by Priyamvada Gopal
Britain now has its first prime minister of Asian descent with family links going back to present-day Pakistan, India and East Africa. He is apparently an observant Hindu, another first for the top job in British politics. To a photo call with his predecessors, Rishi Sunak would certainly bring the “tan” that he likes to make cringeworthy jokes about when addressing largely white Conservative audiences.
Sunak’s Asian and Hindu background has been hailed in different quarters as a triumph for diversity in Britain. Prominent Indian writer and politician, Shashi Tharoor, claims Sunak’s “breathtaking” achievement outstrips Barack Obama’s election to the presidency of the United States in 2008.
But Tharoor argues erroneously that Black people have been visible on the American political landscape longer than Asians in British politics. Britain, in fact, had an Asian member of parliament in the Victorian age – Conservative Mancherjee Bhownaggree in 1895, followed shortly thereafter by Dadabhai Naoroji and Shapurji Saklatvala.
Even Sunak’s novelty as an Asian party leader on these islands can be overstated: Neighbouring Ireland has already had Leo Varadkar, a prime minister of Indian heritage, as does Portugal at the moment.
Also, unlike Sunak, who was crowned by a handful of parliamentary colleagues, Obama was actually elected by voters.
Within wider Tory-voting ranks, not known for embracing immigrant communities, there have been plenty of angry mutterings that the party under Sunak’s leadership will lose their vote. Only a few weeks ago, Sunak had indeed lost the membership’s vote to the patently incompetent Liz Truss. In Britain, there have already been racist images widely shared on social media, including one that shows 10 Downing Street as an Asian grocery store.
“Diversity” is a meaningless term unless it heralds real change. Even Mahatma Gandhi noted that his patriotism did not mean people could “be crushed under the heel of Indian princes, if only the English retire”. Sunak is very much a British Indian prince, not just privately educated and extremely wealthy but an ideologically committed activist for the riches and privileges of Britain’s small oligarch class to be bolstered at the expense of the many.
Britain is reeling under a crushing dozen years of Tory rule during which wealth has been concentrated in the hands of a record number of billionaires. Sunak only promises more of the same if not worse: widening and grave inequality with increasing numbers facing destitution, frozen wages, a National Health Service suffering from inadequate funding and stealth privatisation, cuts to public services, a steep cost of living, escalating rents, increased food scarcity, unaffordable energy prices and enormous immiseration for many vulnerable people. One viral video shows Sunak actually boasting about taking money allocated to deprived areas and diverting it into well-heeled Conservative constituencies.
Sunak, who is on the Sunday Times’ fabled Rich List, certainly represents a minority – but not Britain’s Black, Asian and other minority ethnic communities. The former banker, hedge fund boss and multimillionaire shared a nearly 100-million-pound ($116m) payout from a fund which, in the words of The Times, “lit the touchpaper on the 2008 financial crisis”. He represents his small class of plutocrats for whom extracting wealth from and levying financial suffering on wider society is precisely the means to further enrichment. The collective wealth of the British super-rich has recently increased by $61bn.
In a Tory party whose cabinets and front benches are routinely filled with multimillionaires, Sunak is merely the richest in a gang notable not for their diversity but for their class homogeneity, including private school and Oxbridge educations. Alongside them, Sunak, who studied at the expensive Winchester private school, has voted to not extend free school meals to Britain’s poorest children, many of whom now go hungry at school to the dismay of their teachers.
He has voted against paying decent benefits to those unable to work due to illness or disability and to lower welfare spending in general. For the further advantage of the already well-off, Sunak has helped reduce capital gains taxes and is against higher taxes on banks and against measures to reduce tax avoidance. As we now know, Sunak and his wife have themselves benefitted from such legal tax avoidance, potentially costing the public purse some 20 million pounds ($23m).
Might we at least expect Sunak to be a champion of diversity and equal rights? On the contrary, Sunak has enthusiastically participated in the Conservative party’s blatantly racist “war on woke” which attacks campaigns for equal rights and educational projects which seek to illuminate histories of race, racism, and empire. Sunak would classify those he deems to be “vilifying” Britain, a description often applied to critics of the British empire and racism, as “extremists” and refer them to “deradicalisation” programmes.
Like his fellow British Asian colleagues Priti Patel and Suella Braverman, Sunak has consistently acted as a wingman for the Conservative party’s racist policies, which include sending desperate asylum seekers and refugees to Rwanda. He has now reappointed Braverman, who has vowed to reduce immigration despite the objections of even some in her party, to the powerful post of home secretary.
There is nothing more morally repugnant than those who have themselves benefited from immigration and refuge refusing it to others in need. Sunak, Patel, Braverman and others may make political capital by railing against the “wokerati” and “woke nonsense” but they themselves would not be where they are if others had not bravely campaigned for progressive values and racial justice.
Sunak represents the triumph of a carefully managed and trivialised diversity that serves to conceal the reality of the unvarying oligarchy that Britain has become.
The tough medicine that Sunak will offer in the form of “difficult decisions” is not going to be administered to the bloat of concentrated wealth but inflicted upon the many who are already squeezed or struggling. As the organisation Tax Justice has pointed out, the medicine of change that is really needed includes modest wealth taxes on the super-rich (many of whom profited hugely during the pandemic) as well as the closing of loopholes that allow tax evasion. These moves could raise a much-needed 37 billion pounds ($43bn) for Britain’s decimated public services.
Since the announcement of Sunak’s accession to the British prime ministership, we have heard the refrain that whatever his politics, an Asian leader is cause for celebration.
It is bizarre to invite people to set aside a politician’s politics to celebrate their ethnicity. It’s like asking people to set aside a fashion designer’s style or a chef’s ability to cook in judging their work. But we must also reject the racist notion that the content of what a Black or Asian leader offers is not relevant to questions of social change.
What a Britain utterly broken by Tory rule desperately needs are not diverse shades of exploitation and inequality but the welcome multiplicity of shared wellbeing. That is a long way off.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.
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