Congratulations to Rishi Sunak on becoming the first Asian prime minister of the UK. It’s a momentous day for a number of reasons, not least because the Conservative leadership race was a shining example of that old immigrant adage: you have to work twice as hard to achieve your goals.
On his second opportunity to become the leader of the Conservative party, all it took for Sunak to win was Liz Truss tanking the economy, global markets in turmoil and the threat of Boris Johnson returning as leader. The race showed that not only did Sunak have to work much harder than his predecessors for his appointment, but it was already obvious to the whole country in the previous leadership election that he was the only sensible candidate.
Alas, for Tory party members it was still preferable to elect a white woman than a brown man; just as well they won’t be able to vote on his appointment this time.
In that sense, 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. It was a time when cornershop windows were routinely smashed by supporters of the National Front, and Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech pointed to a dark future for immigrants in Britain.
After 9/11, Asian people of every faith were targeted in a campaign of relentless racism and xenophobia that failed to distinguish religion from the colour of a person’s skin. Even five years ago, the idea that racism was no longer a problem in the UK was blown out of the water as a wave of racist hate crimes was triggered by the Brexit vote: a vote Sunak has repeatedly said he was proud to support.
Today, representation of British Asians on our airwaves and in our governing offices looks more promising than ever before. And for a British Asian to be elected prime minister is a step in the right direction that deserves to be celebrated in its own right.
But as Sunak, a devout Hindu, takes his first steps into Downing Street on Diwali, of all days, can we really consider his appointment to be a positive for social mobility?
Sunak’s win may be a great achievement for him personally and, in so far as British Asians have much in common with him, perhaps it is for some of them, too. In Narendra Modi’s India, no doubt there is pride to see a Hindu elected to such an influential office. But just as I don’t have much in common with a black Etonian called Kwasi Kwarteng, many British Asian people will not connect with Sunak beyond the issues of faith and ethnicity.
Let us remember that Sunak is a strong supporter of the Rwanda policies pursued by Priti Patel, policies that probably would have denied his parents from ever coming to Britain. Sunak, like so many other black and brown rising stars in the Conservative party, appears to suffer from the syndrome of feeling the need to demonstrate that they love Britain slightly more than the rest of us: that they have a particular duty to defend their country more; that they must show a different level of appreciation for it; and that somehow there is a script from which they must all read in order to placate those who may instinctively mistrust them.
We saw this in the way Kemi Badenoch and Suella Braverman ran their particular campaigns. We saw it in the dog whistles about Sunak’s US green card. We see it in how minority candidates feel the need to use their personal stories much more than the others; how Badenoch learned so much about “responsibility” from her father; Braverman repeatedly telling us how her parents “[came] here with nothing”, ignoring the irony that under her policies they would never be welcome today.
Multimillionaire Sunak, who was educated at exclusive Winchester College and later married into billionaire wealth, feels the need to downplay his clearly privileged background to win more widespread support. But everything about his life and upbringing is at odds with the millions struggling to pay bills, pay rent and buy food.
Wouldn’t it be so much more authentic and aspirational for our first brown prime minister to say: “Actually, I don’t have a heartwarming backstory – I had a privileged upbringing compared to most people in this country, and I think it is scandalous that more people are not given the same opportunities.”
And so, while this moment is undeniably historic, it is arguably less progressive than many would have hoped for. For that, commiserations are in order, too. And Sunak, like the children of most immigrants, would do well to remember that while he may have worked twice as hard to rise up, his mistakes only have to be half as bad for him to be pulled down again.