The ‘Hindu Atheist’ Who Cracked the Glass Ceiling in UK Politics

Shreela Flather was unquestionably a pioneer, with the strength of character to succeed in areas which were not then welcoming to Asians, and certainly not to Asian women.

The prime ministers of Britain and of Ireland both visited Belfast in British-ruled Northern Ireland the other day. One of them, Rishi Sunak, is of Punjabi descent; the other, Leo Varadkar, has family roots in Mumbai where he spent part of his childhood.

The occasion was the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland after a couple of years of political stalemate. A big event – but I want to dwell on the subject that wasn’t touched on in the news coverage. No one commented on these two prime ministers both being of Indian heritage. It is, quite literally, unremarkable.

When the children and grandchildren of immigrants are now so prominent in British (and Irish) public life, it is easy to forget just how unrelentingly white the political landscape was just a generation ago.

Back in the late 1980s, I landed what I regarded then as my dream job. I became a BBC political correspondent. In the House of Commons, there were just four Black and Asian Members of Parliament. And all four were still then newcomers to Westminster. There had been Indian MPs in earlier years – men such as Dadabhai Naoroji and Shapurji Saklatvala – but for decades until the 1987 election, the Commons had been entirely white.

I was still reporting on Westminster when Shreela Flather – who died last week just short of her 90th birthday – was nominated to the unelected upper chamber of Parliament, the House of Lords. That was in 1990. She was the first Asian woman to take a seat in the Lords. She had earlier been Britain’s first Asian woman magistrate and the first Asian woman to be a local mayor.

With her elevation to the Lords, the number of ethnic minority peers doubled. The other minority peer back then was Lord Pitt, a doctor and Labour politician who was born in Grenada in the Caribbean.

Baroness Flather, a Conservative, was at that time her party’s only non-white parliamentarian in either the Commons or the Lords. She made herself noticed, not least by wearing a sari in the ever-so-formal setting of the House of Lords chamber. She was not a political heavyweight; she was never a government minister. But she was friendly, accessible – and determined to make her mark.

And she succeeded. Not many parliamentarians can point to something that is their particular achievement. But her energetic advocacy of and fund-raising for a memorial to the five-million soldiers, sailors and airmen from the Indian subcontinent, Africa and the Caribbean who served in two world wars was crowned with success.

The Memorial Gates close to Buckingham Palace were inaugurated by Queen Elizabeth in 2002. A commemorative event is held there every March on Commonwealth Day.

Although brought up a Hindu, Shreela Flather regarded herself as an atheist (or sometimes as a Hindu atheist, which of course is not quite such a contradiction as it would be for other global religions). She supported groups such as the National Secular Society and Humanists UK which campaign against the influence of organised religion in public life. She also was for many years the chair of Marie Stopes International, which provides sexual and reproductive health information. This is not the normal range of causes for a Conservative peer.

She also had a compelling back story. Baroness Flather was born Shreela Rai into a prosperous Hindu family in Lahore. Sir Ganga Ram, the celebrated Punjabi civil engineer and philanthropist, was her great-grandfather. At Partition, the family fled to Delhi. A year later, Shreela’s father was appointed India’s ambassador to Brazil. She came to London to study law in 1952. Her first husband had been a captain in the British army. That marriage ended in divorce. Her second husband, a British barrister, died seven years ago.

Shreela Flather took up issues of importance to British Asians – for example, seeking to change rules on school uniform which discriminated against Asian pupils. She was a member of the Race Relations Board and later the Commission for Racial Equality. She described the police as ‘institutionally racist’ before the full weight of police prejudice against people of colour was widely understood. And she had to face racism within her own party. It’s said that when she first spoke at a Conservative Party conference, she was spat at.

Some of Flather’s views, however, were themselves denounced as racist. She called for DNA tests to combat the practice among some Muslim communities of first cousins marrying. She proposed a ban on halal meat. And she commented that some immigrant groups, particularly those from Pakistan and Bangladesh, deliberately had lots of children so they could claim more in welfare benefits. Indian families, on the other hand – she said –  ‘are like the Jews of old. They want their children to be educated.’

While she had a reputation for ‘saying the unsayable’, she conceded that she had on occasions ‘gone too far’. And she certainly caused offence to British Muslims.

Baroness Flather left the Conservative Party in 2008, continuing to sit in the House of Lords without a party affiliation. She was unquestionably a pioneer, with the strength of character to succeed in areas which were not then welcoming to Asians, and certainly not to Asian women.

She managed to crack the glass ceiling that hitherto had constrained the rise in politics of British Asians, however talented. There are now 66 MPs and 55 members of the House of Lords who are from an ethnic minority. Rishi Sunak and others have smashed that glass ceiling into tiny pieces. But in doing so they were standing on the shoulders, metaphorically at least, of the diminutive Shreela Flather.

Andrew Whitehead is an honorary professor at the University of Nottingham in the UK and a former BBC India correspondent.

London Calling: How does India look from afar? Looming world power or dysfunctional democracy? And what’s happening in Britain, and the West, that India needs to know about and perhaps learn from? This fortnightly column helps forge the connections so essential in our globalising world.