So far our new Prime Minister has given two “I am now your leader” speeches. In the second, on the steps of No 10 Downing Street yesterday (25 October), Rishi Sunak looked out at the press gathered under a grey sky and promised to fix mistakes and come good on the Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto pledges. It was an address that could have been given by any Tory politician taking pains to sound sensible following the shambolic tenure of their predecessor, Liz Truss.
The previous day, however, a fairly robotic-sounding Sunak gave an address that only a politician of a certain background might give. His victory fresh in the headlines, Sunak declared: “It is the greatest privilege of my life to be able to serve the party I love, and give back to the country I owe so much to.”
In among words about honour and party and Truss’s public service, the sentiment jarred. Why should Sunak need to acknowledge a debt to the country he was born in? And could you imagine Truss, or Boris Johnson, or even Keir Starmer for that matter, saying anything similar?
They wouldn’t need to, of course. The implication of Sunak’s remarks was that this country’s first prime minister of colour, its first Hindu prime minister, its first prime minister with Indian and East African roots, somehow still has to earn his place because of his background. The implication was that he still isn’t quite from here.
As a naturalised British citizen, Sunak’s nationalist platitude made me uncomfortable. It scratched at a part of my identity, raw and quiet, that is hyper-aware of my difference. Why did he say it? To pander to parts of the Conservative Party? To assuage the doubts of those who might think he had somehow forgotten his place? Did he say it because he genuinely means it?
Not all Tory MPs with an ethnic minority background seem to feel the same way. Priti Patel and Suella Braverman, once and current Home Secretaries, are an interesting contrast. Whatever you think of the actual policy, both championed anti-immigration measures almost as if it was the right thing to do because they are British. Rather than acting out of gratitude, they project a belief – and quite rightly so – that they are no less British than anybody else because of where their parents came from. In fact, as has been commented on ad infinitum, the pair took this to such an extreme that the kinds of policies they have pushed might have kept their own parents out of the UK. And under Patel’s Nationality and Borders Act 2022, naturalised citizens like me could in theory have their British citizenship removed by the government without notification.
The idea of being grateful for living one’s life in one’s country implies that one’s right to be there shouldn’t be taken for granted. But surely citizenship is about having a place you can always call home, no matter what. Ethnic minority Britons have no more reason to be grateful to the UK than someone without immigrant roots. No one can control where they are born, let alone where their parents might move when they are children. And even if they could, we all contribute to society in one way or another, so no one should have to prove their position in it. Sunak’s words send a message, partly hidden, that some citizens are more British than others. But he and I are as British as anyone else.