James Main, the 1st PPC of Chinese descent for the Liberal Democrats, in his own words.

March 21, 2021 9:52 AM
By James Main (based on an interview by Merlene Emerson)
PPC James Main, David Heath and others

PPC James Main, David Heath MP and others


My mother is Hong Kong Chinese and from a long line of Chinese merchants in Hong Kong who unfortunately suffered badly under the Japanese. My father was an engineer in the Merchant Navy and he was from a very small fishing village in the North East of Scotland and met my mother in Hong Kong.

I was born in Hong Kong and was educated there until I was 14 when I came over to Scotland to attend boarding school. My first language was Cantonese but my mother decided that it would be more beneficial for me to go to an English-speaking school. My father is Scottish hence I was sent to a boarding school in Scotland where I had relations.

When I left boarding school, I went to study dentistry at the University of Edinburgh and during my time at university I applied for a Royal Naval scholarship which I was successful in. Another first I think, was that I was the first Royal Navy dental officer of Chinese descent.

After the Navy I held various positions in dental practices from being an associate to a partner and then subsequently going to work in the Cayman Islands for a few years. On our return to the UK I started my own practice and then founded a small dental corporate.

Going into Politics

I was living in Edinburgh when I first got into politics. When the poll tax was introduced to Scotland by Margaret Thatcher there were a lot of street demonstrations organised primarily by the Labour Party in Scotland. At that time, I was asked to join the Labour Party but having looked at the structure of the Labour Party it was clear that there was an immense amount of influence by the unions and I did not believe in what was then the block vote that the unions had at Labour conferences. When I looked at the Conservatives, having seen how capitalism worked in the raw in Hong Kong, I did not feel that the Conservatives sat well with me either. I joined the Liberal party as I liked the fact that it was one member one vote and whilst they had a free-market philosophy it was tempered with a social perspective. I also felt at the time that they had the best ideas and it was an exciting time for the Liberals as they were just about to merge with the SDP to form the Liberal Democrats.

I moved to Chester in 1990, and became heavily involved in the 1992 parliamentary election for the Liberal Democrat candidate in Chester and then subsequently I stood for the first time as a Chester city councillor, where I increased the share of the vote for the Liberal Democrats but was not successful.

When I moved to Manchester in 1993 I lived in the Cheadle constituency and helped in the campaign to elect Patsy Calton as a councillor for Stockport County council. This we were successful in doing and I became heavily involved in ensuring that we had a strong fund-raising campaign and constituency structure by electing more councillors onto the council so as to ensure that Patsy had a good platform to fight a general election campaign.

My first general election as a Parliamentary Candidate was in the 2001 standing in the constituency of Bristol South. During the 2001 general election there was almost a pride amongst some people that they were not going to vote. On one occasion I was knocking on doors in an estate and the man answered the door and when I asked how he intended to vote at the next general election he proudly told me that he was not voting but his wife and daughter are voters and maybe I would like to come in and speak to them which I duly did. After speaking to his daughter and wife I was about to leave the house when he said to me "what do you think about the immigration problem?" I turned around and said to him "but you told me that you do not vote" and he replied "yes". So, I said "in which case then I have nothing to say to you because you don't count, however when you do decide to vote give me a call and I will come and have a chat with you". The man was speechless, but I felt good as it demonstrated the true power of the democratic process.

After Bristol South I decided that it was a good launchpad for me to try to become the PPC of a winnable seat. In Somerset at that time for the 2005 general election there were winnable seats in all the constituencies in Somerset and eventually I was lucky enough to become the PPC for Bridgwater and West Somerset which was probably the least winnable seat in Somerset. At the same time as building my own practice and having a very young family of three boys I was campaigning hard to build the seat up towards the 2005 election. However, despite a lot of effort it was not to be. It was at that point that I realised that in order to be serious about becoming a Liberal Democrats MP I needed to have the financial resources to not only look after my family but to fund an election organisation myself.

On the British Chinese Community

Like all communities there are different strata both socially, economically and also indigenously. However, I have always found the Chinese community in Britain to generally have the same outlook of family, hard work, being a good citizen and enjoying the freedoms of being able to make your way in the world without corruptive interference. Chinese Britons today have moved a long way from running takeaways and restaurants although many still do and we now populate the professions, the arts and of course commerce, however we are still a minor player when it comes to the political landscape.

The Chinese community needs are really no different from the needs of all the communities in Britain that being able to have a reasonable standard of living, a good effective healthcare system and the ability to have employment in order to better the lot of themselves and their families and to be treated equally. However, it needs to move itself out from being in the shadows of British society and to be more integrated into the communities that they live in. This is not a natural position for the Chinese communities in Britain to strive for but by not doing so it will always be seen as a curiosity without political influence.

On China

Looking at the history of human civilization China has always been the dominant nation for many, many centuries until relatively recently when the western powers initially led by Great Britain became dominant due to scientific and industrial advances which had left China behind. However, in the last century and in this one we see the awakening of China in catching up with the rest of the world. Furthermore, the people of China are not alien to suffering or hard work to achieve the common good for the country. As we have seen recently the Communist Party has announced that it has lifted 100 million people out of poverty. Whilst this may be a disputed figure, we cannot argue that it is likely that many tens of millions have been lifted out of poverty in China in the last 30 years. The question that needs to be asked is, as the personal economic circumstances of the majority Chinese citizens increase over the next decades, how will this then translate with regards to the political and individual freedoms of the citizen.

It has come as no surprise to me the events in Hong Kong and China's imposition of its will on Hong Kong as well as with other nations where the Communist Party feels that it is being challenged or threatened. To paraphrase the famous words of Deng Xiaoping, it does not matter if the cat is black or white so long as it catches the mice and does what it's told!

I cannot see China in my lifetime ever having democracy as we would know it in the West as it is a nation that has always lent itself to having a strong leadership. However, I do see that as personal economic wealth increases there will be less tolerance amongst the populace for not respecting individual human rights and this may be the force that will drive change in China.

Looking ahead

I feel that the Liberal Democrats have a heritage and a lot to say and do for Britain at this time. We have always had a strong green agenda long before it became fashionable. We have always been pro-European and whilst Brexit has happened, we shall see that the effects of Brexit will be a diminution of Britain in all areas but more importantly a reduction in opportunity for the younger generations. I predict the current Tory Government will end up being one of the most unpopular Governments ever and Labour will not fill that void completely because of its own internal struggles.

It is a time with the right leadership, for the Liberal Democrats to build a pro-European message of re-joining the EU and to bridge the divisions within British society by having a bigger more effective state, based not only on a greener but also a fairer economy. We must grasp the current disillusionment of the young and enlighten it with a hope for the future. If we cannot grasp that opportunity before us now, then the Lib Dems will again become a party of nice people with good ideas but of no relevance.