Rishi Sunak as PM is mainly a British success story

Whether you agree with his politics or not, it is undoubtedly a historic moment for a country with a long backstory of racism and slavery. The spectrum of reactions is as remarkable as his elevation to 10, Downing Street

By Prasun Sonwalkar

Published: Thu 3 Nov 2022, 11:55 PM

‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ was the message of a motivational poster produced by the British government in 1939 before the outbreak of World War II. It has since been used in various situations, serious and not-so-serious, and symbolises in some ways the quintessentially British idea of not to make a fuss in any situation, remain understated, not draw attention, and carry on. Something similar is at play as Rishi Sunak begins his innings in Downing Street. There is a sense of excess and triumphalism in the way people in south Asia have celebrated his elevation, claiming him as one of their own on the basis of real or imaginary links. But in Britain, there is quiet recognition of history being made, but there is also the unstated or understated desire not to draw much attention to Sunak’s ethnicity, to keep calm and move on.

Sunak’s religion, his backstory of immigration, and the context have been widely noted — first Hindu prime minister, first Asian, first British Indian, first non-white — but after the initial headlines, things soon moved on beyond the optics to issues of realpolitik and major challenges facing him. Business secretary Grant Shapps reflects the keep-calm-and-carry-on theme when he says Sunak as the prime minister is “a moment for the country, but in other ways it is unremarkable, little commented on, and that is one of the great things about the United Kingdom — that we are able to get along. I can imagine in other countries, that would be the only and the leading coverage. Here it’s an afterthought, and isn’t that great?”

His response is also reflective of the refreshing way in which non-white politicians have been treated in the mainstream news media in recent years: praised or pilloried on the basis of their actions and words, without any reference to their colour or ethnic origin, just like any other politician. The recent Conservative leadership contests featured several non-white leaders, without causing any surprise or their ethnicity being mentioned: Suella Braverman, Kemi Badenoch, Nadhim Zahawi, Sajid Javid and Sunak. It is common for Lisa Nandy or Sadiq Khan to represent the Labour perspective and Javid or Priti Patel to defend the Conservative record in the mainstream news media.

This mainstreaming of non-white politicians was unimaginable until recently. In many ways, Sunak as the prime minister is a success story of Britain’s policies of immigration and integration; he also becomes an aspirational figure for minority communities.

An Asian, born and bred in Britain, as the country’s prime minister sends a powerful message of inclusivity, but does it mean racism no longer exists in British society? What does his elevation mean to the millions of Asian and other non-white communities? What are the implications for Brexit?

Labour and other political rivals welcomed the first British Asian in Downing Street, but also highlighted his privileged upbringing, wealth, and panned his record as the chancellor. There has also been a spectrum of reactions from think-tanks and the commentariat in the British media, positive and not-so-positive; here is an indicative selection:

Timothy Gordon Ash, historian: “The chaotic emergence of Rishi Sunak as Britain’s new prime minister signals the end not of Brexit but of Brexitism — the ideology of delusions about Britain’s ability to go it alone that culminated in the world-beating farce of Liz Truss’s short-lived government…Reality has caught up with the Brexitists and the British public is beginning to catch up with reality…Sunak is anything but a convinced European. The axis of his world is Silicon Valley-London-Mumbai not London-Paris-Berlin. In 2016, he was a strong Brexiter. But if he ever shared some of the delusions of Brexitism, he has surely lost them by now. As he demonstrated in his Conservative party leadership contest with Truss this summer, he is a realist, putting solid public finances and market credibility first – as did Margaret Thatcher. And realism demands that, in extraordinarily challenging economic circumstances, you have to lower barriers to doing business with your largest single market (the EU), not further increase them”. (in The Guardian)

Sunder Katwala, director of think-tank British Future: “Rishi Sunak becoming the first British Indian Prime Minister is an historic moment. This simply would not have been possible even a decade or two ago. This will be a source of pride to many British Asians — including many who do not share Rishi Sunak’s Conservative politics. It will be especially meaningful to the first generation of migrants, like my father, who arrived in 1968 when politics was dominated by Enoch Powell’s call to ‘send them back’… When Sunak was born in Southampton in 1980, there had been no Asian or Black MPs at all in the post-war era. There were still no black or Asian Conservative MPs when he graduated from university in 2001. I hope that Sunak will acknowledge that not everybody has enjoyed his advantages in life. Rishi Sunak reaching 10 Downing Street does not make Britain a perfect meritocracy. While there is more to do, this is a hopeful sign of progress against the prejudices of the past. National politics has set the pace — and business, public services and charities should accept the challenge to reflect modern Britain too.”

Nesrine Malik, author: “The philosopher Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò describes this as ‘elite capture’ — a process whereby white elites co-opt and disarm political movements that go against their interests by rebranding themselves through symbolic performances… In this co-opted world, a Labour MP of the same ethnic background as Sunak, Nadia Whittome, can be ordered to delete a tweet in which she says Sunak is not a ‘win’ for Asian representation because he’s a ‘multimillionaire who, as chancellor, cut taxes on bank profits while overseeing the biggest drop in living standards since 1956. Black, white or Asian: if you work for a living, he is not on your side’. White deference to Sunak’s symbolism is so important that it literally erased another brown MP’s opinion about his political substance. What a curveball.” (in The Guardian)

Hameed Hakimi, non-resident senior fellow at the South Asia Center, Atlantic Council: “The rise of politicians of colour in the United Kingdom in recent years — both within the cabinet and outside — has had no tangible impact on alleviating the challenges facing ethnic minority groups in Britain, whether these challenges have been in the realms of socioeconomics, health, or societal relations. From Sadiq Khan, the current mayor of London; to Priti Patel, formerly home secretary; Nadhim Zahawi, currently the minister for intergovernmental relations and minister for equalities; Suella Braverman, formerly home secretary and the attorney general for England and Wales; and Kwasi Kwarteng, the former chancellor of the exchequer, it is difficult to measure the significance of their rise beyond progressive optics for the respective political parties in which they serve. More importantly, Sunak is taking the helm at a historically challenging period for the British economy and the lack of trust in the political class”.

John Kampfner, executive director of think-tank Chatham House: “As the fifth Conservative party leader in six years, Sunak does have a technical mandate because Britain’s quixotic constitution does not require prime ministers to achieve the support of the electorate and leaders from within the same party can come and go in between general elections. But he has his work cut out to maintain social harmony. He presides over a party which remains deeply split, both between and within the various arch-Brexiteers and moderate factions, so just to survive until spring or autumn 2024 — the most likely dates for the next UK general election — will be a feat itself. Sunak also has no major experience of administration outside the Treasury, where he served first as chief secretary and then as chancellor, so his first forays into foreign affairs will be particularly important and closely watched…More because of who he is not — Johnson or Truss — than who he is, Sunak is likely to enjoy considerable goodwill among many international interlocutors. After all the recent upheaval and uncertainty, their expectations are not particularly high and they will happily settle for a more dependable, trustworthy, reliable Britain — perhaps one that is even a little duller”.

Hashi Mohamed, barrister: “The new PM’s rise is a great achievement, but his hardline views mean this is a less transformative moment than many hoped for… Sunak’s ascent is an undeniably great achievement, whether or not you agree with his politics. Without being able to claim any kind of salt-of-the-earth immigrant backstory, Sunak has still defied the odds as an Asian man to make it to the highest position in the land. His journey is a reminder of how black and brown Britons have to fight against the current to be taken seriously. But rising above these political machinations, what does this moment really tell us about race relations in Britain? For people like us, Sunak’s ascension is tinged with bitterness — for many, his hardline views aren’t exactly representative of who we imagined would be the first British leader with immigrant parents. But when Sunak’s parents migrated to Britain from east Africa in the 1960s, the appointment of an Asian prime minister would have been inconceivable.” (in The Guardian)

Oxford: The crucible where many UK prime ministers are made

When Rishi Sunak succeeded Liz Truss in Downing Street, it was a case of one PPE replacing another PPE.

Long before PPE meant ‘personal protective equipment’, it stood for a unique bachelor’s degree in the University of Oxford, launched in 1920. PPE refers to Philosophy, Politics and Economics. PPE, the university says, “was born of the conviction that study of the great modern works of economic, social, political and philosophical thought would have a transformative effect on students’ intellectual lives, and thereby on society at large. This conviction remains as firm today as it was then”.

PPE has been the course of choice of those interested in careers in politics, civil service and journalism. Besides Sunak and Truss, PPE graduates in Downing Street included David Cameron, Edward Heath and Harold Wilson. PPE graduates make up an ‘astonishing’ proportion of Britain’s elite, writes Andy Beckett, a columnist at The Guardian, questioning whether it has produced an out-of-touch ruling class. His piece on the degree that runs Britain begins thus: ‘Monday, April 13, 2015 was a typical day in modern British politics. An Oxford University graduate in philosophy, politics and economics (PPE), Ed Miliband, launched the Labour party’s general election manifesto. It was examined by the BBC’s political editor, Oxford PPE graduate Nick Robinson, by the BBC’s economics editor, Oxford PPE graduate Robert Peston, and by the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Oxford PPE graduate Paul Johnson. It was criticised by the prime minister, Oxford PPE graduate David Cameron. It was defended by the Labour shadow chancellor, Oxford PPE graduate Ed Balls’.

More news from Long Reads
Can e-bikes go mainstream?

Long Reads

Can e-bikes go mainstream?

VanMoof, the Dutch e-bike company taking inspiration from Apple and Tesla, is one of the world’s hottest brands in a bike market remade by the pandemic. Will it help reshape urban transportation?

Long Reads