Mohammad 'Oscar' Asghar is a notable figure in Welsh politics for range of reasons. He was Wales' first-ever Muslim councillor and later both the first Muslim and ethnic minority AM when he was elected to represent South Wales East in 2007. And in 2009 he caused controversy when he became the first AM to cross the floor when he defected from Plaid Cymru to the Conservatives. Ian Craig met him at his office in Maindee to talk about his career in politics.

GETTING a foot in the door of politics isn’t easy, with only a select few ever making it to elected office.

And South Wales East AM Mohammad Asghar could have been forgiven for giving up as a result of the number of barriers he came up against in his journey to the Welsh Assembly.

Born in Peshawar, then part of British India and now in Pakistan, as one of nine children and a direct descendant of the 16th century Mughal army commander Bairam Khan, Mr Asghar carried out a degree in political science in his home country before moving to London in 1971 in his early 20s.

After carrying out a qualification in the then-emerging computer industry, he decided to enter accountancy and came to Newport to work for a chartered accountants, opening his own practice about 14 years later.

But, while he had long tried to get involved in politics, Mr Asghar, known to most as ‘Oscar’, said he faced an uphill struggle.

“I tried a few times to join political parties,” he said.

“In 1983 or 1984 I went to a person’s house – I won’t mention their name as they’ve passed on now – at Christmas time with a bottle of wine.

“His wife opened the door, took the gift, said thank you and banged the door shut, even though I made a call to say I was coming to see him.

“I supported Labour because, at that time in Pill, there was no other party.

“I asked a Labour councillor in the area if I could stand for the council and he would say ‘No, no, you need training, it’s a very complicated thing to be in politics and it’s not that easy’. He made it sound like such a big deal.

“It was because of the colour of my skin. It must be.

“I tried other parties with no joy, so I just gave up, thinking ‘oh well, that’s just for us’.”

Mr Asghar said his breakthrough came years later when, in 1999, his then-teenage daughter Natasha, who later ran for election in multiple seats, most recently coming in second in the race for Newport East in June’s snap election, said she wanted to carry out a work placement in a politician’s office.

“I rang every political office – Paul Flynn’s office, the Conservative office, the Lib Dem office – but with no joy,” he said.

“I told her this was maybe not for us.

“Luckily I was talking to one of my friends in the office and he said ‘why don’t you try Plaid Cymru?’

“I had heard about them but thought they were only for Welsh speakers.”

He was introduced to then-newly-elected Plaid AM Jocelyn Davies, who represented South Wales East from 1999 until 2016, who agreed to take his daughter on for a work placement, and later introduced Mr Asghar to Ieuan Wyn Jones – who at the time was MP for Ynys Mon, a seat he held from 1987 until 2011, and was also AM for the island from 1999 and 2013, Plaid Cymru leader from 2000 until 2012 and deputy first minister from 2007 and 2011.

“Ieuan and I became very close friends,” he said.

“I joined the party and then, in early 2000, I stood for Newport City Council elections against the same person who told me I needed training, and I won against him in Maindee ward.

“Three times they counted my votes because no-one believed that I would win.

“I was there for a few year and in 2007 I put my name forward for the Assembly in the region.

“They said there was only a one or two per cent chance, but I won.”

But two years later he became the first AM to cross the floor, joining the Conservative Party – announcing his defection on Rhodri Morgan’s final day as first minister, causing an uproar amount his former party colleagues.

“Plaid Cymru is a party of wonderful people, but there are some of the points which I personally don’t think are right,” he said.

“When I put my foot in the Assembly things were not the same.

“There were certain areas where I could not say what I wanted to say.

“I am 101 per cent in favour of royals and I am 101 per cent a unionist, and you can imagine Plaid still believe in a different side. Because of those areas and a couple of other things I crossed the floor and joined the Conservatives.

“It was like going back to a family.

“Remember the door which was shut? That was a Conservative Party person.

“But this time it was totally different.

“When I crossed the floor there was big outcry from everybody except Ieuan who were screaming and shouting at me to resign.

“I wish I had done it earlier.”

As the first Muslim member of both Newport City Council and the Welsh Assembly Mr Asghar said he feels an extra responsibility to present a positive image of the religion.

“The first word I would like to remove from being associated with Muslims is ‘terrorist’,” he said.

“I am trying within my own limits, but in Wales the Labour Party is in control, not the Conservatives.

“As Muslims we have tried our best with peace and law and order, but very sadly our children are not going in the right direction. The educational record is disturbing in certain areas.

“When I came here in the 1970s there were no Muslims in prison.

“Now they are building mosques in prison.

“Somewhere along the line the system is not catering for our youngsters.”

He said he believed the best way forward for all young people, not just Muslims, was a complete revamp of the education system.

“I was one of the naughtiest children ever born in any family,” he said. “I was not brilliant, I was just average even though my brothers and sisters were 180 degrees different from me.

“But I came to this country and achieved what I achieved.

“The children in this country are going for educational attainment and doctorates – I would rather let them go for skill.

“Rather than putting pressure on children through tests and exams I would ask the teachers to do aptitude tests and let them achieve the full potential in their life with the full support of family, friends and state, no matter where they came from.

“There is no shortage of intelligent girls and boys in welsh society and I can assure you we can not only go to Mars, we will go beyond Mars.”

Mr Asghar added he was concerned not enough was being done to boost towns and city centres in Wales, with Newport particularly suffering.

“We are in a great position,” he said. “Cardiff is on our right and Bristol on our left. They are big cities, but we are not developing.

“Before the Ryder Cup at the Celtic Manor (in 2010) I raised the point in the Assembly that the Valley Line must come through Newport. Luckily Ieuan Jones was the economic minister at the time and we were promised something.

“But it never happened.

“Then Nato came (in 2014), and that wasn’t a small event.

“The promise was made ‘we will do something for Newport about the trains coming from Ebbw Vale, passing Pye Corner and going to Cardiff’. But again nothing happened.

“That is an area where we are losing business. If the train comes to Newport people will come out there instead of going to Cardiff.

“I’ve heard all the excuses you can think of, many economic ministers have come and gone, but nothing has been done.

“I hope to God in my lifetime I see Wales on the world map.

“What football did last year in the European Cup has done what a politician couldn’t do in 20 years.

“It’s only a matter of time.”

Mr Asghar, who was also an accomplished cricketer during his time at university and in his early days in Newport, holds a pilot’s licence and had a licence to drive taxis in the 1970s, said it was always important to him to have a ‘Plan B’ in case politics didn’t work out.

“When my daughter was born I learned to fly,” he said.

“I thought I should learn and become a qualified pilot just in case something happened. If my accountancy didn’t survive or something happened I would probably go spray fields in Canada or Australia.”