“Margaret Thatcher helped Asian community in England to succeed and prosper” – Lord Karan Bilimoria

Lord Karan Bilimoria is unapologetic in his unabashed admiration for the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who had passed away on April 8 at age 87. In an email interview with me, one of the youngest Lords in England, Bilimoria describes her as “The Entrepreneurs’ Prime Minister”. “By creating the environment that she did, Margaret Thatcher enabled the Asian community in England to succeed, prosper, and excel,” he strongly believes. 

When Karan Bilimoria Esq became Lord Bilimoria in 2006 at age 44, he was almost like a “Baby” in the House of Lords where the average age is 69.  Karan is really proud of having become a Lord without any political support or a godfather. In the seven years, he has been a Lord, Karan has presented on many occasions his views candidly, and from a different perspective. Three years ago, he had given a speech on enterprise and Britain’s economy and the then looming general elections. He was speaking from the front bench of the Crossbenchers, and sitting across from him was Lady Thatcher, the longest serving British Prime Minister in the post-World War II era. He saw her nodding her head, as if, in agreement. 

The year 1989 became a turning point in his life when the COBRA Beer was born. With only “guts and wits” as his capital, the young Karan had plunged headlong into this daunting venture. When once he found himself with a large consignment to dispose off,he put the entire lot in an old Citron jalopy, and visited one Indian restaurant after another and gave two free sample bottles to every restaurant. He thus successfully sold the entire lot of beer. The rest is history. 

 By Raj Kanwar

Here are some excerpts from the interview. 

What was England like when you first arrived there in 1981?

“I was only a nineteen year old student when I landed in Britain. She had then loomed as a towering figure with immense influence. Many of my colleagues at the House of Lords have paid ‘simply marvellous’ tributes to her that is ‘absolute treasures’. My tribute however is from a different perspective since Margaret Thatcher was somebody who has influenced my life from the day one of my arrival here.

Lord Karan Bilimoria

Lord Karan Bilimoria

I remember the Britain I came to, which was at that time the sick man of Europe, a country with no respect in the world economy. It was a country that had lost its empire just over three decades before, a country going down the tubes, with no prospects and no promise. It was a country where, when I first arrived, I was told by my family and friends that I would never get to the top, as I would never be allowed to get to the top as a foreigner, as there would be a glass ceiling. And they were absolutely right at that time. The Britain I came to in 1981 was a country where entrepreneurship was looked down upon, with images of Del Boy and second hand car salesman defining the word.

And how was Thatcher able to transform the Britain of 1981 into a thriving economy and an Entrepreneurs’ paradise? 

“I saw, before my own eyes, as a student in London and at Cambridge, this country being transformed, this country being opened up and the glass ceiling being shattered. Margaret Thatcher herself led the way by achieving all the things she did as a woman, in smashing through the glass ceiling. Britain opened up not only to the world, with London opening up as a global financial centre, but did so with the spirit of enterprise and entrepreneurship being unleashed in the country. It became a country where an attitude of aspiration, an attitude of competitiveness, an attitude of people from anywhere being able to get anywhere, was created. And I knew, even as a student, that there was only one person who initiated this, who unleashed this, and who drove this forward – that person was Margaret Thatcher – the Entrepreneur’s Prime Minister.”

How did all that specifically help the Asian community prosper? 

“By creating the environment that she did, Margaret Thatcher enabled the Asian community in this country, an immigrant community, to succeed, prosper, and excel. A community that had come, like the Ugandan Asians thrown out by a brutal dictator in the late 1970s, with nothing but who during Margaret Thatcher’s Prime Ministership were able to prosper and succeed, because of the enterprise environment and the aspiration environment she initiated and championed. And what is more, I always say that Asian values are summarised through hard work, the importance of family, and education. Margaret Thatcher embodied those values herself. We have heard from so many who knew her so well, and who worked with her, about how hard she worked, and of the legendary four-hour sleep every night. We know the importance she gave to education, being a highly educated person herself.”

In what way her family values were similar to those of the Asians? 

“I had had the privilege of knowing her husband Denis and learning from him in great detail about his relationship with his wife, and the wonderful manner and dignity with which he conducted himself as the husband of the Prime Minister, never publicly interfering but always standing as a rock of support next to her and supporting her from behind the scenes. Similarly we have also heard of her complete love and devotion to her husband who she doted on, and loved and respected so much. And we have seen the loyalty to her given by so many individuals, personified by Mark Worthington, her private secretary, who served her with absolute devotion and selflessness, especially during her illness in the last few years. Also, of course, her colleagues like Lord Michael Forsyth, who looked after her so well, as I have seen personally.”

Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher

How well did you know Margaret Thatcher and what was your personal equation with her?

I was privileged to get to know her over the past decade or so, through the Royal Hospital Chelsea, where I was a Commissioner for six years and where she was a regular visitor. I also knew her when I was President of the Memorial Gates Committee on Constitution Hill, where she attended our annual ceremony. And of course I knew her in Parliament. I remember on one occasion speaking in a debate on enterprise and the economy,  I was speaking from the front bench of the Crossbenchers, and she was sitting two feet across the aisle next to me, on the Opposition front benches. Throughout my speech I could see from the corner of my eye, she was nodding consistently in approval. Not only did this fill me with pride and mean a huge amount to me, I knew what I was saying must have been on the right track!

The Margaret Thatcher who I was fortunate to get to know was an always charming, always polite, and always beautifully turned out lady. It was genuinely a privilege to have known her. 

How did the new attitudes of aspiration and competitiveness help you in the COBRA venture?

I came up with the idea for my business while I was a student in the Thatcher era. I started my business, Cobra Beer, when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister. There is no way I could have done what I did without everything that she did to enable it to happen. I am a child of Thatcher. The flourishing entrepreneurial community in Britain today are children of Thatcher. The success of the Asian community in Britain today, which makes up about 4% of the population but contributes more than double that to the economy, could not have been accomplished without Thatcher. Margaret Thatcher, Baroness Thatcher, Lady Thatcher, when Britain was down on its knees, saw the ‘Great’ in Britain and she put the ‘Great’ back into Great Britain.

Lord Bilimoria is the chairman, Cobra Beer Partnership.

 Ranj kanvar3Raj Kanwar is a Dehra Dun based freelance journalist and writes columns on current affairs for local and national newspapers. He is also the author of the official history of ONGC, which is one of the top three companies in India in terms of market capitalization. Kanwar is also associated with World Oil as its Contributing Editor for South Asia.