The Sunaks at No. 10
Updated: Nov 1, 2022
There were, evidently, multiple reasons to let off fireworks outside the Sunak household this Diwali. Following the conclusion of a frenetic weekend of bartering and negotiating, Rishi Sunak emerged as the leader of the Conservative Party and consequently the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
His elevation to Prime Minister has drawn increased attention to many elements of his life. From his education, his wealth, his age to his height, many of his attributes have been deemed worthy of comment. However, it is his race and ethnicity that has spilled the most ink. How to refer to this part of Sunak’s identity has seen some missteps. The Scottish First Minister had to delete a tweet claiming that Sunak was the first Prime Minister ‘from any minority ethnic background.’ That distinction belongs to Benjamin Disraeli, the 19th century Conservative statesman of Sephardic Jewish heritage. Gavin Barwell, the Conservative peer, made the same error, despite the contribution of Disraeli to his own party. Instead, journalists have seemingly settled on describing Sunak primarily as the first British Asian to hold the post, while they reference his Hindu faith. ‘Non-white’ and ‘person of colour’ have also emerged as slightly awkward ways of alluding to the historic nature of Sunak’s appointment.
Predictably, the question as to whether this is Britain’s ‘Obama moment’ has popped up. There is a short answer to this question - no. It is, however, worth asking why Sunak making it to ‘the top of the greasy pole’ has attracted such comment. Sathnam Sanghera, writing in The Times, claimed that he ‘never expected to see such a thing in [his] lifetime.’ This expectation is understandable. It was not until 2014 that there was a South Asian Cabinet Minister, Sajid Javid. Conservative government ministers have been quick to point out that their party has produced the first Jewish heritage prime minister, all three female prime ministers and now the first British Asian premier.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his wife Akshata Murty with their pet labrador Nova
Photo by Simon Walker/ No 10 Downing Street
This recasting of the Conservatives as comfortable with multiculture and racial difference within Britain can sit at odds with the party’s post-war history. As Britain transitioned from empire to nation, hostility towards New Commonwealth migrants’ arrival in the former imperial metropole was widespread. The most emblematic voice of this politics was without doubt the Conservative MP Enoch Powell. His infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968 shot him to national prominence. He expressed the fear he had heard from his constituents that in the near future, ‘the black man [would] have the whip hand over the white man.’ Powell, who was then Shadow Defence Minister, described migrants from the Commonwealth as ‘the material of the future growth of the immigrant descended population.’ Presumably Sunak would count as part of this population. It was, according to Powell, ‘like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre.’ In other speeches, Powell signalled his specific opposition to Asian migration. Speaking in 1971, he claimed it was:
‘more truly when he looks into the eyes of the Asian that the Englishman comes face to face with those who will dispute with him the possession of his native land.’
His words had a profound impact on the lives of New Commonwealth migrants and their children. Hanif Kureishi, the author and screenwriter, remembers him as the ‘bogeyman’ of his teenage years. His uncles would whisper his name lest he overheard. The current Labour front bencher David Lammy used similar terms: the speech was akin to the ‘wallpaper of his childhood.’
Powell’s interventions cast a long shadow over the Conservative Party. The political scientists Maria Sobolewska and Robert Ford have found that due to Powell, voters believed that the Conservatives’ immigration policy in 1970 was ‘more restrictive than it actually was.’ As recently as 2012, the Conservative pollster Michael Ashcroft found that ethnic minority voters still mentioned Enoch Powell when discussing the party.
Amongst his parliamentary colleagues, Powell also exerted considerable influence, perhaps most notably with Margaret Thatcher. She admired Powell as the finest intellect of the shadow cabinet, who was in possession of both a ‘remorseless logic’ and a ‘controlled passion.’ The ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech was, according to Thatcher, ‘strong meat.’ She thought that ‘selective quotation’ had mischaracterised the speech and that ‘Enoch was no racist.’ The Iron Lady broadly agreed with the thrust of Powell’s argument. She believed that the scale of New Commonwealth migration threatened ‘the way of life of some communities.’ During a television interview, preceding the general election which would make her prime minister, Thatcher sympathised with voters afraid that they would be ‘swamped by people with a different culture.’ Evidently Sunak does not share Powell’s views on ethnic diversity in Britain. Powell would have thought that a British Asian was an impossibility, incapable of belonging or loyalty to the nation. The images of a Conservative British Asian prime minister celebrating Diwali in Downing Street are, therefore, significant.
Sunak hosting a Diwali reception at Downing Street 26/10/2022
Photo by Simon Walker/ No 10 Downing Street
Yet Sunak is most certainly not a break with the Thatcherite past. During his (first) attempt to become prime minister, Sunak claimed to be ‘the heir to Margaret Thatcher.’ He left little room for ambiguity:
‘My values are Thatcherite. I believe in hard work, family and integrity. I am a Thatcherite, I am running as a Thatcherite and I will govern as a Thatcherite. I believe in national sovereignty. Strong borders - tight control of both legal and illegal immigration.’
While Sunak referenced tight control of legal migration as a ‘Thatcherite’ quality, Thatcher’s own view on immigration controls had one notable exception. Writing in her memoirs, Thatcher recounted a meeting in 1972 when a full cabinet was devoted to the expulsion of Asians from Uganda. East African Asians had been effectively forced to leave newly independent African nations during the previous decade. This is a history that Sunak is certainly aware of: his own family moved to Britain in 1960s, at the height of Powell’s infamy, from Kenya and (what is now) Tanzania.
Thatcher had initially wanted to argue against any new arrivals in Britain. However, Edward Heath the Prime Minister, was quick to insist that there was a legal obligation to Ugandan Asians. It was only with hindsight that Thatcher admitted that she found the Asians who arrived in her constituency ‘admirable, hard-working people.’ As if to underline this, she claimed that the acceptance of East African Asians ‘really did turn out to be an exception to the rule of strict immigration control.’ Asians arriving from East Africa had a very different imperial history to earlier migrants from the New Commonwealth. Whether in terms of citizenship status, race, religion, gender, class or even caste, it is important to recognise that not all migrants were considered equal.
Based on Sunak’s statements, it would appear as if he possesses similar views to Thatcher on migration: namely that strict control and low levels of immigration are necessary to maintain community harmony. There may be those waiting for Sunak to reveal a more liberal approach to migration. This seems unlikely so far based on his choice of Home Secretary. Suella Braverman, another child of a Kenyan Asian, has expressed her aspiration to restrict net migration to the tens of thousands.
Sunak’s story is unique. Marrying a billionaire’s daughter is certainly one way to progress in Britain. But this should not obscure the genuine effort that the Conservative Party put into building an ethnically diverse parliamentary party. In this respect, David Cameron is owed some credit (a rare occurrence). After successive election defeats, there was a concerted effort to shed the tag of ‘the nasty party.’ As Cameron approached the General Election of 2010, he issued the following press release:
‘And just in case there is anyone out there who still thinks that the work we’ve done to get more women candidates, more black and minority ethnic candidates […] that this is some kind of political correctness that Conservatives should avoid. I would say no. You’re wrong. It is in the best traditions of our Party […] the One Nation tradition of Benjamin Disraeli, and it should inspire us again today.’
While it may be fair to challenge the ‘One Nation’ credentials of Cameron, under his stewardship, ethnic diversity rose significantly within the parliamentary party. Cameron’s efforts rested on three main strategies. First, a partially successful attempt to centralise parts of candidate selection. Secondly, Cameron sought to bring people from outside the party to run as candidates. And finally, many ethnic minority candidates ran in seats without a significant ethnic minority population - going against the conventional wisdom of the time. Put together, this resulted in an increase in ethnic minority MPs in the Conservative Party from two in 2005 to 11 in 2010. By 2019, there were 22 MPs in the party from minority ethnic background, several of whom have made it to the Cabinet. There is much to criticise Cameron for, but this is one area where public institutions and corporations could learn from him.
Sunak’s politics will not endear him to everyone, though that is the nature of politics. Trawling over his record reveals a politician who, in the words of one FT columnist, ‘has crammed a lot of misjudgements into a short career.’ His selection as prime minister has not solved racism in the United Kingdom; no serious commentator would make this claim. Nonetheless, it is both politically and socially significant that the party of Powell and Thatcher, is also now the party of Sunak.