The 1970s were a decade of intense social and political change in England. Over the course of the decade, the liberalism that characterized the 1960s experienced in a sharp swing towards conservatism with the 1979 election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister. As Karim comes of age over the course of the novel, he remains interested and involved in the political movements that sprung up in response to the British government's continued failures to serve its people. Karim also makes constant observations about the fear that comes about as a result of alarmingly racist attitudes. Taken together, the strangeness of the political scene and the terrifying racism of the era infuse the novel with a sense of fear and uncertainty, and ultimately suggests that the 1970s as a whole represent a dramatic end of an idyllic era.
Over the course of the seventies, England experienced several economic recessions, growing unemployment rates, and a general distrust in the government's ability to fix the nation's problems. The difficulties reached a peak during the so-called Winter of Discontent of 1978-79, during which many union workers went on strike to protest caps on their pay. Despite this, Karim recognizes in his narration that much of the middle class actually did very well over the course of the decade: Jeeta and Anwar's grocery store is generally successful, and Eva is able to build her home decorating and renovation business. Eva's business endeavors in particular suggest that the middle class has money to throw around, as the kind of renovations she orchestrates are a prime example of conspicuous consumption. However, Karim is also aware that though he's on an upwardly mobile path financially, others aren't. As he and Changez wander through various London neighborhoods, Karim notes that some are exceptionally rough and appear to have high unemployment rates. This suggests that even if the middle class, as represented by Karim, is doing well, not everyone is—which leads Karim to become involved with some of the political movements of the time.
Karim gets a taste of radical politics through Terry, an older Trotskyite. Trotskyism promotes the idea of constant class struggle and revolution, with the end goal of eliminating the class system. Though Karim finds Trotskyism's championing of equality charming, he finds its details ridiculous, as the responsibility to incite the revolution falls to the middle class. In Karim's experience, the middle class doesn't actually hate the upper classes like Terry and Trotskyism insists they should. Instead, they hate the lower classes, a fact that Terry is never able to fully explain. In this way, Karim becomes aware that the more liberal politics of the seventies don't necessarily have the answers to fix the economic difficulties of the lower class.
As the novel progresses, Karim becomes acutely aware of the atmosphere of fear that results from the country’s swing towards conservatism, a swing that Karim connects to racism. He conceptualizes the racism that his Indian family and friends experience as stemming from Britain's division of its colony of British India into the independent countries of Pakistan and India nearly 25 years earlier. This resulted in major religious rifts throughout the region—as young people in India during that time, Dad and Anwar experienced their Hindu neighbors chanting anti-Muslim slogans outside their homes. Karim watches this animosity intensify in the present. He mentions that Jeeta and Anwar keep buckets of water on hand in case of firebombs. Karim's family and friends are particularly scared of threats from the National Front, a neo-Nazi political party that expressed a strong anti-immigrant sentiment. They're presumably responsible for throwing a pig's head through Anwar's shop window, and they attack and seriously injure Changez because they believed him to be Pakistani. Though Changez is a victim of this racialized violence, it doesn't stop him from being racist himself: he's vocal throughout the novel about his hatred of Pakistani people. This suggests that though the most intense racial violence was certainly carried out by white Englishmen, the racism of the era both permeated and targeted every racial group. In turn, this continues to make it exceptionally clear that the English population isn't singular, and coming up with a solution to fix the economic and racial issues isn't going to be easy.
Ultimately, the novel culminates on the eve of Margaret Thatcher's election as Prime Minister. Though Thatcher herself was a product of 1960s liberal movements as Britain’s first female Prime Minister, she also ended a number of social welfare and public programs. She insisted on promoting self-sufficiency and personal responsibility. Most surprisingly, Karim hears Eva espouse these very ideas in an interview with a home furnishings magazine, though Eva credits Dad with introducing her to these ideas. This is especially ironic given that Dad is Indian and therefore very much at risk of violence, racism, and prejudice at the hands of these individualistic policies. In this way, the novel finally suggests that the changing politics of the era aren't something ambiguous and purely theoretical. Rather, the changes of the seventies happen to, around, and because of the people close to Karim.
Social and Political Discontent ThemeTracker
Social and Political Discontent Quotes in The Buddha of Suburbia
If Mum was irritated by Dad's aristocratic uselessness, she was also proud of his family. "They're higher than the Churchills," she said to people...This ensured there would be no confusion between Dad and the swarms of Indian peasants who came to Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, and of whom it was said they were not familiar with cutlery and certainly not with toilets...
"The whites will never promote us," Dad said. "Not an Indian while there is a white man left on the earth. You don't have to deal with them—they still think they have an Empire when they don't have two pennies to rub together."
Yeah, sometimes we were French, Jammie and I, and other times we went black American. The thing was, we were supposed to be English, but to the English we were always wogs and nigs and Pakis and the rest of it.
The lives of Anwar and Jeeta and Jamila were pervaded by fear of violence...Jeeta kept buckets of water around her bed in case the shop was firebombed in the night. Many of Jamila's attitudes were inspired by the possibility that a white group might kill one of us one day.
"What a breed of people two hundred years of imperialism has given birth to. If the pioneers from the East India Company could see you. What puzzlement there'd be. Everyone looks at you, I'm sure, and thinks: an Indian boy, how exotic, how interesting, what stories of aunties and elephants we'll hear now from him. And you're from Orpington."
I wanted to tell him that the proletariat of the suburbs did have strong class feeling. It was virulent and hate-filled and directed entirely at the people beneath them.
With their poking into life's odd corners, Pyke and Marlene seemed to me to be more like intrepid journalists than swimmers in the sensual. Their desire to snuggle up to real life betrayed a basic separation from it. And their obsession with how the world worked just seemed another form of self-obsession.
And we pursued English roses as we pursued England; by possessing these prizes, this kindness and beauty, we stared defiantly into the eye of the Empire and all its self-regard—into the eye of Hairy Back, into the eye of the Great Fucking Dane. We became part of England and yet proudly stood outside it.
"Well then, can't you stop standing there and looking so English?"
"What d'you mean, English?"
"So shocked, so self-righteous and moral, so loveless and incapable of dancing. They are narrow, the English. It is a Kingdom of Prejudice over there. Don't be like it!"
"We have to empower ourselves. Look at those people who live on sordid housing estates. They expect others—the Government—to do everything for them. They are only half human, because only half active. We have to find a way to enable them to grow. Individual human flourishing isn't something that either socialism or conservatism caters for."