Diversity debate rages as Sunak, a British Indian, becomes UK PM

For the first time in the United Kingdom’s history, the country is being led by a non-white person as prime minister.

At 42, Rishi Sunak, who is Hindu, is also the youngest prime minister in more than 200 years.

He was born in Southampton to ethnic Indian immigrant parents.

And on Monday, he was elected by his Conservative Party to take over from Liz Truss, who broke an unenviable record as the shortest-serving prime minister. She held Britain’s top job for 44 days and failed to outlast a lettuce.

But is Sunak’s appointment a win for representation, or mere cosmetic change that will plough the country into further austerity measures while promising tax breaks for the rich?

According to Nayaz Qazi, director of the Conservative Friends of India organisation, Sunak’s elevation is “a very proud moment for British Indians and all ethnic minority communities”.

“Rishi’s appointment is a testament to how the Conservative Party promotes talent and meritocracy,” Qazi told Al Jazeera. “This will inspire all communities, particularly the British Indian and ethnic minority communities.”

But for others, reaching the highest rank in Westminster – while a feat in itself as a member of an ethnic minority – is less about British multiculturalism and more about embodying the Conservative Party’s increasingly right-wing policies.

“Given the recent records of both Priti Patel and Suella Braverman [who also have Indian origins] in the Home Office, there is little reason to assume a politician coming from an ethnic minority will mean they have a progressive policy agenda,” said Michael Walker, a contributing editor to Novara Media.

“Indeed, in his previous contest with Truss, Sunak pledged to put a cap on refugee numbers – an appalling policy that would clearly be against international law.”

A previous finance minister under Boris Johnson’s cabinet, Sunak was a fierce advocate for Brexit and has promised to implement harsher measures against asylum seekers and immigration.

His policy includes a 10-point plan to fix the “broken” asylum system and end what he called the “farce” of housing asylum seekers in hotels.

Priyamvada Gopal, a professor of postcolonial studies at Cambridge University, said Sunak’s position cannot be celebrated as a win for diversity, given that the Tory party’s policies are not known for empowering racial and other minorities.

“Sunak has himself consistently played on the ‘anti-woke’ side of the culture wars the party likes to stoke, adopting the role of a racial minority who is happy to enable white majoritarianism,” Gopal told Al Jazeera.

For the rich

There is also the class factor. The multimillionaire Oxford-educated former hedge fund boss is married to an Indian billionaire’s daughter and has in the past boasted about not having friends from the “working class” and more recently, about diverting money from poorer areas to more affluent neighbourhoods.

“Given the Tories are promising further cuts to our already collapsing public services, it might be Sunak’s extraordinary wealth that is the more relevant factor to the public than his ethnicity,” Walker said.

He inherits a job plagued by the economic turmoil that his predecessor Truss put in motion with her fiscal policies, resulting in the British pound tumbling to record lows as markets collapsed and leading to a rare rebuke from the International Monetary Fund.

Sunak is expected to impose deep spending cuts to try to rebuild the UK’s fiscal reputation while inflation soars to a record 40-year high and the country slides into a recession, dragged down by the surging costs of energy and food.

“What Sunak represents ultimately is the financial might of the City [a financial district of London] as well as the wealthy, and there is very little indication that his policies will do anything for the increasing number of people at the sharp end of widening economic inequality that the Conservatives have played an active role in creating,” Gopal said.

“My expectations are that Sunak will not deliver for the vast majority of Britons but he might just be able to pull off carrying the party into the next election – and likely lose.”

‘Right person to lead the UK’

But for the Conservative Friends of India, Sunak is the right person to heal the politically fractured Conservative party and to “steer Britain out of the challenges the country and our citizens face”.

“Rishi is becoming the prime minister at a challenging time, but he has already demonstrated he can find solutions for the country and the citizens,” the group’s director Qazi said, referring to Sunak’s role as finance minister during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are confident that Rishi will deliver for the country and deal with the cost of living crisis and inflation and other economic challenges we are facing,” he added.

Runnymede Trust, a race equality think-tank, welcomed Sunak’s appointment but urged him to work towards protecting the public sector and to increase benefits in line with inflation for those struggling to make ends meet.

“It is a poignant and symbolic moment for a grandchild of the British Empire to accede to the highest office in the land,” a statement on the organisation’s website said.

“It’s time to put to bed the era of dog-whistle politics and a legislative agenda that has so harmed ethnic minority communities across the country, and instead commit to tackling all forms of discrimination including structural racism.”

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