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25 October 2022

Rishi Sunak deserves not to be defined by his race – like everyone else

The indifference that most of the public feel about the first Asian prime minister is a mark of quiet progress.

By Tomiwa Owolade

Two years ago, as chancellor, Rishi Sunak lit candles outside 11 Downing Street to celebrate the Hindu festival of Diwali. He called it one of the proudest moments of his political career. This week marks Diwali again, and Sunak will now be the occupant of No 10. He is the first Asian person to become prime minister of the United Kingdom. 

That the first Asian person to be prime minister should represent the Conservative Party should only come as a surprise to those who think Labour has a monopoly on diverse representation; it doesn’t. In fact, when it comes to giving women and ethnic minority people the top jobs, the Conservative Party has distinguished itself in recent years.

Before Jeremy Hunt, the last four chancellors were called Kwasi, Nadhim, Rishi and Sajid. Kemi Badenoch is touted as a future leader of the party. Liz Truss was the third female prime minister of Britain; Penny Mordaunt would have been the fourth had her leadership bid against Sunak been successful. Every single female prime minister has represented the Tory party.

Labour, meanwhile, has never had a woman or ethnic minority prime minister. It has never even had a woman as permanent leader of the party. This is despite more than half of current Labour MPs being women. The policy of all-women shortlists – which the party has now abandoned for fear of breaching the Equality Act – only did so much. The last two Labour leaders have been white men who live in north London. Should this ultimately matter?

All of this raises important questions about representation. Sunak is the first Asian person to be prime minister but he was educated at Winchester College (annual boarding fee: £45,936) and Oxford University, worked for Goldman Sachs, and is married to the daughter of a billionaire. In terms of class background, he does not deviate much from past Conservatives leaders.

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Moreover, his fiscal policy is likely to include public spending cuts – the austerity redux – that will disproportionately harm those who rely most heavily on public services (including many ethnic minority people). Should this quell any celebration of his ascension?

All too often, discussions around diversity and politics lack nuance. Nadine White, the race correspondent of the Independent, tweeted during the summer’s Tory leadership election: “Can you imagine a Black or Asian person leading the Conservative Party? Others argue that the very concept is diametrically opposed to the party’s core values.” 

During the Labour Party conference, Rupa Huq made the racist suggestion that Kwasi Kwarteng, who was then the chancellor, is only “superficially” black because he went to expensive private schools and “if you hear him on the Today programme, you wouldn’t know he’s black”.

These two examples illustrate the strange tendency of many on the left to align progressive values and beliefs with ethnic minority people. Criticising the politics of ethnic minority people is not enough; their race must be brought into it too. But why should black and brown people be as left wing as Labour politicians or journalist-activists?

In a recent Times column, the author Sathnam Sanghera approvingly quoted Sayeeda Warsi, the former chairwoman of the Tory party, who told him: “It’s almost like ethnic minorities in the Tory party have had to be more right wing than the most extreme right wing to be accepted, and that in itself, I think, is a form of… internalised racism. It’s saying, ‘I don’t want to bring the full version of myself.’”

This is patronising nonsense. Why should the “full version” of a Tory MP align with the politics of Warsi or Sanghera? Being black or Asian does not, or should not, suggest someone is one kind of person or espouses one type of politics. They can be rich or poor, Labour or Tory. Ethnic minority people encompass the full spectrum of beliefs and backgrounds – just like everyone else. They should not be confined to one ideological box.

For one thing, this goes against reality. According to a 2021 study by Carnegie Endowment, for instance, the Labour Party only enjoys a ten-point lead among British Indian voters. It also refers to a Runnymede Trust survey of the 2017 election that found 40 per cent of British-Indian people supported the Tory party.

Many ethnic minority people also now occupy prestigious jobs. Thirty-one per cent of senior doctors in the NHS, for instance, come from an Asian background. This is despite the fact Asian people constitute only around 7 per cent of the British population.

Accepting that black and brown people are diverse in terms of their background and beliefs ultimately means that the salience of race should be reduced rather than enlarged. Race or ethnicity doesn’t offer a definitive guide to a person. Having an Asian prime minister doesn’t, on its own, indicate whether his term in office will be a success or not.

This is also reflected in the view of the British public. According to a survey commissioned by the think tank British Future, published in June 2022, 26 per cent of British people would welcome an ethnic minority prime minister as a positive sign, 10 per cent would be unhappy and 58 per cent would feel that the prime minister’s ethnicity doesn’t matter.

Unfortunately, some people are still unhappy with an Asian prime minister. One caller on Sangita Myska’s LBC radio programme, for instance, claimed that Sunak isn’t even British and that he doesn’t love the country. Thankfully, such views are becoming rarer in our society.

It is wonderful that Sunak can proudly celebrate Diwali on Downing Street. But this tells us absolutely nothing about his character or politics. For that, as for many other things, we need to move beyond a fixation on race. There will hopefully come a time when ethnic minority prime ministers become so normalised that the only thing on our mind is their policies. 

[See also: Rishi Sunak is the UK’s most Thatcherite prime minister since Thatcher herself]

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This article appears in the 26 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, State of Disorder