It may feel like a footnote, given the extraordinary economic crisis the country faces, but the arrival of Britain’s first non-white Prime Minister does feel like a watershed moment. (Rishi Sunak is not Britain’s first ethnic minority PM, however – that was Benjamin Disraeli way back in 1868.)
Sunak’s rise to PM will understandably carry a great deal of significance for many Britons from Indian-origin families who trace their roots back to east Africa – communities which have made outstanding contributions to the social, economic and cultural spheres of British life. It is particularly fitting that Sunak, who was proven so right over Liz Truss’s disastrous economic plans, becomes our country’s first Hindu prime minister on Diwali – a festival that celebrates the spiritual victory of light over darkness and knowledge over ignorance.
Sunak’s life story is one which is characterised by optimism, strong family values, a dedicated work ethic and high levels of achievement in both an academic and professional capacity. In an era of tribal identity politics and frequent Britain-bashing exercises, his elevation to head of government further cements the UK’s status as one of the most advanced multi-racial democracies in the Western world. There is no question that improvements can be made in terms of social cohesion and equality of opportunity – but Britain remains a relatively successful democracy which provides comprehensive anti-discrimination protections and religious freedoms for its ethnic minorities.
For those who believe in the power of ‘descriptive representation’, it’s tempting to think Sunak’s background will help to grow the Tory share of support among British Indian voters. They are a critical constituency who many would consider ‘natural Tories’ – generally family-oriented, aspirational, entrepreneurial and with strong intergenerational upward mobility.
It would be a mistake, however, to see ‘British Indians’ as some homogenous bloc. Like India itself, Brits of Indian origin are extremely diverse in terms of ethnic background, religious affiliation, linguistic heritage and migratory history – something reinforced by a landmark survey last year. But while the rise of Indian-heritage politicians like Sunak provides the Tories with the appearance of being an inclusive political party, there is no guarantee that such representation will bolster British-Indian support for the Conservatives. Identity-based representation is simply not that big a deal for many British Indians. For example, a comfortable majority, 56%, say that it is not important for them to have an Indian-origin MP representing their constituency.
It can also be argued that having an Indian-origin PM will enable the UK to build closer diplomatic relations with India itself. Of course, an integral part of the UK’s post-Brexit foreign-policy identity should be cultivating stronger trading, defence and educational ties with India. The second-most populous country in the world is undoubtedly a strategically important partner for the UK in the post-Brexit international system – especially when it comes to security co-operation in the Indo-Pacific region. This is one of the five pillars of the UK-India ‘Roadmap 2030’, which also envisages deeper links between the two countries over cyber-related threats.
But this should be treated as a separate goal from appealing to Britain’s Indian diaspora. Only a small portion of British Indians view UK-India relations as a top political priority. Indeed, when compared with UK-India relations, British Indian voters are more likely to say that the UK’s post-Brexit relationship with the European Union (EU) is their most important political issue on a personal level. Along with many not prioritising UK-India relations in their electoral considerations, a plurality of Indian-heritage Brits believe that organisations affiliated with Indian political parties – such as the Overseas Friends of the BJP and Indian Overseas Congress – should not get involved in British domestic politics (46%), with under one in five believing they should (19%).
If the Conservative Party wants to be a more electorally competitive force in the wider British-Indian population, the best way to do so is by focusing on the bread-and-butter of economic management, improving the NHS and lifting educational standards. The inclusive championing of stable family structures, academic excellence and entrepreneurial activity would go down a treat with many British Indian voters – and indeed, much of the population in general. It would serve the Sunak-led Conservatives well to keep a safe distance from subcontinental-style sectarian politics and not to fall into the trap of believing that identity-based representation will automatically bring Indian-heritage voters into the Tory fold.
Sunak becoming our first non-white PM is a significant moment in our post-WWII history as a confident pluralistic democracy. But it is always worth remembering that British voters – from all walks of life – are ultimately far more interested in policy and quality of governance than the colour of a politician’s skin.
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