In the prologue to Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, Amartya Sen’s meditation on how we see ourselves, the economist recounts being scrutinised by a passport official as he returned to the UK through Heathrow Airport. Quizzically looking at his home address, “Master’s Lodge, Trinity College, Cambridge”, the official asked if Sen knew the master well. He couldn’t conceive that this slight, polite Indian man standing before the counter might just be the master of Trinity College, Cambridge.
Sen’s subtitle The Illusion of Destiny counsels us against ascribing singular identities to anyone. Take Rishi Sunak, for example: he is the son of a GP and a pharmacist from Southampton, and a former Goldman Sachs analyst with an MBA from Stanford University. He is a husband and a father and enjoys drinking a lot of Coca-Cola of many varieties. He is also a Conservative of a throwback Thatcherite kind. Like all of us, he contains multitudes.
Indeed, all my reasons for not liking Sunak are that he also seems such a typical English Tory: he was head boy at Winchester College and went on to read philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University (a background that may give some context for his bad-tempered, charged performance in the BBC debate with Liz Truss on 25 July).
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In addition to these many layers of identity, Sunak is also a man from a family of Indian heritage, from the Punjab via the Kenyan protectorate to Southampton. He might just become Britain’s first Asian prime minister.
Anticipating the inevitable tumult that would, rightly, encompass a Sunak premiership – about the cost of living, about the slow degradation of public services, about the tortuous, denied consequences of Brexit – it is worth dwelling for a moment on an optimistic note. A prime minister from an ethnic minority would not rival the election of Barack Obama as US president in 2008; the US’s racial divide is another matter. But it would be an event that is hard to conceive of in, for example, France, in which the country’s next presidential election may well bring to office a candidate determined to send people back from whence they came long ago.
In the troubled passage towards living together in a multicultural democracy, a prime minister of Indian heritage would be something to celebrate. Plus, there were six non-white leadership contenders at the beginning of the leadership process. Credit where credit is due. David Cameron interfered in Conservative selection procedures to bring diverse candidates to selection lists. The Cameron legacy to Britain was thought to be Brexit alone. Perhaps the first Asian prime minister might be an achievement to set beside that disaster.
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This is not to say that all is therefore well in the nation, nor that all is even well within the Conservative Party. Clearly, it’s not. The Tories still only have 21 MPs who are from an ethnic minority, around 6 per cent of the party’s total. Labour has 41; around 20 per cent. The public is still waiting for the report from the inquiry into the Conservative MP Nus Ghani’s allegation that the former chief whip Mark Spencer used anti-Muslim language when he explained why she was being sacked as transport minister.
The former co-chair of the Conservative Party, Sayeeda Warsi, has repeatedly said that the Tories have a problem with Muslims and, indeed, research from the Economic and Social Research Council showed that a quarter of all Conservative Party members thought there were too many Muslims in Britain. One in six Tory members think there are “far too many”.
As a wealthy man with a connection by marriage to one of India’s great computing companies, Sunak falls on the right side of a class prejudice that interacts with religion, nation and race to define some people as in and some as out. The Indian community in Britain is, relative to other ethnic minorities, educated and well-off. Ever since Ramsay Macdonald and Clement Attlee took a strong interest in Indian affairs in the 1930s, the Labour Party has thought of India as one of its issues. When Labour’s sister party, Indian National Congress, had strong support in India, Indian immigrants living in the UK voted Labour in large numbers. It is reported that this, however, has begun to change.
Not that his coming from an Indian family should be the reason that anyone votes for or against Sunak. The reason he ought to beat Truss was plain for all to see during the first leadership debate. The instant reaction was all about his tendency to interrupt her. Maybe he was a bit quick to stop Truss talking, but then she was talking a lot of nonsense. Judged on the content of what they said, and how they said it, Sunak was overwhelmingly the better of the two candidates. Of the pair, only one looks like they could cope with being prime minister.
Truss would, in all probability, be an easier opponent for Keir Starmer. She would make a Labour government more likely. Yet there are two reasons to cheer on the apparently unlikely prospect of a victory for Sunak. The first is that we are all citizens of a country whose institutions matter. Boris Johnson’s premiership was a disgrace principally because he had no respect for the explicit treaties and tacit conventions by which a democracy reproduces itself.
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I doubt that there would be much I would approve of during a Sunak premiership. But there is some chance it might, at the very least, return to the bounds of decency and respect for norms. In her somewhat frenzied desire to please the Conservative Party membership, Truss is liable to revel in her reputation as the candidate who would press ahead with breaking the Northern Ireland protocol.
On which point, it was a shame that the BBC debate did its best to steer away from substantive issues. There was nothing beyond a yes-or-no question about the queues at Dover, or about the consequences of Brexit. The debate did not touch on immigration and the policy of sending migrants to Rwanda. There was nothing on education beyond the usual platitudes about skills being necessary for economic growth and – although Sunak has declared the backlog in healthcare cases a national emergency – almost nothing on the NHS. Instead, Chris Mason, the BBC’s political editor, devoted plenty of time to a tweet by Nadine Dorries about the relative cost of Truss’s earrings and Sunak’s shoes. It was depressingly trivial.
This contest has made it more obvious than ever that the job of choosing a prime minister should not fall to the members of a political party. The identity of some of the candidates offers the only ray of optimism. There have been accusations that the British people would not countenance a prime minister from anything other than vintage Anglo-Saxon stock but, even if Truss does emerge as the winner, that does not seem true.
More than a quarter of all Britons believe that having an ethnic minority prime minister would make things better for them, and the majority say it doesn’t matter either way. In a sense that judgement is wrong. Britain will not become a utopia of liberal tolerance if there were a prime minister of Indian descent in No 10, just as prejudice against women has not disappeared because we have had two female prime ministers. But it matters all the same and, in a largely dismal process, it might be the only moment to cherish.
[ See also: Rishi Sunak reinvents himself as a China hawk ]
This article appears in the 27 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special