In May 2010, Nadhim Zahawi became the first Kurd to be elected as Minister of Parliament (MP) in the UK. Zahawi secured the historic constituency of Stratford-on-Avon in the iconic and oldest parliament in the world. Zahawi talked to the Globe’s Bashdar Ismaeel on a number of important topics, including making history, his roles as MP and co-chairman of the All Party Group for Kurdistan and his hard-work and determination in getting the Kurdish genocide recognised in UK parliament.
As the symbolic first Kurdish MP elected to UK parliament, what is the significance to you and also the Kurdish nation as a whole in receiving such an honour?
It is a real privilege to be a Member of Parliament (MP), in what is the mother of all parliaments coming up to its 750th birthday, and of course to represent a constituency like Stratford-On-Avon, with its immense history and previous office holders that have included John Profumo, Angus Maude, to the enlarged constituency which was Antony Eden’s of course. It is an incredible place and to have elected Nadhim Zahawi as their representative is a great privilege and a great honour.
I think it is important that all ethnic groups, especially for Kurds, who decide to make their home anywhere in Europe, whether in the UK, Sweden, Germany or elsewhere, to engage in the political process, the civic process, to be become councillors, governors of schools and MPs, to get involved in their local charities and local communities. Because at the end of the day, if you are able to contribute to the society that you live in, then you can also hopefully help those back home.
Never forgot your heritage and your ancestry and that combination are incredibly powerful, and many other ethnic groups have done incredibly well around the world and have been able to help their people in their countries of origin.
Of course, your first priority will naturally be serving the people of Stratford-on-Avon, who have chosen you as their MP, but as a Kurd, how are you working to raise the Kurdish cause and improve UK ties with Kurdistan?
I think you’re absolutely right. My first, second and third priority is to serve the people of Stratford-on-Avon. They put me here to be their champion, to be able to represent them at every level in Westminster. But you are also right in that I think it is important as I mentioned earlier that everyone remembers their history, heritage and background, and I believe it is a duty upon all Kurds, who have become US citizens, Swedish, German or British, to do their bit for the Kurdish cause. I think I have contributed in the past two and a half years, the first thing I did when I came here is to join the All Party Group for Kurdistan and I am now co-chairman of that group. We then decided to spend a lot of time, resource and effort into looking at the genocide that occurred in Iraq and on the Kurdish people. We have a genocide committee, which I asked one of my colleagues here, an excellent campaigner MP, Robert Halfon, to chair and which is making real progress now.
We had a petition that has now received almost 30,000 signatures, we would like to see it get to 100,000 and I would ask every Kurd, whether in Kurdistan or the UK, to ask their friends and family to sign the petition. It is very important that the British parliament recognises the genocide of Kurdistan, coming up to 25th anniversary of Anfal and of course Halabja. So this is an important year and it is important that we play our part to ensure that the world knows and never forgets.
UK-Kurdistan ties were solidified in 1991, and have generally remained strong up to today, could the UK do more in Kurdistan? Is the UK government doing enough to support Kurdistan economically, politically and to promote business?
Whenever we talk about relations between Kurdistan and the UK, we have to recognise the contribution that John Major made in protecting the Kurdish people in 1991 with the no-fly zones. The current Prime Minister in the chamber and the Foreign Secretary in the chamber, William Hague, referred to that protection of the Kurds because the Iraqi Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, at a meeting of foreign ministers during the Libya crisis, when Britain stepped in to do the same thing, to protect the Libyan people, was present and reminded the room that he would not be in that room if it hadn’t been for John Major protecting the Kurdish people. So one must always remember that.
I think business wise we can always do more. I would like to see direct flights from the UK to Erbil, Sulaimaniya and hopefully Duhok and other cities in Iraq as they develop their aviation infrastructure. I would like to see more UK businesses been involved in the oil and gas industry, which is becoming an incredibly important industry in Kurdistan. In fact, Kurdistan is now referred to as the exploration capital of the world, thanks to the hard work of Dr. Ashti Hawrami, who has been an extraordinary Minister of Natural Resources, and a real visionary for the country. But as he would say, if he were here, we need to see more service companies coming in because it is not just the upstream that you need, the Exxon’s, Chevron’s and Total’s and the Talisman’s of this world. But you also need the service sector, because the service sector at the end of the day are the ones that do the hard work to ensure that the oil and gas is extracted and delivered internationally and to the domestic market.
In other areas, we are very strong in the UK in accountancy, in the legal system and in various other industries. 2012 saw the UK become a net exporter of cars. Certainly in my constituency of Stratford-on-Avon, I have got Jaguar, Land Rover and Aston Martin, head-quartered on the borders of my constituency. So the automotive industry needs to be reflected in a bigger way, although I know that Jaguar and Land Rover are doing great business in Kurdistan and can only do more.
All these sectors need to be enhanced and the UKTI is working very hard with the KRG representative office in UK, who do a great job I have to say. The representative office in London is best of breed, in organising conferences and match making between business and needs in Kurdistan. There was a fantastic water and agri conference here with the minister coming over, with 18 projects that were very clearly outlined with clear targets, with British businesses to look at and hopefully bid for.
In terms of electricity, Kurdistan benefits from almost 24-hours of electricity provision, but the consumption has increased exponentially with more industry coming in and the rise in consumer consumption. We can do more with our British companies. In the gas industry, British Gas and others should get involved in our incredible gas finds in Kurdistan.
So in all these areas, I try and work very hard, both in my role as the co-chairman of the All Party Group but also I sit on the Business Innovation Skill Select Committee, that is a business department that I scrutinise and I always make sure that they are playing their role in delivering that relationship between the UK and Kurdistan.
The great persecution and terror of the Baathist regime is one of the reasons why you and many other Kurds fled to sanctuary of the UK, in the ethno-sectarian turbulence of Iraq and the monopolisation of power in Baghdad is the UK ready to protect Kurdistan and Kurdish people against any new tyranny?
In the post Saddam Hussein Iraq, the political groups in Iraq came together and drafted a constitution, which the Iraqi people ratified through a referendum. It is very important that the whole of Iraq and all its political components respect that constitution and that constitutional arrangement. That arrangement recognises very clearly the rights of the Kurdish people, the autonomous right of the Kurds, their parliament and the ability to design the way they want to be governed is all there. There are issues, of course, around Kirkuk, the hydrocarbons law and a number of other issues which do need addressing.
I think it is important that Iraq continues on the journey of democratisation. And democracy by the way, isn’t just about a cross in the ballot box on a piece of paper, democracy is about establishing and strengthening institutions that protect the rights of all citizens of a country, especially minorities. Civilised societies are judged by how they deal with their minorities and how they protect those minorities, as opposed the mere wishes of the majority. I think it is very important that all Iraqi politicians remember that and it is very important that those institutions are enhanced and supported. What I mean by that is rule of law and an independent judiciary that in no way is influenced by politicians and politics. Like in the UK, nobody in their right mind would dream that a judge in any way would make a decision based on who is in government and wanting to please that party in government.
This needs to be the same in Iraq for people to trust the judiciary; they have to feel that the judiciary is truly independent. An independent and robust media that is also responsible needs to be established, and protected from the state and other areas of government. The sooner that Iraq and its political groups continue that journey, the better it is for the whole of Iraq.
Kosovo, South Sudan are just recent examples of new states assuming their right to self-determination and been support by the likes of the UK and the international community while Kurdistan has been cruelly denied, as we say in English is “what’s good for the gander, good for the geese”?
I think the right to self-determination is a basic human right. You look at what we are doing here in our own union, where the Scottish people and the ruling power of Scotland, the Scottish Nationalist Party, have campaigned on a platform of independence as far as they are concerned and wanted a referendum. Of course, my government here, led by David Cameron, recognised that and have granted a referendum. Actually, I think that you will find the majority of the Scottish people will choose to remain within the union because they see the strength of the union and the union as something incredibly valuable. But they have that right and to deny that right to any human been would be wrong.
In saying that, I also think that as far as the UK is concerned, in its focus on developing Kurdistan, in making sure that people have good jobs to go to, children have great schools to go to, when people are ill they have fantastic health service that looks after them, the elderly and frail are well looked after, there is economic dynamism, the economy is growing. If you look at nations around the world, none was more battered and bruised than the German people or the Japanese people after the Second World War, and the way they picked themselves up was through economic development and growth. The way they become world beaters is through the understanding that if you are economically powerful, then you have a seat at the table, you matter in the world.
I wouldn’t be arrogant enough to advise the political leadership in Kurdistan, other than to say you are doing the right thing in focusing on economic development and making sure that is in place because that is the building block for you to then able to begin to consider issues like self-determination and what the Kurdish people ultimately dream of.
Approaching 3 years since been elected Stratford-on-Avon, how do you look back on your time and achievements to date?
Stratford-on-Avon is a wonderful constituency. It has 79 villages and hamlets, wonderful market towns, and of course the great town of Stratford-upon-Avon where that extraordinary poet and author, William Shakespeare was born and where his resting place lies.
I have had almost 3 years here, your quite right. I have focused on my select committee work, the Business Innovation Skill Select Committee, because my background as a businessman before entering this place was running a public company here in the UK. Understanding the innovation space helped me to be elected to that select committee. By the way, for the first time in the history of our parliament, the select committee was elected as opposed to appointed, which gave a stronger mandate because if they were appointed then seniority may have played a bigger role, therefore, many of the new intake would not have got onto the select committee. Select committees are very important in our parliamentary system. So that for me has been a major achievement.
I organised and led a rebellion against my own government, which one must not do too often if one wants to progress in government, but I felt that the House of Lords reform bill was not one that I could support. Abolishing the House of Lords and replacing it with an elected Senate, I don’t think would have produced a better and healthier democracy. You only have to ask the Americans what they think of their Senate and Congress and the deadlock that they get in their system isn’t particularly healthy for decision making and democracy. I rebelled on that with the support of my association and my constituents; there were many letters and email supporting my position on that.
Other than that single rebellion, I work to promote and support my government. We are doing some very important work here in reforming the government. Remember in 2010, the UK was borrowing something like a £160 billion pounds a year, that’s the deficit. That’s the difference between what we were getting in terms of tax intake into the exchequer, because of course, the government doesn’t have its own money, and it’s yours and my money that we spend in government. Now, we have reduced that deficit down to £120 billion so or by a quarter. Nevertheless, if you do the arithmetic, we are still borrowing £426 million pounds a day. So every time you got to bed and wake up, we notch up another £426 million in debt. That’s what we inherited, an economic mess from the previous government.
We are trying to sort that out, we are trying to shrink the size of government debt, focus spending on those who need it most, and look at the reforms in welfare, focusing on people who need it most but also making sure that work always pays. You will see the pilot coming in April with Universal Credit that we rolled out nationwide. The reforms in education have been extraordinary, if you look at what we have done with education under Michael Gove, to free up schools so that the headmaster and the governing bodies can make real decisions and the parents know exactly who is in charge, so if there is a failure in the system, they know who to go to and there is an individual that is responsible. It’s the head teacher and the governing board, not some faceless bureaucrat in local government or in Whitehall, allowing them to use those budgets where they need to use them and where they can, if they want to, pay extra bonuses for great teachers to come into the school who have done particularly well.
We started in 2010 with around 200 academies and now we have over 2200, and of course balancing the books, reforming education and welfare are the 3 major policies. I think that in 2015 we will be judged on those. If we have delivered on those 3 things, then our prospects of winning an election outright will be incredibly high.
As an MP, what are the key items on your agenda in the UK political sphere? Finally, what are your personal political aspirations?
Personally, I want to be known as the secretary of state for Stratford-On-Avon, this is my ambition. I said that to my association, when they selected me as their candidate to be their MP. I have a wonderful constituency; I think the best in the England. The heart of England as it’s referred to. I want to be able to serve my constituents and make sure that their voices are heard in Westminster. So that’s my goal.
In terms of my focus, we are half-way through the parliament, so the next half of parliament is all about delivery and all about implementation. So my work in the select committee is making sure for example, the Biz departments, which looks after university tuition fees as well as business so that the UKTI and other bits of business promotion is doing well. In terms of reforms in tuition fees, the evidence at the moment points towards a real success story in terms of the reforms we have put through to ensure that our universities continue to be well beaters.
If you look at our reputation around the world, we are second only to America in terms of our university education. Kurdistan has been one of our major clients, in fact Kurdistan has sent over 1250 students to the UK on scholarships.
Many senior politicians in Kurdistan including Ministry of Foreign Relations, Kak Falah, who was a scholar here, did their education in the UK. Kak Barham was educated here, and Kak Dilawar who was the Minister of Education before was at Nottingham University. Wherever you go in the world, not just in Kurdistan, but as far as Malaysia to Brazil, senior politicians, and senior business people will say I went to a university in your country in England. So it’s a very important export for that country. My focus is the department that I scrutinise; that I hold to account in delivering on those things.
I think if every politician, all the select committee, is focused on those things, so the Treasury Select Committee, the Health Select Committee, education and welfare departments all focused on delivery, we will be in a good position come 2015 to point to the delivery on the ground for people that put us here to serve them.