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‘This Is Not Britain’s Obama Moment’

Adrian Goldberg speaks to Michael Bankole, who has researched race and representation in politics, about what Rishi Sunak’s rise to power means for ethnic minorities in Britain for the Byline Times Podcast

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak enters Downing Street. Photo: Victoria Jones/PA/Alamy

‘This Is Not Britain’s Obama Moment’

Adrian Goldberg speaks to Michael Bankole, who has researched race and representation in politics, about what Rishi Sunak’s rise to power means for ethnic minorities in Britain for the Byline Times Podcast

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AG: Rishi Sunak is Britain’s first Asian Prime Minister. The president of the Hindu temple in Southampton founded by his grandfather hailed his election as “the UK’s Barack Obama moment”. Is it?

MB: Sunak doesn’t want it to be our Obama moment. He’s constantly sought to de-emphasise his race and he speaks about how he’s a British man first and foremost. A reason Obama’s election in the US meant so much to African Americans was because he spoke out about racism and about how proud he was to be a black man representing black interests, as well as the interests of Americans more broadly. Sunak has been part of governments that have passed racially repressive policies.

But Sunak is of Punjabi Indian descent and his parents arrived in the UK from east Africa. Young people of ethnic minority heritage in the UK will see him as Prime Minister and think ‘I can do that – there are no barriers to me in the UK’?

The important thing to remember here is intersectionality.  Of course, he is an Asian man. But he’s also the wealthiest MP we’ve had in British politics, who has a level of privilege. So I don’t think it’d be realistic for young Asian people to say ‘I could be like that one day’ because Rishi Sunak has enjoyed some privileges that have allowed him to scale the political ladder in the way that he has over the last a few years.

Why do you think Sunak doesn’t really represent Asian people in the UK? 

He is an upper-class man, he went to public school, went to Oxford, he was a banker. All of these things differentiate him from the broader Asian community.  He’s also just different from most of the British public. 

When you look at Conservative ethnic minority MPs and compare them to Labour’s, there’s a clear difference in how they act when it comes to representing the interest of minorities in Britain. Labour MPs like David Lammy, Diane Abbott and Dawn Butler have committed a lot of work to anti-racism activism in Parliament and continue to raise awareness on issues that disproportionately affect minority communities. On the Conservative side, their MPs tend to de-emphasise their race, to the extent where they are the face of racially repressive policies. Priti Patel was the face of the Rwanda deportation flights and Suella Braverman took that policy on, even talking about it being her “dream”.

As Prime minister, you’re not solely there to represent the interests of your community – that would be a ridiculous kind of request to make. But because minority interests had been excluded from Parliament and only now we are seeing them represented in big numbers, there is the hope that they will use that position of power to advance the interests of minorities in Britain. 

In which way do you believe Sunak “de-emphasises” his race?

He has spoken about his past, how his parents came here, and how Britain has helped them – but he primarily focuses on the fact that he’s a British man and he doesn’t really emphasise the fact he’s Asian. It’s part of what the Conservatives call a ‘colourblind’ approach. So it’s about ‘no, I’m not Asian, I’m not black – I’m a British man. First and foremost, I’m Conservative, and I happen to be Asian’. Whereas on the left, it’s all about ‘yes, I’m proud to be black and proud to be on the left’.  

The Conservative approach has seen ethnic minority politicians ascend to the frontbench but it also seeks to ignore structural racism and says to individuals ‘use your own agency and you can flourish and you can thrive’

That’s the problem – the colourblind approach that the Conservatives adopt with race and racism is that you ignore the structural issues that might affect minorities progressing in Britain. You focus on the idea that ‘if you work as hard as I did, you can become Prime Minister or you can become Chancellor one day’ – but you ignore the disadvantages that might affect a young black boy growing up in Tottenham or Hackney. You ignore the fact that they might have less access to resources that Rishi Sunak or others had access to. That’s the problem with the colourblind approach – you ignore the structural issues that exist in Britain.

The Conservative Party is promoting lots of minority candidates into positions of power but they’re pursuing a racially oppressive agenda – encouraging the ‘culture war’, encouraging football fans to boo taking the knee. Doing this with minority MPs in positions of power allows you to block any criticism of racist policies.  Conservative minority MPs act almost like a shield against any talk of the party being racist.

The party which has given us the only female prime ministers is the Conservative Party and it has now also given us the first Asian leader...

Labour does have more than half of minority MPs, and this does raise serious questions as to why they aren’t being promoted to the front benches in the same way the Conservative Party are doing. We have to remember the Conservative Party only has 22 minority MPs, with a large number in government. So real questions need to be asked of Labour and why they do such a poor job.

Do you think people from minority backgrounds have an obligation to try and carry some of their heritage forward with them into the frontbench of politics?

I wouldn’t say anyone has an obligation to act in a way that doesn’t suit their politics, but I think that minority voters want someone who’s in a position of power tackling the interests that could affect them disproportionately. Racism is an issue that most minorities across Britain really do want to be challenged. I wouldn’t say MPs from minority backgrounds must do this, any more than there should be a forced expectation on women who serve in high office to promote the interests of women. It’s just more of a hope that they do.

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