Boris Johnson's successor will become known in September. There is a good chance that the UK's next prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party will be Rishi Sunak, who is of Indian origin. If Mr Sunak does get elected, he would be the first non-white British prime minister. But within that milestone are some rather uncomfortable truths, which show how much the UK has certainly not become a post-racist society.
This is beyond the historical ironies that exist in British political history, where the first non-white British prime minister, strictly speaking, served almost 150 years ago: Benjamin Disraeli. Disraeli was of Jewish origin, of a British ethnic minority, although he himself became Anglican Christian and was deeply imperialist. But he is not noted as having struggled tremendously to become a British politician. Disraeli was a member of parliament in his early 30s, at a time when only the independently wealthy could actually afford to be MPs, as there were no salaries for MPs at the time.
And perhaps that is where the ground-breaking nature of Mr Sunak’s candidature begins to lose substance. He may not be white, but in terms of wealth, Mr Sunak is more powerful than the overwhelming majority of British people. His political party, the Conservatives, have the additional issue of failing to recognise Islamophobia, which appears to be the most tolerated form of bigotry in the UK today. That issue has tenaciously held onto the Party for many years, in large part because its leadership has refused to address it.
In 2011, the then co-chairperson of the Party, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, said that Islamophobia had passed the "dinner-table test". In other words, that it was respectable and decent to engage in bigotry against Muslims in good company around the dinner table. She was criticised for her stance but nothing was done within the Conservative Party.
Over the years, more and more Muslims in the Party have come forward complaining of bigotry. Repeatedly, they found themselves brushed aside. Earlier this year, a Muslim Conservative MP, Nusrat Ghani, claimed that she was sacked as a junior minister two years ago, because, as other officials told her, her "Muslim woman minister status" was making colleagues feel "uncomfortable". Ms Ghani later revealed that she had told Mr Johnson who said, "He could not get involved and suggested I use the internal Conservative Party complaints process”.
Ms Ghani’s was only the latest episode in that regard. As an investigation in The Guardian revealed in 2019, more than a dozen Conservative councillors who were suspended over posting Islamophobic content online had their membership re-instated. There is a long history of similar unfortunate cases. Sadiq Khan, for example, the mayor of London, had Islamophobia mobilised against him by his Conservative opponent, Zac Goldsmith, for the mayoralty in 2016, who accused Mr Khan of being "radical". His campaign invited the criticism of even senior Conservatives like Ms Warsi and Kenneth Clarke, a former Conservative chancellor. Mr Goldsmith, however, was then appointed to the House of Lords.
When it comes to the Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss contest over the British premiership, it seems the right-wing of the party had kept in mind the polling that showed that more than half of Conservative members believed Islam was a threat to “British values”. Hence, Penny Mordaunt, who until last week was a strong competitor to face off Mr Sunak for the prime ministership, was subjected to a smear campaign. The criticism levied against her was that she had once met with the leader of the Muslim Council of Britain.
It was a startling if incredulous accusation. The negative sentiment towards the MCB in Conservative circles dates back to a pro-Hamas statement in 2009 relating to the Israeli occupation of Gaza, signed by a former MCB deputy secretary general, Daud Abdullah. The then Labour government condemned the statement. They claimed it supported violence against British forces, and attacks on Jewish communities worldwide – although Mr Abdullah denied this interpretation. At the time, the current leader of the MCB, Zara Mohammed, was a teenager, and not a signatory in any case. The implication was clear: smear the relatively more centrist candidate, so that a more right-wing one would stay in the race. The smear was via Islamophobia.
It would be nice to imagine that the UK has truly carried out a breakthrough by putting forward a brown member of a different ethnicity as a likely successor to the prime minister. But as the elephant in the room is left unaddressed – anti-Muslim bigotry tolerated and even supported within the Conservative Party – a potentially momentous occasion is undermined.