OPINION: Rishi Sunak’s rise to the top embodies ‘the British dream’

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OPINION: Rishi Sunak’s rise to the top embodies ‘the British dream’

Zaki Cooper says all minority communities should celebrate the ascent of Britain's first Hindu prime minister

Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak delivering his Budget to the House of Commons. Picture date: Wednesday March 3, 2021.
Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak delivering his Budget to the House of Commons. Picture date: Wednesday March 3, 2021.

When Rishi Sunak met King Charles, it’s not known if the monarch wished him greetings for Diwali. The fact that Sunak was confirmed as PM on the Festival of Lights on Monday was particularly poignant for the 1.5 million strong British Indian community.

Sunak’s ascent as a politician has been meteoric. Just seven years ago, he had not even entered Parliament, having forged a successful career in banking and finance. He was selected for the safe Conservative seat of Richmond in Yorkshire, which he won at the 2015 general election. Earmarked as one to watch, he quickly rose up the ranks. He became a Minister in the summer of 2019 and was then promoted to Chancellor in February 2020 (still in his 30s), after the sudden resignation of Sajid Javid.

Within weeks, he was contending with the decimation of the British economy after the lockdown following the rapid stead of the Covid virus. He quickly put together a huge rescue package for the economy.

Sunak’s elevation has additional significance on a number of levels. The 57th occupant of Number 10 since 1721, he is the first Premier from the black or Asian community.

The progress made today stands on the shoulders of so many who’ve come before. When Lionel Rothschild became the “first Jewish MP” in 1858, this dealt a significant blow for minority involvement in politics. He was elected five times before he was eventually able to join the Commons without swearing the traditional Christian oath. Ironically, Rothschild, who remained an MP for the City of London for a further 15 years, never spoke in the House. However, the events of 1858 were an important step on the road of Jewish emancipation.

It also encouraged other minorities to participate in politics. The first Asian MP was Dadabhai Naoroji, elected in 1892. Whilst he won the contest to become Liberal MP for Central Finsbury, he had lost an election for the seat of Holborn six years previously. The PM at the time, Lord Salisbury, said that the constituents were not ready to have a “black man” as their representative.

In the post-War era, the big step-change in progress has been made in the last 35 years. As a result of the 1987 general election, 4 MPs from black and Asian backgrounds were elected and the trend has generally increased, to the point where 65 MPs with this profile were elected at the last election in 2019. This represents 10% of the composition of the House of Commons, near the 13% of the proportion of the country as a whole. In recent years, politicians have occupied all the great offices of state. Under Liz Truss’s brief premiership, for a time, the Chancellor, Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary were all from ethnic minorities.

Whether Sunak is the first ethic minority PM is a matter of conjecture. It depends whether you classify Jews as an ethnic minority and whether you regard Benjamin Disraeli as Jewish. Disraeli, who served two terms as Prime Minister (1868 and 1874-80), was nominally a Christian – his father converted after a row with Bevis Marks – though also proud of his Jewish heritage. On one occasion after an insulting comment from another parliamentarian Daniel O’ Connell, Disraeli famously responded: “Yes, I am a Jew and when the ancestors of the right honourable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon.”

Like our own community, the Asian community has faced its own prejudice and discrimination. Sunak’s parents came from East Africa, of Indian origin. A big influx from east African Asians arrived 50 years ago, in 1972. The PM at the time, Edward Heath, was determined to support their cause, and a total of 30,000 Ugandans came to the UK. They were not universally welcomed. As an example, in the 1970s, Leicester Council took out an ad in the Uganda Argus to warn people away – “in the interests of yourself and your family, you should accept the advice of the Uganda Resettlement Board, and not come to Leicester.”

The advancement made by ethnic minorities in politics has compared well to progress in other realms, such as business and law. Most FTSE board are still, to use Greg Dyke’s phrase, “hideously white.” Meanwhile, recent statistics show that 5% of judges were from Asian backgrounds and 1% were from black backgrounds.

Whatever one thinks of Sunak’s politics, his rise should make us proud of the country we are. That the child of African-born Hindu parents of Indian descent can rise to the top job in politics is something to boast about. It’s not only Indians that should treasure this but also people from all minorities including our own community. If ever there was something called the “British dream”, Sunak embodies it. But with problems coming at the new PM from every angle, there is no time for a honeymoon. The hard work begins now.

  • Zaki Cooper is the Co-Chair of the British Indian Jewish Association and Co-Founder of Integra.
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