Rob Edwards caught up with the up-and-coming Tory MP about social mobility, coalition politics and UKIP
Few politicians embody the social narrative of their party as surely as Adam Afriyie. In a relentless rise from Peckham council estate to Westminster village, the Windsor MP has emerged as the essence of social mobility, aspirational Conservativism and true-blue grit.
Elected in 2005, Afriyie has recently bolted out of obscurity – his backbench interventions often provocative, seemingly ambiguous in motive and occasionally at odds with the Tory upper crust.
He is certainly suave. Although he’s spent hours in traffic and forgone his lunch, he arrives at Windsor’s Crown Hotel as though from a trouser press – pristinely dressed and poised to spar – and greets me with the kind of handshake that sealed a business fortune rumoured to be around £100m.
“Windsor is a fantastic constituency,” he chirps in a polished accent that is softer than I’d expected, and with the cautious enunciation of a statesman. “It’s affluent, house prices are high, unemployment is low and people are desperate to move here.”
A world away, in fact, from Adam’s old South London beat, where jobless benefit claimants for Camberwell and Peckham last April numbered 5,306, as against Windsor’s 1,004.
“Some places in Britain are incredibly expensive to live in, and they’re very popular,” he says. “These are places to which you aspire if you’ve had opportunity in life and done well. This is one of them. You aspire to live here.”
Aspiration: I wonder whether he has the word tattooed somewhere. It is shorthand for his whole political outlook – the home-owning, entrepreneurial, rugged individualism of a generation that came of age in Maggie Thatcher’s Britain.
Yet things could have been different. Raised on an urban council estate in a large, single-parent, mixed-race family, Afriyie might so easily have been pulled leftwards into the Labour fold. So why the blue rosette?
“When I look at people, no matter what their skin colour, background, heritage, sexual orientation – when I look at modern Britain – all I see are people. And people have aspirations.
“Far more unites British citizens than divides us. One of the biggest dangers in life is to start segmenting people into groups and saying that these people over here need special help; that some are hapless or helpless. I’m afraid that I completely reject that. It was the mood of Labour in the 1980s and it still seems to be. It’s dehumanising.”
Eschewing socialist solutions, the young Afriyie sought instead to carve out his own destiny, embracing a philosophy that could otherwise have consigned him to Maggie’s dole queues.
“I’m not saying that people don’t need support,” he insists, when I suggest the need for a social safety net. “But what they really need is opportunity. I’m a great believer in social mobility. I want to see a Britain in which, no matter your background, where you’re born, or who your parents are, nothing can stop you working hard and breaking through.”
His own experience, he believes, is a case in point.
“I had to pull myself up by my bootstraps. Growing up in Peckham, I had to ask myself: ‘Am I a victim here? Or am I going to sit down and work hard?’ And I made it into an ex-grammar school, and then into university and business.”
Aided by good fortune, Adam made his millions in the burgeoning IT industry. What gave him the impetus?
“I think it was partly desperation; the need to escape my circumstances. And a lot of it was driven by a sense that I had to become financially secure, so I could take care of my family, my future wife.
“Aside from education, I think that business, entrepreneurship, is really the main engine of social mobility. It has to be at the heart of the Conservative narrative.
“I also think that it’s immoral to lead people into a lifestyle in which it pays better not to work than to have a job, to go out and contribute, to be a part of society. That’s what brings meaning to life.”
Afriyie may well spurn the barriers of class. But what about race? Born to an English mother and Ghanaian father, he is the first black Conservative MP in the party’s history. Yet Adam, it transpires, is colour-blind.
“When we talk about people, we’re not just talking about the colour of their eyes, or their hair, or just their academic qualifications: it’s the totality of a person. To have been elected as the first black Conservative MP, well, it was quite a surprise. And if people are encouraged by it, then I’m happy with that. Really happy. But what unites people is more than a single attribute.
“For modern Britain, the focus of any government, and any politician, should be on lifting all the boats – not just those of a specific social group.”
Racial inequality, however, remains a stubborn problem in Britain, where black children are three times more likely to be permanently excluded from school, face 24 per cent lower pay after graduation and are five times more likely to be imprisoned. In the main, the black and Asian vote gravitates towards Labour’s urban strongholds. Can the Tories disrupt this demographic trend?
“It’s a huge challenge,” admits Adam. “If you look at most newly arrived immigrants in Britain – I’m talking about British citizens, not illegal immigrants – they have an enormous work ethic. They have a huge belief in education; they are very highly represented in small and medium-sized businesses. They’re deeply conservative, with a strong belief in the family.
“The challenge for us is that they don’t associate all that with their image of the Westminster establishment Conservative Party. And that needs to change.”
With the general election only a year away, party activists will soon be out imploring voters to hand David Cameron the majority that eluded him in 2010. Should this fail, could Afriyie stomach another coalition with his key local rivals, the Liberal Democrats?
“Do I want another coalition? Absolutely not,” he says emphatically. “Coalition is failure. We’ve got to fight tooth and nail for a Conservative majority to get the country back on track.
“In terms of the performance of the current coalition: despite the Lib Dems, we’ve achieved about 75 per cent of what we wanted – pretty impressive when your partners aren’t wholly supportive.
“I’m really disappointed with Vince Cable and many others on the Lib Dem side. When it comes to Lib Dem voters, obviously a lot of them are disappointed too, and I can understand why.”
Afriyie’s own profile in Westminster shot up last spring, after the Mail on Sundayclaimed to have unveiled a plot to install him as the next party leader. Whether or not Cameron had genuine cause to beware the Ides of March – or, in this case, January – Adam’s loyalty became a matter of doubt.
“I am a Conservative loyalist to my bones – to my core,” insists the man himself. “Part of it was just media representation. Don’t always believe what you read in the papers,” he grimaces. “I think it was a pretty quiet news week.”
And Afriyie caused another stir within Tory ranks by tabling a motion to bring forward Cameron’s pledged 2017 referendum on EU membership to this side of the general election. Despite exhaustive lobbying of MPs, Adam could only secure 16 votes in his favour.
“The overwhelming majority of people want to have their say,” says the ardent Eurosceptic. “The fact that, out of 650 MPs, not a single one would put forward a proposal for a referendum within this parliament demonstrates the disconnect between the Westminster elite – the political bubble – and the population. For me, it was a matter of conscience.
“The EU is an antique – like the old Soviet power bloc. It is not necessary in a modern, fluid world where things can be traded easily and swiftly. It’s an archaic remnant and, unless it updates itself, we certainly shouldn’t be a member of it.”
And what of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), expected to make big gains at the European elections on May 22?
“I’m kind of in tune with a lot of these people,” says Adam of those inclined to vote purple. “Many people who choose to vote UKIP are actually part of the Conservative family, and the sooner we can welcome them back, the better.
“I respect the electorate. Whatever they tell us – if they vote in droves for one party or another – we should listen. Why? Because this is a democracy. If the people feel something strongly, we need to soak that up and act accordingly.”
Over to you, Windsor. After all, they work for you.