Rishi Sunak's rise is a symbol of change in Britain as Tories shed their old, white image

New prime minister's appointment hailed as historic - but not all agree that Britain has really moved on

Rishi Sunak celebrates Diwali in Downing Street

26/10/2022. London, United Kingdom. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has hosted a reception to celebrate Diwali in No 10 Downing Street. 10 Downing Street. Picture by Simon Walker / No 10 Downing Street
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It is no secret that Britain’s Conservative Party is older and whiter than the country it governs.

Yet it was the Tories who delivered a milestone in British history this week by choosing 42-year-old Rishi Sunak as the UK’s first British Asian prime minister.

In a moment laden with symbolism, Britain’s first Hindu leader assumed power during Diwali and, wearing a garland of flowers, celebrated the festival of lights on his first full day in 10 Downing Street.

Tories of all backgrounds savoured the moment as Mr Sunak handed them a weighty rebuttal to the claim that the Conservatives, or the country they lead, are racist or xenophobic.

The sun shone on Tuesday over a country with a Christian monarch, a Hindu prime minister, a Muslim mayor of London and, until Mr Sunak's reshuffle, a Jewish home secretary, as one MP pointed out.

As symbols of diversity go, it was a catchy accompaniment to Britain's eclectic cuisine and the names of its coming storms ― Priya and Khalida ― but many are sceptical that a real meritocracy has arrived.

Tories savour Sunak's rise

Mr Sunak’s rise was no fluke. The Tories have increased their minority representation at every election since 2005. Four of the eight candidates who qualified for the leadership race this summer were from a minority background.

All four ― Mr Sunak, Suella Braverman, Kemi Badenoch and Nadhim Zahawi ― are now in the Cabinet.

And after providing all three of Britain’s female prime ministers to date, the Tories have now put forward the second from an ethnic minority after Benjamin Disraeli, who was Jewish.

When the Labour Party sniffed at Mr Sunak’s mostly male Cabinet, Conservative MP Andrew Bowie retorted that today’s Tories were “not going to take any lectures” on diversity.

Yet the story is not quite that simple. Even a multiracial Tory leadership does not always preach tolerance, and perspectives vary on whether racism still blights British society.

Parveen Akhtar, an Aston University expert on minorities in Britain, said it was notable that some British Asians, such as Ms Braverman and Priti Patel, were firmly on the right of the party.

“Patel and now Braverman in the Home Office are able to talk about issues around immigration in a way that maybe a white male politician wouldn't be able to,” she told The National.

Senior Labour figures were careful to applaud Mr Sunak’s achievement even as they challenged his policies.

"I do congratulate Rishi as the first Asian prime minister and in terms of what he has achieved I think it’s hugely significant," Labour MP Khalid Mahmood, who was born in Kashmir, told The National.

"To be the first Asian prime minister in the United Kingdom is a huge thing and I think that can’t be detracted from him whatever I say about policy or anything else."

When left-wing MP Nadia Whittome, who is of Punjabi heritage, went off message and said Mr Sunak’s rise was “not a win for Asian representation”, Labour chiefs ordered her to delete the tweet.

Different perspectives

But she was the only one to dissent from the view that Britain and its governing party are now a model of tolerance and meritocracy.

Former Tory minister Matt Hancock said the different religions represented in high office were a “wonderful demonstration of modern Britain”.

“I’m proud to live in such a diverse and tolerant country,” he said.

Still, ugly episodes such as the racist abuse of England’s Euro 2020 footballers, and cases of racism in police ranks, tell a rather different story.

Dr Akhtar said that while Britain was generally a tolerant country, it was hard to draw conclusions from Mr Sunak's rise because he was not chosen at a general election.

Rishi Sunak becomes prime minister - in pictures

A 2021 report commissioned by Boris Johnson’s government, which said people should not adopt a “fatalistic narrative that says the deck is permanently stacked against them" in Britain, was dismissed as a whitewash by some.

While 70 per cent of ethnic minority people think it is easier to get ahead as a white person, only 47 per cent of white people agree, according to another 2021 report by British Future.

Memories of injustices at the hands of Conservative governments still linger, such as the harassment of the Windrush generation who arrived after the Second World War.

The words of the late Enoch Powell, the Conservative MP who said in 1968 that mass migration would end with “rivers of blood”, have not been forgotten even half a century on.

More recently, Ms Braverman caused an outcry when she said it was her dream to deport failed asylum seekers to Rwanda.

Rishi Sunak's childhood landmarks - in pictures

Some sceptics seized on a comment by a self-described Tory member, who called in to a radio show to falsely claim that Mr Sunak was “not British”, to suggest that racism was alive and well in the party.

And another line of argument is that the wealthy Mr Sunak, who owns a country mansion and was educated at some of England’s most elite institutions, is hardly representative of the average British Indian.

“I hope that Sunak will acknowledge that not everybody has enjoyed his advantages in life,” Sunder Katwala, the head of British Future, said in a statement.

But, he said: “This will be a source of pride to many British Asians ― including many who do not share Rishi Sunak’s Conservative politics.

“We should not underestimate this important social change. When Sunak was born in Southampton in 1980, there had been no Asian or black MPs at all in the post-war era.”

Indeed, as late as 2001, the first election of this century, not one black or Asian person was elected a Conservative MP. There were two in 2005.

David Cameron, who became Conservative leader in 2005, took some of the credit for progress made since then after identifying “A-list” candidates, many of them from minority backgrounds, to fight winnable seats.

“We were the oldest political party in the world ― and we looked it,” Mr Cameron later said.

His election victory in 2010 brought 11 minority MPs on to the Tory benches, and a record 22 were elected in Mr Johnson’s landslide win in 2019.

As well as Mr Sunak and his Cabinet members, they included heavyweight figures such as Ms Patel and former health secretary Sajid Javid.

Meanwhile, as Conservative MP Paul Bristow crowed, Labour is led by “yet another North London white male” in Sir Keir Starmer.

Labour has answers to some of this. About 20 per cent of its MPs are from a minority background, compared with 13 per cent of the population and 6 per cent of Tory MPs.

Indian relatives of UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak celebrate his new job

Indian relatives of UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak celebrate his new job

Labour can snipe that having a diverse cast of prime ministers is easier when you burn through them at the rate the Tories have been doing. The Conservatives have had five since 2010, Labour six since the dawn of time.

That does not answer the fact that Labour has never elected an ethnic minority leader, even in opposition, or come very close doing so.

But surveys show that non-white voters typically side with Labour, who won an estimated 64 per cent of the vote among black and ethnic minority people in 2019.

One question for Mr Sunak will be whether British Asians who applaud his rise to power will now be moved to side with the Tories.

Dr Akhtar said the family-oriented social conservatism of many British Asians tended to be outweighed by Labour’s pro-immigration stance and emphasis on social justice.

“Margaret Thatcher famously did little to support the cause of women in politics. Though just her presence in that role was important in terms of women's political aspirations,” she said.

“I suspect it will be similar for British Asians in relation to Sunak.”

Rishi Sunak through the years - in pictures

Updated: November 04, 2022, 6:42 PM