From humble beginnings as a first-generation immigrant fishmonger, Nazir Ahmed has risen to become one of the most prominent Muslim politicians in the UK. In 1998, he became the first Muslim life peer, and the first Lord ever to take his oath on a copy of the Koran.
As the first Muslim peer, did you feel you had to battle prejudice during your career?
I think in any society there are always prejudices. The great advantage that exists is that when you know you’re a minority you tend to work a little bit harder than everybody to succeed and therefore I was prepared to work hard. Even today my colleagues leave the House of Lords at 7pm, I stay on till 9pm and usually have dinners arranged until 11pm.
What do you think to the calls for the House of Lords to be reformed and elected?
I have no problem with reforming the House of Lords. The House has been under continuous reform since 1911. In 1958 the first life peers were admitted, in 1999 we got rid of hereditary peers and now there is talk of an elected chamber. The problem with an elected chamber is that if both houses are elected, why should the Commons have the power to elect the Prime Minister and not the Lords? Secondly, if MPs are being paid in excess of £160 000 a year then why should peers only accept £300 of pay for each day they attend over a salary? So, if the Lords was elected it would need to be given more power by, for example, having more cabinet ministers from the Lords, which the Commons is not prepared to do, and the peers would have to be paid, which the public are not prepared to do.
Is it still relevant today to have 26 Lords Spiritual?
Whilst I think it’s unfair to have all the Lords Spiritual from the Church of England, really, the way to do it is to make others come by right. For example the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, is in the Lords – he’s not there representing the Jewish community, he’s there by right. I am there by right and as someone who represents the views of the Muslim communities I am sometimes expected to behave like a Grand Mufti!
Where do you see the Lords in 50 years?
I think in even 10 years the House of Lords will be different to today. Eventually I see the House being either entirely or significantly elected, but reduced [in size]. However I don’t see an elected chamber in the style of a senate, as it would be in competition with the Commons. In the United Kingdom we do things in a slow manner, reform started in 1911. It has taken a century to get to where we are. It will reform but it will be slow.
Author: Shoaib Arshid Choudary