Rishi Sunak becoming Britain’s first POC Prime Minister isn’t the win for inclusivity you think it is
Rishi Sunak has become the first non-white Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. All it took for the melanin in his skin to be erased was his grotesquely privileged background and his wholehearted support for inhumane and racist immigration legislation.
History has been made once again in the span of mere weeks. Rishi Sunak, former Chancellor, has become the United Kingdom’s first POC Prime Minister.
And all it took was running twice, not actually being elected the second time, two other Prime Ministerial resignations, including one whose tenancy agreement at No 10 couldn’t outlast the average lifespan of a honey bee, and the worst economic meltdown in living memory.
No elections, of course. The will of the people is a rather pesky thing when it comes to skulking your way to the head of the table. But let’s leave aside the fact we have a Prime Minister who effectively got through Clearing for the moment.
Many have said that the former Chancellor’s presence is a win for inclusivity, and that being the first Asian Prime Minister can only be a laudable achievement regardless of how you feel about his politics. Right?
Whilst it is true that his rise to power is historic, there are plenty of factors that should temper any enthusiasm for Sunak.
After all, this is a PM who achieved his position via a fundamentally undemocratic method instituted by a political party which has destroyed Britain’s democratic conventions to suit their greed.
But it is precisely the vicious politics he represents and espouses that should make us dispense with the facile idea that this is a good sign.
There is an important difference between tokenism and actual constructive representation. It’s clearly discernible, a sharp line between the superficial and the substantial; and it comes down to policies.
Sunak may be the first British-Indian* Prime Minister but, much like his odious contemporary Priti Patel, it seems likely he will be in charge of executing deeply racist policies that will target the weakest and poorest sections of society.
We know this to be the grim reality. Empty campaign rhetoric aside, the multiple crises that have gripped the UK have been met by increasingly rightwing rhetoric and legislation by the Conservatives.
Is the public upset that their children aren’t getting fed at school? Time to sponsor coastal patrols to harass desperate refugees fleeing from harm as a hateful smokescreen. Have multiple investigative reports revealed a significant number of PPE contracts went to friends and schoolmates of Cabinet members? Quick; distract them by creating a confected “culture war” and condemning anyone who speaks out for equality.
In Sunak’s case, we have his own words; his support for the Rwanda deportation scheme, arguably the most inhumane piece of anti-immigration legislation in this country’s postcolonial history, and him bragging to Tory voters that he’s taking even more money from impoverished families.
Both the media and the public fell into this dangerously myopic mode of thinking when it came to evaluating Priti Patel’s tenure as Home Secretary. Her legacy is littered with regressive and racist policies; yet people spoke about her as if the melanin in her skin is enough to be considered progressive.
There is a clear distinction between individual and systemic acts of racism. The burden of responsibility is far greater when it comes to a leader.
The words and sentiments of figures who could potentially shape the political direction of Britain are a meaningless barometer. Deeds are all that matter.
Simply getting a foot in the door is not worthy of praise; ensuring it is wedged wide open for future generations whilst critically analysing why it was put up in the first place, is.
As the political scientist Ambalavaner Sivanandan once cogently argued, there needs to be a clear differentiation made between “the racism that discriminates” and “the racism that kills”.
Conversely, we need to also acknowledge the difference between a symbolic inclusivity and a more concrete, life-giving one.
Sunak’s deeds, from his long-standing ties with rightwing think-tanks and his cruel support of the inhumane Rwanda deportation plan makes it clear that he will serve as little more than a token symbol.
He will be trotted out by an increasingly moribund Conservative Party desperately clutching onto power at any cost. Just like Kwarteng, just like Braverman, just like Sewell, he will be little more than a diversion; a smokescreen to obscure future regressive proposals.
But just like them, he isn’t a passive melanated receptacle. Indeed the complex issue to unpack is that all of the names above were party to abhorrently racist politics in their own desperate bids for power.
That Sunak (for the time being, at least, given that the Tory Party’s idea of inclusivity being a musical chairs approach to filling Cabinet seats) triumphed is hardly something to praise.
So, rather than be “inspired” by someone who looks like me and whose grandparents were born in the same country I was, I am instead appalled.
When I first moved to the UK in 1998, it was mostly White people who tried to kick us out. That BAME politicians are now behind violent deportation policies isn’t exactly the type of “representation” in politics I’m looking for.
In many ways, Sunak is reminiscent of the second-ever British MP of Indian origin, Sir Manchherjee Bhownagree.
Appointed in 1895, Bhownagree was preceded by Dadabhai Naraoji and followed by Shapurji Saklatvala. All three men, curiously enough, hailed from the Parsi community in Bombay.
But that’s where the similarities ended. Naraoji was a member of the Liberal Party and Saklatvala a Communist. Both men were heavily involved in the Indian Independence movement.
Bhownagree was a Conservative MP, and his subservience to his colonial oppressors earned him the derogatory nickname “Sir Bow-and-agree” back in India.
Though given the far-right politics that has dominated the country since the election of Narendra Modi in 2014 it is more likely Sunak would be welcomed with open arms. Birds of a feather and all.
But a larger and more complex debate looms uncomfortably beyond the current political crisis; one that encompasses all political parties, and public and media support in general.
It centres around one key question; why are the only BAME politicians granted key public office those who support and author inhumane policies?
I suspect the answer lies in the fetishisation of the UK’s colonial past. Sunak is the product of it; one of the forgotten afterlives of colonialism, to adopt one of Aime Cesaire’s ideas.
Combined with his class privilege and his, frankly, disgraceful wealth (the richest PM ever is also one who wishes to rapaciously tax those who earn the least), Sunak is less a poster-boy for diversity and more a symbol of a post-colonial collaborator.
If he is so keen to, in his own words, “give back to the country I owe so much to”, public office is not his immediate priority; ensuring his family pays their taxes, is.
But the answer to the question also reflects as poorly on the Labour Party as it does the Conservatives. Answers could lie in the recently published Forde Inquiry, which revealed that the Opposition is rife with sexism, harassment, bullying, and racism.
Senior leaders reportedly refused to take such complaints seriously — unless it provided a convenient context to purge the more radically leftwing members from the party, according to a recent investigative report by Al Jazeera.
The nation deserves better than the latest bunch of mendacious chumocrats and their toadies that have been scraped from the bottom of the barrel. The farce has to end here.
The previous Prime Minister was “elected” by less than 0.3% of the adult population of this country; Sunak didn’t even have to go through that sham of a voting process.
So don’t expect many of us to cheer for him just because he happens to look like us.
*I’ve always found the term “British-Asian” to be little more than a Census term designed to flatten all of us from the continent into one, convenient, homogenous tanned mass for a White palate, hence why I dispensed with it here.