of the Indian sub-continent’s population. so British Bangladeshis are just a small part of the UK’s non-white, mixed and religious minorities. Big enough to see, but small enough to overlook.

A Venn diagram of UK media stories would show coverage of British Bangladeshis to be almost completely encircled within coverage of British Asian and British Muslim communities. Commonwealth, cricket, curry and Islamist radicals, the usual suspects.

Inevitably, jihadi bride Shamima Begum, not Rushanara Ali, the MP for Bethnal Green and Bow quoted above, [1] was 2019’s most talked about British Bangladeshi in the UK media.

For most people this was just another story about transnational terrorism and Islamist radicals, not something to change prevailing images of Bangladesh. It was somewhat superfluous for the Bangladesh Ministry of Foreign Affairs to state “It may also be mentioned that she never visited Bangladesh in the past despite her parental lineage.”[2]

Speaking to the Foreign Press Association in November 2019, Pete Townshend sounded very pleased to be asked for memories of The Who’s headline role in September 1971 for an all-day ‘Concert for Bangla Desh’ festival at the Oval cricket ground. Held six weeks after the more famous Concert for Bangladesh in New York on 1 August 1971, it drew as many people as George Harrison’s groundbreaking fundraiser but is relatively forgotten.

Historically both concerts have political significance beyond just raising funds for the relief of refugees. Harrison himself highlighted this in his 1980 memoirs[3] noting that “while we were setting up the concert the Americans were shipping arms to Pakistan” so using the very name Bangladesh in the midst of war, at a moment when independence was far from certain, helped to shine a light and provided a “necessary morale booster for the Bengalis.” [4]

Four decades on, Pete Townshend was understandably hazy about some aspects, but still provided some classic rock star anecdotes about the event at the Oval.[5] He also spent minutes waxing lyrically to the international journalists present about growing up in a multicultural part of West London, to such an extent that by the end of his reverie he could not recall the cause for which the concert was held. Naturally he asked, “Flood wasn’t it?”

In the light of Rorschach’s referendum

Like Rorschach’s inkblot test, reactions to British politics in the aftermath of the EU referendum lie very much in the eye of the beholder.

The democratic will of the people or reaping the reward of intolerance?

Many people from ethnic minorities voted for Brexit for the same broad mixture of reasons as other Leave voters. It is ridiculous to label them all as racist or seduced by imperial nostalgia. Yet, when some people voting the other way claim the result was influenced by racism, anecdotes often back them up.

While many advocates of Global Britain, both sincere and disingenuous, shout loudly of their keenness to build ties beyond Europe, other Tory Brexiters before and after their big election victory, blow dog whistles about allegations of electoral fraud, especially involving British Muslim communities, to call for rather un-British voter ID rules at polling stations, [6]

The assumption that intolerance amplified by social media silos has made life less civil, seems to have become universal in recent years.

“Being made to feel acutely foreign again feels unacceptable.”

Kavita Puri, presenter of the BBC Radio 4 series Three Pounds in My Pocket[7] highlights the use of the word “again,” by the daughter of Runi Sayeed, a Bangladeshi born teacher settled in Britain since 1968. After 50 years in the UK, Sayeed found it unsettling and unusual to hear someone shout “Why don’t you go back to your country? Why are you here?” as she got off a bus. This sort of public abuse had, like the fear of random racist attacks (from “Paki-bashing”) hugely declined during her half century in the UK.

It is a paradox that while Britain today is more diverse and less insular than 1968, that an astonishing amount of political rhetoric is redolent of the language that got Enoch Powell sacked from the shadow Cabinet 50 years ago, Of course, as Pete Townshend was illustrating, pre-EU Britain was not a monolithic monoculture either, so perhaps it is just the belief that time always brings improvement, which is wrong, Intolerance is always with us, it just needs to be stoked.

Identity politics and family ties

Compared to the British Pakistani community whose political leaders include Chancellor Sajed Javid and Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, the cohort of four British Bangladeshi MPs is not nationally significant. but worth listening to, nonetheless.

As the longest serving member, the advice given in December by Rushanara Ali, to fellow Labour candidate and now newly elected MP for Popular and Limehouse, Apsana Begum, to go further than just apologise after being accused of anti-Semitism, deserves wider hearing.

Not least because the failure of Labour leadership to fully deal with cases of anti-Semitism, personified by Jeremy Corbyn’s inept leadership and slowness to say sorry, was one of the most talked about issues of 2019.[8]

Begum, a well-known Momentum activist had shared a post on Facebook criticising Saudi Arabia which asserted the regime’s actions were due to it being in thrall to “Zionist masters,” a clearly conspiratorial anti-Semitic trope, which Begum acknowledged as such when asked to apologise.

After explaining the importance of showing zero tolerance to such language and notions, Ali said: “It’s for her to rebuild trust and reach out to the community she has deeply offended,”.[9]

Her advice is rooted in experience of supporting former MP Oona King when she was being challenged by George Galloway’s campaign to wrest the Bethnal Green and Bow seat from Labour in 2005, under the Respect party banner. While an anti-Iraq war protest vote was bound to eat into King’s 10000 vote majority that year, as Galloway won in the end by barely 820 votes, the margin was small enough to have been influenced by some left wing and Islamist factions backing Galloway, spreading untruths and attacking King’s Jewish roots.

Referring to the slanders, political and racial, thrown about during the campaign, Ali said: “I know what any form of anti-Semitism and racism is like. I worked for my Labour predecessor Oona King, a Jewish MP who experienced anti-Semitism and saw what it does to people.” She referred to the Battle of Cable Street and the common history of Jewish and Muslim communities having to fight racism in the East End, a salutary reminder in an age when the zeitgeist seems to only bring forth division.

When factors like class, education, income, profession and location of constituency are taken into account, psephologists are likely to back Ali as there is not much evidence of voters who put religious identity or views on Israel/Palesine ahead of all else, swaying the outcome of UK elections, except of course in the sectarian quagmires of Northern Ireland.

Across town, the other two British Bangladeshis in the Commons are both noted for having supported Remain and a second referendum. Both are also known for famous relatives, Ealing and East Acton MP Rupa Huq for sister and Blue Peter presenter Konnie, and Hampstead and Kilburn MP Tulip Siddiq for her aunt, Sheikh Hasina, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh.

Regularly asked by human rights groups and her aunts political opponents alike to criticise Bangladesh’s record on human rights, particularly in relation to state agencies kidnapping, torturing and sometimes completely ‘disappearing’ critics of the government., Ms Siddiq regularly desists. For good measure she told the Guardian last year: “You don’t get to be where she is by listening to your niece on national security issues. There are two words she’d say to me: ‘Fuck off’.”[10]

Meanwhile Huq, an experienced lecturer and academic expert on popular culture, has in brother in law, Charlie Brooker, creator of Black Mirror, the perfect writer to draw upon to comment on the world in which we are living.

As 2020 dawns, Australia is burning. Coal remains its biggest export and economics deems it efficient for some of this to be burned in countries like Bangladesh, to help make goods sought by consumers in countries like the UK which have outsourced much of their manufacturing needs and pollution.

Brexit is trivial when you look at it properly. The fact we don’t solve it that way suggests our real problems lie in the decade ahead.


About the contributor

Niaz Alam is London Bureau Chief of the Dhaka Tribune. He was formerly its Chief Editorial Writer and is a member of its Editorial Board.

A qualified Solicitor, he has worked on responsible business and ethical investment issues since 1992. He sat on the Board of the London Pensions Fund Authority between 2001–2010 and is a former vice-chair of War on Want.

During 2018 and 2019, he was Hon. Secretary of the Foreign Press Association in London.

[1] Election hustings report, Docklands and East London Advertiser 6 December 2019

[2] Shamima Begum is not a Bangladeshi citizen, says foreign minister Daily Mail 20 February 2019

[3] I ME MINE by George Harrison — Genesis publications (1980)

Ganga Publishing Simon Schuster ISBN 0–671–42787–

[4] As discussed by the author in All the Concerts for Bangladesh

[5] From interview transcribed by the author see also Pete Townshend: We were honoured to have performed in 1971 Dhaka Tribune 1st December 2019

[6] George Eaton New Statesman 13 December 2019


[8] Corbyn not dealing with anti-Semitism Financial Times 26 November 2019

[9] Hustings reported in The Docklands and East London Advertiser 6 December 2019

[10] Interview with Zoe Williams The Guardian 12 February 2019 and



Opinion Mongrel

NIAZ ALAM is London Bureau Chief of Dhaka Tribune. Hon. Secretary of the Foreign Press Association in 2018 and 2019, see, follow @ESGBangladesh