Nusrat Ghani: “I was expected to marry young and live in social housing. I never expected to be a Member of Parliament"
Growing up in a working-class Muslim neighbourhood in Birmingham, Nusrat Ghani says she never expected to enter the House of Commons. Now a government minister in the Department for Transport, she is taking everything one step at a time. She talks to Matt Foster about her journey
“There’s nothing that beats it – nothing,” Nusrat Ghani beams. The Conservative MP for Wealden has been a transport minister for six months, but she’s recalling how it felt to make history on day one.
In January this year, she stepped up to the despatch box as Britain’s first female Muslim minister to speak for the Government in the Commons. “I hadn’t realised how much interest it would cause,” Ghani says of her groundbreaking debut. “The Twitter storm and the international press coverage. And the number of phone calls to my parents from relatives they hadn’t heard from for decades! We have friends and family that live all over the world, and they kept sending cuttings from all over the place.”
Ghani has had plenty to sink her teeth into since taking on the Transport job, with her brief covering everything from big infrastructure projects like high speed rail to oversight of Britain’s ports – and, lately, a drive to get more young people excited about engineering.
A determination to challenge expectations is a running theme in our forty minutes with the transport minister, who is currently looking to do just that with a cross-government push to tackle a 20,000-strong shortfall in engineering recruits. It’s a gap she says is partly caused by misunderstanding – and some pretty entrenched views of what certain groups can and cannot do.
“I recently read that only one in three people know what an engineer does,” Ghani says. “We need to open up what an engineering career can mean. If you go into an engineering career you will be involved in doing lots of different things from food science, to design, from building the homes that we live in, to designing the streets that we travel on.”
Her department is currently teaming up with teachers, big firms like Apple and Siemens, and even the Royal Air Force to try and change engineering’s image with a nationwide series of events and an online marketing blitz that brings young engineers to the fore. “What’s always exciting is when you speak to young students and you say, ‘if you go down an engineering route, you could end up doing a job that hasn’t even been created yet. That is enormously exciting.”
The minister is also adamant that the industry – which is 94% white and 91% male – can do much more to improve its patchy record on diversity, warning that by the time many young girls leave primary school they’ve already “made a decision on the kind of jobs they don’t want to do – and we don’t want them thinking this isn’t a job that they cannot do.” Ghani says girls shouldn’t be afraid to start thinking about a career in engineering, arguing that the industry’s current shortfall means they’ll quickly be snapped up by employers keen to harness their skills.
“If you become a female engineer, think about what that means,” she says. “It means that you can probably pick and choose the jobs that you want to do. You’re probably going to out-earn your mates already because there’s already an ample number of jobs available to go to. Having a choice in your career is something to think about, and if you study engineering you’ll most definitely have a choice of a job to do.”
The minister is keen to stress that there’s no quick fix to engineering’s recruitment crisis – only a series of nudges that government, working with industry, can try to make.
It’s an approach Ghani reveals she’s been trying out at home, telling her own 12-year-old daughter – who is “mad about cars” and has her eye on a future as racing driver – not to rule out going down the engineering route. “Keeping that fire in her belly going, so when she has to make these serious decisions she still thinks about it as an option going forwards – that’s all it is.”
Ghani’s enthusiasm also spills over into her backing for Brexit – despite the many challenges that it will bring to areas on her ministerial beat. Most ministers’ red boxes these days include a hefty wodge of Brexit-related papers and, with Ghani also serving as minister for the UK’s ports, she’s certainly no exception.
As MP for a Sussex constituency that voted heavily in favour of leaving the EU, she previously made headlines for accusing the ex-head of MI6 Sir John Sawyer of peddling only “gloom and doom” on the UK’s impending exit.
But it’s clear to see why some in the maritime industry are not exactly thrilled with the prospect of leaving the EU. Speaking earlier this year, Guy Platten of the UK Chamber of Shipping warned of the “nightmare scenario” of physical customs borders at Britain’s ports, and said that a hard Brexit would be “absolutely a catastrophe for the ports and for our sector”. The industry chief pointed out that Dover alone handles 8,000 trucks a day from the EU – compared to just 500 from non-EU countries – and said any new customs barriers would mean “lorries stacked up… sailings cancelled ... the whole supply chain is completely affected”.
Ministers are, readers may have noticed, still firmly deadlocked on the kind of customs systems they want in place when the UK goes it alone – so what’s Ghani doing to give the industry the certainty it needs to plan for Britain’s post-Brexit future?
The Wealden MP says the government is determined to keep things as “frictionless as possible” at the border – and she says the UK ports’ reputation for having a “very smooth” process and making smart use of technology stands them in good stead.
“The efficiency that they have is second to none,” she says. “I was recently in Hong Kong and China and in Greece for International Shipping Week and the efficiency of our ports and the expertise that we have is what makes it so attractive to come and do business here. We just need to make sure that we continue doing that.”
Ghani says she will “continue to work with the sector” as the government fleshes out its post-Brexit customs plan, with an inter-ministerial group she chairs acting as the voice of shipping and ports across Whitehall.
But the Transport minister is clearly confident there’s a bright future ahead, stressing that Europe is not the be all and end all for a “great maritime nation” that made its name long before the EU existed. “I’ve never believed that all the opportunities and expertise lies within the borders of Europe,” she says.
“There are opportunities beyond that. You’re talking to someone that was born in an Asian country – there are a lot of countries out there for us to explore and partner with.”
It’s not been a straightforward path into politics for Ghani, who says she had to fight some scepticism to become the first member of her family to be formally educated.
State-educated at a local comp, she went on to study politics at Birmingham’s City University, before getting a Masters’ in international relations at Leeds. After a brief stint in banking, which she decided wasn’t for her, Ghani worked for charities Age UK and Breakthrough Breast Cancer, as well for the BBC World Service. In 2010 she made her national political debut, suffering a setback by losing out to Labour’s Shabana Mahmood (herself Britain’s first female Muslim MP). Ghani dusted herself off and in 2013 was selected in an open primary as the Tories’ next candidate for the safe seat of Wealden. She stormed to victory in 2015, and quickly made a name for herself on the Home Affairs Committee. Last year’s snap general election saw her increase her majority to more than 23,000, with Ghani returning to Parliament for a second stint – and a swearing in ceremony with a bit of a difference.
“In 2015 I took my oath for the first time,” she recalls. “I hadn’t heard my voice in the Chamber and I was so nervous. I just went along, I did what I had to do. But my mum is illiterate – and she doesn’t understand English. So, my mum had to wait for my father to translate – she had to wait for a man to translate to her what her daughter was saying.”
This time, Ghani says, she wanted to reflect the support she’d been given by her mother, who left Kashmir to “come to a country that was alien to her – all because she was determined to give us the opportunities that were denied to her”. Ghani asked the Speaker John Bercow if she could be sworn in in her mother’s native tongue of Urdu – “the language that my mother, and women like my mother, will understand”.
“I didn’t want them to wait for a man to translate for them. I did my oath in Urdu mostly for my mum. And for her that was everything, for women like my mother who’ve had very limited opportunities in life to realise that, in one generation, if we enable our daughters to be educated and enable them to have choices in life – you can change it in one generation.”
Ghani is immensely proud of her heritage, and is keen to encourage others who share her background to step forward and get involved in politics. She thinks the country has taken a big leap forward with the “exciting” rise of Sajid Javid, who became the first person from a Muslim background to occupy one of Britain’s great offices of state when he was made Home Secretary earlier this year.
“When I was growing up I would never, never have believed you if you’d told me that we would have a Muslim Home Secretary,” she says. “I grew up in quite a working-class community in Birmingham – a mixture of people lived there – and you would never have relied or called on the police. This was the 70s and the 80s, you just would never have. Now to think that someone like Sajid is responsible for our safety and security and policing. It’s why we have to reflect on how fantastic our country is.”
She also says she is “immensely proud” of having blazed her own particular trail. But she’s clear that her appointment is not just some PR-friendly exercise designed to garner good headlines. Ghani instead sees it as a real vote of confidence from the government, and hopes it will help kick down doors for people from a similar background.
“What I’m most proud of is that as a Conservative MP I’ve been given the opportunity to look after a portfolio that enables me to make decisions on infrastructure, on trade, and on investment into our country over the long-term. Sometimes people play identity politics and you think you’ll end up with a portfolio that they think that only you can do because of your heritage and background – but I’ve been given a mainstream portfolio as a mainstream politician.”
In recent weeks, however, Ghani’s own party has faced a string of accusations that it has failed to seriously challenge anti-Muslim sentiment in its own ranks. After the Muslim Council of Britain urged an inquiry into Islamophobia, former Tory chair Baroness Warsi said such abuse was “very widespread” in the party, warning: “It exists right from the grassroots, all the way up to the top.”
But that’s not a picture Ghani says she recognises. More stifling for her, she says, has been the expectation from politicians on the left that people who share her background will always vote Labour and rely on state help. “I find that incredibly debilitating for people who want to be what they want to aspire to achieve.”
She points out that her own seat is “the least diverse constituency” to have a black or minority ethnic MP, yet still backed her in the Tory primary and voted her in twice. Ghani says she has faced “occasional nonsense from the far right, and the far left, and Islamist extremists” – but she quickly turns the tables on Jeremy Corbyn’s party, which has faced its own struggle to root out anti-Jewish abuse.
“You always come across people that have some stupid ideas and say stupid things,” she says. “It in no way compares to how anti-Semitism has been institutionalised within the Labour Party… I think if anyone feels that they’ve been treated differently because of their heritage or their faith or their gender then they should report it. I’m sure the chairman, Brandon Lewis, will take every one of those incidences seriously if they exist.
“But I was on the Home Affairs Select Committee and I was one of the MPs that called for an investigation into anti-Semitism across politics. I did not expect to take evidence the way that we did – how it was rooted within the Labour Party – at all. And when it becomes institutionalised that’s when this kind of hate becomes a problem.”
Ghani repeats her call for any member of her party with concerns about Islamophobia to “most definitely go forward and report it”, but she’s not among those calling for a full-blown inquiry into the allegations raised by the MCB and others.
“That’s for the party to decide if that’s what they want to do,” she says. “But you know – it’s not the experiences that I have. I mentor dozens of candidates, whether they’re council or parliamentarian. I’m always keen to try and get people involved in politics – and for me it’s not about their faith or their heritage. For me, we just need to get more working-class people into politics. For me that’s the thing I think we need to deal with more than anything.”
When she’s not banging the drum for young people in engineering, urging the shipping industry to cut its carbon emissions, getting stuck into the finer details of HS2, or taking potshots at the opposition, Ghani says she likes nothing better than to unwind by helping her daughter sharpen her cricket skills.
“I spend a lot of my time bowling at her at the moment,” she says. Home life for the Ghanis is, she says, “very outdoorsy”, with regular barbeques thrown in for good measure. She’s also the “MP for Winnie the Pooh”, she jokes, with Hartfield in her constituency playing host to the fictional Hundred Acre Wood from the A. A. Milne classics.
If she could give one bit of advice to her younger self, Ghani says she would insist on having “as much fun as possible – because it gets very serious when you become a Member of Parliament”. Yet despite the serious business of government, which often gives rise to ruthless schemers, Ghani insists she doesn’t try to map out the future – instead trying to make the most of life’s opportunities when they come along.
“Look, I never expected to be a Member of Parliament,” she says. “I wasn’t raised in a home where politics was ever discussed. I wasn’t raised on the knees of politically active parents. I was expected to be married quite young and live in social housing. That was what was expected.
“So I don’t have a five year plan. I love being a Member of Parliament and I’m loving the opportunity of being a minister – and I’ll just see where it goes from here.”
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