I remember when Barack Obama was first elected president in 2008. Aged 14, I’d barely listened to the news before, but that weekend I sat at our kitchen table poring over a Sunday newspaper my parents had bought. The fact Obama had remotely comparable skin colouring (albeit due to Kenyan ancestry rather than my own Sri Lankan heritage) made me feel part of a world I’d until then assumed unreachable. His optimistic slogan, “yes we can”, and willingness to reach across the political divide lifted my heart; I wonder if I’d ever have become interested in politics otherwise, or be in the job I’m in now.
To hear people describe Rishi Sunak becoming Prime Minister as “Britain’s Obama moment” feels, therefore, a little odd. Let me be clear: I feel warmed to know a Hindu Asian man can ascend to the highest office in the land, not least on the day my family WhatsApp groups were pinging with Diwali Gifs. I squirm at suggestions by supposed “liberals” that he (along with Suella Braverman and Priti Patel) is somehow “Asian, but not really”, because of his conservatism.
But Sunak is no transformative politician. He, like his predecessor, is a proud Thatcherite, and if he appears our centrist saviour it’s only because he is juxtaposed with Liz Truss. He is not “change we can believe in” (another Obama slogan); he is the steward after Truss’s record 50-day failure in office. He was not even his party’s first choice. Sunak lost to Liz Truss in the Conservative leadership contest over the summer, and this time his victory was only secured once Boris Johnson, our humiliated ex-prime minister, withdrew. And, of course, he was chosen by about 200 Conservative MPs not, as Obama was, 69.5 million ordinary people.
For many people Obama’s victory represented a victory over racism in the US. Racism is still prevalent in the UK – the Conservative Party member who recently told LBC’s Sangita Myska that “Rishi Sunak isn’t even British” is evidence of this. Yet Sunak’s victory cannot mean as much as Obama’s, partly because we do not possess quite the vicious depths of racism that exist in the US (and of course, it’s incorrect to assume that black and Asian people experience the same type or degree of racism). Our most comparable divide is arguably along class lines, which brings us to Sunak’s status. He was educated at Winchester College, a private school that costs £46,000 a year now, started his career at Goldman Sachs and went on to be a director at an investment firm set up by his father-in-law. He once happily admitted he had no working-class friends, and his wife owns an estimated £690m of shares in her father’s company, Infosys. It is a far cry from Obama, who went from community organiser to civil rights lawyer, and whose wife, Michelle, grew up on the south side of Chicago.
We are supposed to view Sunak’s Hinduism as meaning he has progressive beliefs. His temple’s president, Sanjay Chandarana, said: “It’s a peaceful religion and the message is the whole world is one family.” But there’s little evidence Sunak draws community instincts from his religion. He boasted about taking money from “deprived urban areas” to help wealthy towns, while his wife only gave up her favourable non-dom tax status after public disapproval.
It is bizarre to suggest that Sunak represents the hope Obama did at a time of economic crisis and turmoil. In fact, to suggest that two brown men taking power on opposite sides of the Atlantic must be the same – well, it is sort of offensive.