Alone in the running to succeed Liz Truss, Rishi Sunak, of Indian origin, becomes the first politician from an ethnic minority to become Prime Minister in the United Kingdom. A first that marks the culmination of a process encourages inclusion within the Conservative Party, even if much remains to be done.
The only candidate who managed to collect more than 100 sponsorships, Rishi Sunak crushed the competition on Monday October 24 in the race to succeed Liz Truss. After the abandonment of Minister Penny Mordaunt, who did not obtain a sufficient number of supports, the former Minister of Finance is preparing to become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
The grandson of immigrants of Indian origin, a practicing Hindu, this former banker renowned for his hard work is thus the first non-white to take the helm of a country which, for a time, reigned over the country of origin of his family.
“It’s a source of pride for many Asian Britons, and understandable for those who don’t share Rishi Sunak’s conservative views,” said Sunder Katwala, a fellow at British Future think tank. “This event is particularly significant for the first generation of migrants to which my father belongs, who arrived in 1968, when British political life was dominated by Enoch Powell’s call to ‘all send them home'” [cet homme politique britannique incarnait alors l’opposition à l’immigration, opposé au projet de loi sur les relations raciales du Parti travailliste, ndlr].
“It is a source of inspiration for the South Asian community who wants to get into politics,” abounds Barnie Choudhury of the Eastern Eye newspaper, interviewed by the BBC. “With him, some glass ceilings are irretrievably shattered. This can only be a good thing for people of color.”
Rishi Sunak’s accession to the post of Prime Minister seems to crown the efforts of the Conservative Party to present more diverse profiles, a process which was successful under former Prime Minister David Cameron.
In 2006, it was he who imposed women and candidates of immigrant origin in the constituencies acquired from the Tories. Baptized “A-list”, this device has made it possible to bring out new figures such as Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak. As a result, the Conservative MPs now have 87 women and 22 members with an immigrant background in their ranks.
But behind the showcase of a renewed political class in tune with society hides a more complex reality: the elected Conservatives with an immigrant background present a very homogeneous social profile, typical of the British elite.
This is the case of Rishi Sunak, who studied at Winchester College, one of the most famous private pensions in the United Kingdom, before studying at Oxford, then at Stanford, in the United States. At a very young age, he joined the British political and media elite and began a career as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs, before being elected MP in 2015.
“Hopefully Rishi Sunak realizes that not everyone has had the same luck as him. The fact that it has access to 10 Downing Street does not make the United Kingdom a perfect meritocracy,” warns Sunder Katwala.
The question of origins generally disappears behind conservative ideology. “The majority (of elected Conservatives with an immigrant background) has passionately defended Brexit and displays ultra-liberal positions on economic and social issues,” said Agnès Alexandre-Collier in an article published by The Conversation. According to the professor of British civilization at the University of Burgundy, this inclusive policy has also allowed the Conservatives “to speak without complex about immigration and Brexit without fear of being accused of xenophobia”.
“I know that racism exists in this country”
If the party proudly displays the diversity of its elected officials, it is difficult to say the same about its 170,000 members, the vast majority of elderly white men from the middle classes.
Some members of the Conservative Party do not hesitate to show their hostility to the idea of seeing a Prime Minister of Indian origin in Downing Street. On a very popular LBC radio show on Saturday, a listener identifying himself as “Tory Party member Jerry” and a staunch supporter of Boris Johnson assured that “Rishi doesn’t[était] not even really British”.
Questioned for long minutes by the journalist Sangita Myska, the listener finally let go: “Do you imagine me, me, becoming Prime Minister in Pakistan? No. It’s important, even if you don’t like it, we’re talking about England. 85% of the English are white and they want to see a Prime Minister who looks like them”.
During his political rise, Rishi Sunak was regularly the target of racist attacks on social media. For his part, the future Prime Minister has rarely mentioned this subject.
In June 2020, in the wake of the George Floyd affair, Rishi Sunak spoke for the first time about the racism he suffered. “I know racism exists in this country,” he wrote on Twitter.
I had a lot of questions about what I think of the protests last weekend, so I thought it would be easier to share my thoughts below. pic.twitter.com/KnutJ1YZRo
— Rishi Sunak (@RishiSunak) June 8, 2020
“I know people are angry and frustrated. They want to see and recognize a change. But a better society is not built overnight, ”he explained after overflows during demonstrations of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United Kingdom.
‘Not important’ for the British
Favorite of Conservative MPs during the race to succeed Boris Johnson this summer, Rishi Sunak had been dismissed by members of the Conservative party. Many saw it as the result of his “treason” towards his former boss: by resigning from his post at the beginning of July, the very popular finance minister, who opened the floodgates of public money to keep the economy afloat during the Covid-19 pandemic, would have signaled the fall of Boris Johnson.
But could Rishi Sunak have been ousted because of his origins? “This question has received too little attention,” laments political scientist Paul Whiteley of the University of Essex, in an article on the difficulty of pollsters in understanding the issue of racism in their surveys.
According to a recent poll, only 10% of Britons think an ethnic minority prime minister would be bad for the country; 26% recommended this prospect as a positive event. But a majority of respondents (58%) believe that this question is not relevant.
“Most Britons believe that the question of the Prime Minister’s origins or beliefs is not important,” said Sunder Katwala. “They will judge Sunak on his ability to end the chaos in Westminster, restore public finances and restore confidence in politics.”