Rishi Sunak isn’t a victory for diversity – he’s more of the same

Conservatives can brag about having the first this-or-that person in this-or-that position all day long, but it doesn’t magically make their party a bastion of social equality

Ryan Coogan
Tuesday 25 October 2022 14:58 BST
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Biden calls Rishi Sunak becoming next UK PM ‘a groundbreaking milestone’

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

Editor

A couple of years ago, I went to the US as part of an exchange trip during my PhD. This was just as the 2016 election was heating up, so I spent a lot of my time talking politics with liberal college professors who were just to the left of Marx on just about every issue, and our conversations couldn’t have been more of an echo chamber if we’d sealed ourselves into a pod and shot ourselves into space.

I remember I was invited to one professor’s house for Thanksgiving, and the subject of recently-appointed prime minister Theresa May came up. My little coven of American liberals was in pretty much unanimous agreement: “A woman in charge? You must be thrilled. What a great day for the rights of the marginalised.”

It was difficult to explain to a group of people who were throwing their lot in behind Hilary Clinton to slay the spectre of sexism once and for all in American politics that, sure, May was a woman. But she was still a monster.

“You know, like Margaret Thatcher?” I remember asking. A quick exchange of glances. “Was… Thatcher not good either?”

We’re seeing a similar thing happen now that Rishi Sunak is taking his mandatory three-week stint in the big boy chair (a rite of passage all Tory MPs must apparently go through at some point during this government’s tenure), becoming the UK’s first British Asian prime minister.

Joe Biden even hailed his appointment as a “groundbreaking milestone”. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that this country – and the Conservative Party in particular – is able to overcome its history of degrading racism to the point that a BAME person can hold the highest office in the land (even if it is only until Halloween). But celebrating the appointment of a man who has been complicit – if not instrumental – in the adoption of policies that have disproportionately harmed minority ethnic communities isn’t just short-sighted. It’s obscene.

The symbolic victory of having a British Asian person assume power doesn’t count for much when that British Asian person holds huge swathes of your country in contempt due to their backgrounds and financial circumstances. Just like how it doesn’t matter if your home secretary is of Indian descent when that home secretary describes shipping immigrants off to Rwanda with a near-sexual pleasure.

Sunak may be from a minority background, but he’s also worth around £730m. He’s married to a woman who’s richer than the late Queen. He’s boasted about funnelling money from deprived urban areas to wealthy ones. His experience of life is so far removed from the average British Asian’s – or the life of anybody living in the UK – that touting his identity as some victory rings completely hollow.

It also causes us to question why we even tout these victories in the first place. Not to say that we shouldn’t – we absolutely should – but it’s worth keeping track of why these milestones are significant to begin with. Having a British Asian, or a female, or a Black, or a trans person in a position of authority isn’t just good for its own sake; it’s good because it acts as tangible proof of social progress. But when that progress is embodied by somebody whose beliefs, policies and actions are so wildly regressive, it creates something of a nullifying effect.

Conservatives can brag about having the first this-or-that person in this-or-that position all day long, but it doesn’t magically make their party a bastion of social equality. It just means that we’ve arrived at a point where those identity characteristics aren’t automatically tied to issues of class the way they were in the past.

Because that’s what this really comes down to: class. We do so much to avoid talking about issues of class in this country that we’ll go out of our way to praise a near-billionaire for getting to the top so he can enact policies that may kill people living on benefits. We get so caught up in symbolic signifiers that we completely ignore tangible realities like whether or not a person can afford to live.

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The fact is that if Sunak’s appointment tells us anything about the UK, it’s this: you can be prime minister without being white. You can be prime minister without being Christian. You can even be prime minister without being elected. But you can’t be prime minister without being rich.

We can squeal and clap our hands with neoliberal glee every time a wealthy person of colour gets a turn ruining the country, but it means very little until we fill those seats with people who know what it’s like actually living here on the front lines. Regardless of ethnicity, religion, sexuality or a million other characteristics that pair just as well with “rich” as “white and male” do, each victory will ring hollow until we manage to breach the halls of power with meaningful class representation.

There isn’t much point making the House of Commons look like a CW show if nobody in that visually diverse cast of characters has any idea how to use a contactless credit card.

Sunak isn’t a victory for diversity; he’s more of the same. The sooner we recognise that, the sooner we’ll realise what it’s going to take to inject our politics with real (and much-needed) diversity of background. We’ll have to be quick though. He’ll probably have been replaced by the time you get to the end of this article.

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