STOKE-ON-TRENT // When a Pakistani-born British millionaire announced that he was applying to join the far-right, anti-immigration British National Party, it seemed the world had turned upside down. Brought to the UK as a boy of eight without a word of English, bullied at school and horrified by the electoral successes of the BNP in the city where he has made his fortune, Mo Chaudry could hardly be a less obvious candidate for membership.
Even the reason he can theoretically enlist - the party's recent decision to change its whites-only constitution - results from a court ruling requiring it to observe equality laws rather than from any desire to welcome Muslims with open arms. But Mr Chaudry, who took part in a "secret millionaire" television series in which he gave away £29,000 (Dh163,000) to charities, sees his initiative as an effective way of challenging a party regarded by mainstream British politicians as deeply racist with Nazi overtones.
He is prepared to mount a legal battle if, as expected, the BNP formally rejects his application. However, the party claims he "shot his bolt" by admitting publicly that he wished to join and "antagonise" from within. The gulf between the BNP and Mr Chaudry, who owns the Waterworld indoor leisure complex in the Midlands city of Stoke-on-Trent, was made clear in a BBC radio debate with the party's deputy leader, Simon Darby.
Mr Darby appeared intent on provoking Mr Chaudry, pointedly referring to him as Mohammed and suggesting he would be "better off with all his millions being in the Labour Party, where he would have access to some of the finest politicians that money could buy". This led Mr Chaudry to suggest the BNP official had stooped to "cheap" points. He questioned Mr Darby's tactic of addressing him as Mohammed: "My full name is Mohammed Ishaq Chaudry. During my school years it just got shortened by friends and has stuck with me - I suspect it was his way of trying to unnerve me or [suggest] that somehow I was trying to hide my identity." Yet Mr Chaudry, expressive and impassioned during an interview in his office at Waterworld, said a curious aspect of the controversy was that he could "work with" certain BNP policies.
For example, he opposes an "open door" for immigration. The huge influx of migrants from eastern Europe has led him to favour selective admission restricted to those with special skills or investment resources. In common with the BNP, he dislikes the European Union, seeing no advantage to Britain of continued membership. He is against the UK joining the euro zone. On crime, he is also relatively close to the BNP, considering capital and corporal punishment to be legitimate sanctions. And both he and the party condemn British military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.
That is where the prospect for agreement, or even reasoned discussion, probably ends. While the BNP has moderated its stance to advocate voluntary rather than forcible repatriation of immigrants, Mr Chaudry regards this as a convenient precursor to a policy of expulsions. He said his application to the BNP was driven by concerns that the party's strong gains in the Stoke area meant it could become the main opposition to the traditionally dominant Labour Party.
"I don't believe people here are racist," he said. "Otherwise, how would I have thrived? It is here that I have studied, settled, opened my business." From unpromising origins, as the only Asian child in his primary school at Luton, near London, Mr Chaudry has become one of Britain's top 100 Asian businessmen. His father, a champion weightlifter in the Punjab, had emigrated to the UK after buying himself out of the Pakistani army with money from an officer as a reward for extricating his car from mud during an exercise.
Mr Chaudry's father worked as labourer and later started a business that failed. "It took him seven years to pay back family and friends who had helped him but he did it as a matter of honour and I learnt that lesson from him, basing my own business philosophy on it." After making money selling insurance and financial services, the ambitious son branched out into property and leisure. Mr Chaudry's fortune is put by analysts at £60m, a figure he does not seriously dispute.
"I am proud to be British and proud of my roots," he said. "And I want people to integrate and engage. It might seem perverse or naive to want to do this by joining the BNP but I saw it as a way of challenging the party." Mr Chaudry, who has three daughters with his English-born wife, accepts that he may have been "too robust" in his first comments about trying to join the BNP, especially in talking about wishing to "antagonise". But he said too many of the party's opponents simply "sit back and do nothing".
The enforced change to the rules of membership offered a chance to end that apathy. "I decided this was my opportunity to make a stand and get something positive out of it," he said. But Mr Darby accused Mr Chaudry of being a "slippery Muslim businessman" who was prepared to change his story after failing to answer points raised in the radio debate. He saw no prospect of the party granting him membership, not because he was Pakistani but because he was "overtly hostile". "I gave him opportunities on radio to say what he has in common with us," he said.
Mr Darby added that BNP members would be in trouble with the law if they tried to join local mosques and then campaigned from within against Islamic practices. If a further court hearing determines that the BNP is now complying with anti-discrimination law, the first Asian member is likely to be a Sikh, Rajinder Singh, 78, a Lahore-born retired teacher who holds strong anti-Islam views and blames Muslims for his father's violent death during the partition of India.