Sadiq Khan is a man that seems to defy gravity. A member of a Labour party in disarray, he got elected mayor of London in 2016 with the highest individual mandate of all British politicians. A staunch Remainer in a country that has just voted to leave the EU, he recently argued that the EU has been a ‘force for good in the world’. In a time when terrorism and islamophobia threaten our society’s coexistence, Khan is a self-declared practicing Muslim. Finally, in a time in which populism is on the rise and countries, such as the UK and the USA, shut themselves off, Khan stands as a strong supporter of openness, trade and diversity.
It is thanks to his ability to go against the stream that Mr Khan has come to represent much more than a mayor, as important as one can be. He is now a reason for optimism, even for hope, among many. Europe, a land where populism, protectionism and fears have in the last year scored astounding electoral results, has for a long time been in dire need of a hero. Sadiq Khan has quickly offered what it was looking for. The most prominent figure in a series of young, hip, global political leaders, he has been hailed as the “European Barack Obama”. His background, behaviour, stances and job position him as a figurehead for those European values perceived to be currently in disarray.
Even if his meteoric rise to the UK’s capital has cast the politician relatively quickly on the world’s stage, the person Sadiq Khan has walked a long path to City Hall. A path that looks like London. Born in 1970 from a working-class Pakistani couple emigrated to the UK, Mr Khan grew up in a crammed three-bedroom apartment in Earlsfied, in South-East London, together with his seven siblings. At high school, he initially took up mathematics with the aim of becoming a dentist. But then, following the advice of a teacher who had judged him to be “good at arguing”, he instead decided to study law at the University of Northern London. After university, then, he pursued a career as a human rights lawyer, rising quickly through the ranks. In 2005 he left elected office in order to launch his political career, first as an MP elected in his home constituency of Tooting and then, after a few years, as transport Minister under Gordon Brown, one of the few high-ranking British Muslim.
From there to becoming the mayor of one of the most vibrant cities in the world, Mr Khan was able to beat all odds: in 2015 he was a normal politician on the centre-leaning spectrum of a discredited party, which had just received a severe setback in the general elections. Cut to one year after, in May 2016, when he decidedly prevailed against Tory “billionaire-environmentalist” Zack Goldsmith to reach City Hall. A victory due to a unifying message, against his opponent’s campaign, based on a feverish level of islamophobia.
If it is the upbringing that makes the man, it is the opportunity that makes the politician. Coming to power in the middle of global political turmoil, Sadiq Khan has quickly started to use his position as a bully pulpit. From criticising US President Donald Trump to pointing out at role models to counter the rise of extremism among young British Muslims, Mr Khan is now a pragmatic voice to reckon with. Mr Khan wants especially to play an active role on one specific issue: Brexit.
As the representative of a city hosting around 930.000 EU citizens, the mayor of London has taken it on himself to address the concerns of his constituency: “I think leaving the European Union would be catastrophic for our city”, he said. “Even if some parts of the country might not want talent, London wants talent and needs it”. He has therefore risen to become the main institutional opponent of Theresa May’s government approach, which he has judged to risk “tearing the UK apart”.
He is not the only politician leveraging the increasing importance of global cities on the world stage. But what makes Sadiq Khan special is his story and his appearance. On the frontline after the London terrorist attack near Westminster on the 22nd of March against those who call for a clash of civilisations and religions, he instead decided to celebrate and recognise mixed identities: “I am the West, I am a Londoner, I’m British, I’m of Islamic faith, Asian origin, Pakistan heritage, so whether it’s [ISIS] or these others who want to destroy our way of life and talk about the West, they’re talking about me. What better antidote to the hatred they spew than someone like me being in this position?”
It is no wonder that many already see Mr Khan as a potential candidate for Prime Minister for the Labour Party, in the near future. But whatever the future might bring, he might have already achieved something more important than that: becoming a symbol. In the age of Brexit, will the European Dream be reborn in London?