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The Identity Trap: No One Narrative Can Encompass the Different Dimensions of Diversity

As Britain welcomes its first Asian Prime Minister, Hardeep Matharu explores how our pluralistic society is reflected in the multiplicity of its migrant experience – as demonstrated by the different reactions to Rishi Sunak’s rise 

Family photos from Rishi Sunak’s Conservative leadership contest launch film this summer. Photo: YouTube/Ready For Rishi

THE IDENTITY TRAPNo One Narrative Can Encompass the Different Dimensions of Diversity

As Britain welcomes its first Asian Prime Minister, Hardeep Matharu explores how our pluralistic society is reflected in the multiplicity of its migrant experience – as demonstrated by the different reactions to Rishi Sunak’s rise 

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Rishi Sunak is Britain’s first Prime Minister of colour. He’s also the wealthiest resident Downing Street has ever had.

Is his rise a win for representation and diversity in the UK; the culmination of its thriving, multicultural story? Or does it mask some uncomfortable truths about how race works in Britain today?

Sunak’s grandparents were born in pre-partition India and migrated to British East Africa, before coming to the UK in the 60s. His father, a GP, was born and raised in British Kenya; while his pharmacist mother was born in the British colonial territory of Tanganyika. Southampton-born Sunak has seldom spoken about racism and his political identity is seemingly not shaped by it.

But in his first speech in Parliament in 2015, he said “I owe a great debt to our country for what it has done for my family: showing tolerance, providing opportunities and rewarding their hard work”. His Conservative leadership campaign this summer was launched with a personal film, starting with his grandmother’s journey to the UK.

The many reactions to Sunak’s ascent, especially among ethnic minorities themselves, paints its own picture: one in which understanding our history is important and the discussion of the uncomfortable complexities of our past necessary; of how identities don’t conform to simplistic assumptions; about social mobility in a country where class endures; and one where the different experiences of different generations will shape them in their own ways.    

By avoiding easy conclusions and exploring conflicting ideas, we can avoid falling into the trap of ‘either/or’ understanding. As the response to Sunak’s story shows, no one fixed narrative can, or should, explain its relevance for modern Britain. 

‘The Optical Illusion of Diversity’

The day Rishi Sunak emerged as Britain’s new Prime Minister, the president of the Hindu temple in his home town, founded by his grandfather, declared that “the UK’s Barack Obama moment” had come.

On countless WhatsApp groups, ethnic minorities exchanged memes and messages marking the occasion. One forwarded to me by relatives depicted Rishi Sunak, London Mayor Sadiq Khan and King Charles mocked up in the film poster for Amar, Akbar and Anthony – a 1997 Bollywood movie exploring tolerance. Its centres on the story of three brothers separated as children and raised respectively in the Hindu, Muslim and Christian faiths. 

But for journalist and author Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Sunak’s rise bears no comparison to the 2008 election of the charismatic US President of American and Kenyan descent. She describes it as “not our Obama moment but the optical illusion of diversity”.

“Obama, for all his faults, understood what equality was because he had worked in Chicago” –  where he was a community organiser in a predominantly black community, lawyer and lecturer before entering politics, she says. “None of our now most powerful brown and black people in the Tory Party have ever had that experience – they are middle-class and that is the deficit of understanding.”

She feels “no pride” in Sunak becoming Prime Minister. “It’s like saying to me, when Margaret Thatcher was in power, I should always have felt this amazing feminist pride – she did nothing for women.”

Born in Uganda, Alibhai-Brown came to Britain in her early 20s shortly before the expulsion of the country’s Asians by Idi Amin, who said he was reversing British colonialism by “giving Uganda back to ethnic Ugandans”. Under the Empire, many Ugandan Asians had lived a middle-class existence there – ‘below’ their white British rulers and ‘above’ the country’s black population. Kenya, where my father grew up, was another of Britain’s stratified colonial societies. 

For Alibhai-Brown, there’s an “expectation” that the children of immigrants should empathise with other immigrants “because it’s a reflection of your own life” – something she believes the current crop of high-profile ethnic minority Conservatives “betray”.

“They should reflect their own histories,” she says. “If you are a child of immigrants who came here for the good life, and then you try your damnedest to dehumanise people today who are trying to do the same, it’s not a question of ‘left or right’. I have a lot of right-wing friends, some of them in the Tory Party like Sayeeda Warsi, who I admire so much – but I respect her because she understands that you don’t turn on immigrants and make your career climbing on the backs of the most helpless people.

“If you betray your own history, in order to fit in or assimilate, by dehumanising migrants and asylum seekers, then I think it is a legitimate question to ask ‘am I proud?’ or ‘how can you do this?’”

“The optics camouflage some pretty unpleasant policies” that the Conservatives have introduced affecting ethnic minorities and, in her mind, prominent Tory politicians of colour are making “quite a cynical calculation” to fit in politically with the modern Conservative Party and the white British establishment more broadly – by having ideologies more to the right of those on the right when it comes to issues such as immigration.

But the Empire also casts a long shadow. Both Rishi Sunak and Priti Patel’s families migrated to Britain from British East Africa and would have benefited from the specific dynamics of the ‘divide and rule’ imperialism there, according to Alibhai-Brown. For some Asians, this included an inability to “tolerate black rule” – something she has spoken of in the past as a taboo to even mention.

These migrants to Britain were people “who were attached to the Empire and had attachments of empire”, she says of the Prime Minister and other families like his. 

Rishi Sunak’s wife Akshata Murty and parents listen to his final Conservative leadership hustings speech this summer. Photo: Belinda Jiao/Alamy

‘What Good Looks Like is Normal’

This summer’s first Conservative leadership contest – in which Rishi Sunak lost out to Liz Truss – had some questioning whether the Tory membership would vote for Sunak as a man of colour. 

It wasn’t a position that sat well with Sunder Katwala, director of the British Future think tank, who says the polling showed something quite different.

There’s a “daft and stupid form of progressive pessimism”, he says, which asks: “You don’t really think they’re going to accept him, do you?” The support for Kemi Badenoch among the Conservative membership, as well as other research, shows “it’s clear that the median voter doesn’t have a barrier” when it comes to race, he says.

“Progressives don’t understand that that form of imputed prejudice was the brake on ethnic minority Conservatives. It’s still the brake in Liberal Democrat selection meetings. It’s still a brake in Labour Party selection meetings in whiter areas.” 

Katwala sees Rishi Sunak’s elevation as a “historical, symbolic moment” that has been “strikingly low key and understated” because he wasn’t elected by the country to the top job. This “leaves unanswered some of the debates around ‘what would the Tory members really have done? What would the voters have done?’”

Does Sunak’s rise represent ‘progress’? For Katwala, “what good looks like is normal” and “the ethnic diversity of Britain is normal”. On this front, countries such as the UK and Canada have come far further far more quickly than other multicultural societies. 

“If you ask: did Thatcher achieve anything for women’s representation? Well Thatcher wasn’t particularly interested in women’s representation as she didn’t promote any women, but it was still important that there was a female prime minister – the symbolic importance matters anyway.” 

Katwala believes “the over-amplification of the ‘surprise factor’ of having any black or Asian Conservatives leads to an over-amplification of a particularly narrow niche: the ‘anti-woke’ black and Asian Conservative – that’s not representative of black and Asian Conservatives, no less than black and Asian people directly”.

To some – despite the fact that Sunak, Patel and other ethnic minority Conservatives such as Suella Braverman should be able to hold whatever political views they want, regardless of their race – these politicians have been politically useful to the likes of Boris Johnson, who consistently pointed to the diversity of the Cabinet to deflect discussion of racism.

“It might have that motive,” Katwala says. “When the Trump Republican Party puts forward a black candidate, I suspect that it could have that motive – but it might have that impact even if it hasn’t got that motive.

“There can be a form of inverse identity politics. ‘I faced racism in the playground therefore my government department could not be racist’ is not an answer to how you fix the Windrush Scandal. 

“If Sunak says legal migration is different from illegal migration, what you want is not ‘how can you, Rishi Sunak, have such a policy?’ but whether he accepts the lessons of the Windrush Scandal are still to be dealt with… He’s got the responsibility of the British state to deal with it.”

On this analysis, actions to deal with disparity and discrimination – rather than assessments about these individuals’ psychology and identities – should be the metric. 

According to the Government’s Equality Hub, it is “already delivering” the recommendations in the ‘Inclusive Britain’ report – a response to last year’s controversial Sewell Report – “which sets out a groundbreaking action plan to tackle negative disparities, promote unity, and build a fairer Britain for all”. 

“Our view of race across generations, across groups, needs to be a bit more sophisticated” but instead “it’s getting more simplistic”, according to Katwala.

The Labour Party’s high levels of diverse representation in Parliament, for instance, doesn’t mean that a culture of fairness and equality exists throughout its processes, he says – in the same way that Sunak becoming Prime Minister doesn’t mean there won’t be casual racism in the Conservative membership. 

Narratives around imperialist ‘divide and rule’ politics and ‘collaborators’ are also wide off the mark, he believes.

“It’s imagining the elite institutions to be white as a fact – which clearly they are – but also to be defending whiteness as their values,” he says. “If you look at the American South, you can see why white ideology matters. Do we think the British Civil Service or corporate elite is there as an agent of whiteness or thinks of itself as an agent of whiteness and that’s something it’s defending? I don’t see how that follows through… What we’ve got is a salience of whiteness that is an anxiety about diversity deficits in liberal institutions on the whole. 

“Those ‘divide and rule’ analogies are coding a lot of things as ‘white’ that most ethnic minority Britons wouldn’t accept as ‘white’. It’s a coded way of saying you’re either naïve or a fool or a coconut or you’re being a collaborator.”

Jamaican immigrants welcomed by RAF officials from the Colonial Office after the ex-troopship HMT Empire Windrush docked in Tilbury. Photo: PA/Alamy

But the Empire is relevant when it comes to understanding how and why some immigrants are so invested in British identity. 

“The conversation we have about race only really makes sense, I think, if you are from an Empire and Commonwealth background,” Katwala says. “The British post-imperial discourse is really quite a distinct one from the French or Belgian post-imperial discourse, for instance, because, from 1948 onwards and especially since the 1990s, British ethnic minorities have a higher sense of identification with the national identity than any ethnic minorities anywhere else or than the white British.

“The Windrush generation and their British-Asian counterparts are basically saying ‘we know our history, we know your history, you don’t know your history if you don’t know we’re British’.” 

Sitting in their classrooms in the Caribbean, the boys and girls who would go on to become the Windrush generation were taught that Britain was the ‘mother country’ – their country. On the day their boat docked in Essex, a Pathe newsreel declared: “Arrivals at Tilbury. Citizens of the British Empire coming to the mother country with good intent. Many are ex-servicemen who know England.”

In a memorable passage from Sam Selvon’s 1956 classic on West Indian migration to Britain, The Lonely Londoners, Moses sets out this claim to Britishness: “Listen, I will give you the name of a place. It call Ipswich. There it have a restaurant run by a Pole call the Rendezvous Restaurant. Go there and see if they will serve you. And you know the hurtful part of it? The Pole who have that restaurant, he ain’t have no more right in this country than we. In fact, we is British subjects and he is only a foreigner, we have more right than any people from the damn continent to live and work in this country, and enjoy what this country have, because is we who bleed to make this country prosperous.”

Katwala suggests it is no surprise that a British-Indian man has become Prime Minister or that this is welcomed by people with immigrant backgrounds – because the story of Britain’s Commonwealth migration has been “about having quite a solid claim on Britishness that comes out of Empire”. 

“It’s under-estimated how much confidence and status and stakeholdership that gives black British and British-Asian people, that Turkish-descended people in Germany, for instance, just don’t have – that level of claim to own the national story or own the national narrative.

“In the insurgent race politics of the younger generation that didn’t have to earn the status of being British… there’s an impatience.”

‘The Deployment is Historically Old’

“Indian son rises over the Empire, history comes full circle in Britain” is how one TV station in India described Rishi Sunak’s appointment as Prime Minister. An Indian newspaper cartoon sent to me by relatives on WhatsApp showed a portrait of Sunak taking its place next to one of former Empress of India, Queen Victoria. For India, Sunak’s advance is a big moment. 

But Priyamvada Gopal is not convinced. For her, discussions about its significance show “how superficial our understanding of both anti-colonialism and of race is”. 

“The discourse from India has very much been about ‘now one of us is ruling you’, which is incredibly superficial in the sense that there isn’t really a significant change in the post-world war order yet that would suggest anything like the end of the legacies of empire,” says the Professor of Post-Colonial Studies at Cambridge University.

Any argument suggesting “Sunak represents some sort of structural shift from the end of Empire” is also baseless, she argues, because of his status in Indian class and Hindu caste terms. Sunak’s father-in-law Narayana Murthy is one of India’s best-known and wealthiest businessmen. In this way, Gopal says, Sunak’s background plays into the hands of an Indian Government led by Narendra Modi, intent on establishing India as a Hindu nationalist state.

“Indian upper castes and wealthy elites quite often, on the one hand, collaborated with British colonialism; and on the other hand, there has always been an argument that the end of colonialism was quite simply the transfer of power from one set of elites to another,” Gopal says. “So, to the extent that we could even remotely see this as having to do with colonialism – and I don’t think one can – we would have to see it in terms of: power is in brown elite hands rather than white elite hands.

“Sunak’s married to a very Brahmin family; a family that is known, in some ways, for its liberal Brahminism, but it’s still Brahminism. That overlaps very well with Hindutva’s very firm Brahminism, and that’s not something that’s necessarily playing out here in the UK. In India, his Hinduness is definitely being deployed.”

Back in Britain, discussions around Sunak’s premiership are missing an understanding of the different types of migration which have taken place to Britain and how this has shaped different migrant communities, Gopal believes.

“There were a group of migrants from east Africa who came from relatively comfortable backgrounds and were also relatively invested in Empire itself,” the author of Insurgent Empire says. “So it’s very strange to talk about this as being the ‘end of Empire’ because actually Asian groups in east Africa very much ran interference between the British Empire and black subjects of Empire; they acted as a buffer – explicitly or implicitly. 

“When they were therefore expelled from Africa in the wake of independence, they came to Britain as grateful subjects of Empire to whom the mother country was giving shelter. It’s very strange to mark somebody whose heritage is very much connected to the movements of Empire, and Asian collaboration with Empire, as being anti-colonial. That’s completely missing from the picture.

“It’s also missing in terms of who some of the home secretaries have been and the ways in which those home secretaries have been deployed in the interests of anti-blackness, because it just assumes that there are ‘whites’ and there are ‘non-whites’. But actually Asians have had a very specific role in terms of the racial politics of Empire. 

“The deployment is historically old – this is something that the British white establishment has long done, to use Asians to run interference on behalf of white supremacy and racism frankly. So I don’t see Patel or Braverman as breaking with Empire – they’re very much of a piece with a very old deployment.”

Gopal says that the individual psychology of prominent ethnic minority Conservatives is “irrelevant” and that she makes assessments based on their behaviour. “And what is said and done is completely of a piece with imperial discourse”.

“Patel had me banned from the Home Office when I was supposed to give a talk there and that was connected to what I had said about the role of Asians in Africa – and so these are uncomfortable realities that they don’t want to hear, in favour of some very bland and superficial celebration of diversity.”

Last year, Gopal tweeted that “Priti Patel is also a reminder that many Asians in British Africa had ferociously anti-black attitudes and were used by colonial administrations to keep black populations in their place. An attitude she brings to government”. 

As Home Secretary, Patel’s approach towards refugees from Hong Kong and Ukraine, for instance, stood in stark contrast to her policies towards asylum seekers crossing the Channel. When her Rwanda scheme to deport them received widespread criticism, she claimed the reaction was racist: “If it was France, if we were sending people to Sweden, New York, Sydney, would they change their mind? That actually speaks of in-built prejudice and I would even go as far as to say, racism”.

The presence of ethnic minority figures such as the upwardly-mobile Sunak in the upper echelons of politics “provides cover for terrifying homogeneity economically-speaking”, Gopal says. 

“Diversity is masking a more lethal non-diversity and homogeneity on the one hand. On the other, it is concerning that people of colour of immigrant background are being deployed to crush people who are far more vulnerable, who are of colour and who are migrants. I think that particular dynamic is deeply toxic and deeply deliberate in its toxicity.”

‘Start Thinking About Other Kinds of Diversity’

“We need to get used to ethnic minorities in senior positions of government who maybe don’t have points of view that historically you would expect and find a way to move past that in a more understanding and kind way,” says Albie Amankona. “A lot of the comments that I hear coming from the left about ethnic minority Conservatives are very mean-spirited… If it was the Labour Party who had installed the first ethnic minority prime minister, the right would not be criticising that moment at all.”

Amankona is the co-founder of the Conservatives Against Racism For Equality group. He believes conclusions drawn by both sides of the political spectrum around Rishi Sunak becoming Prime Minister are inaccurate. 

“A lot of the left-wing commentary has been ‘well this isn’t a win for diversity because he’s wealthy and a capitalist and capitalism is a system that exploits the Global South’ – so it’s not a win for diversity because he’s not a socialist. On the right, you’ve got people saying things like ‘race doesn’t hold people back in Britain and Britain is a completely fair country and there are no racial disparities and let’s pat each other on the back, racism’s done and dusted’. 

“Both of those points of views are wrong, but they do have an element in truth in them.”

The problem lies, he says, with the way we view ‘black and minority ethnic’ as “one group – as one disadvantaged group” because “this paints a picture that anyone who is not white in Britain is at such a disadvantage that we are always shocked when we see them in positions of power”. 

Sunak was privately educated at the prestigious Winchester College and then Oxford University, before studying at America’s Stanford University. A former City analyst and hedge fund manager, the personal wealth of he and his wife Akshata Murty is estimated at £730 million. 

“If you break down ‘black and minority ethnic’ into more specific groups, the British Indian cohort is one of the highest-performing in the UK and out-performs the white British on every single metric apart from healthcare,” says Amankona. “We see a lot of representation of British Indians in independent schools, in boardrooms across the country, in top jobs in STEM and the arts. So it’s not actually a surprise that a British Indian has become the Prime Minister.” 

Based on outcomes, those from a British Caribbean background are least expected to be in positions of power, he says. But because of the focus on increasing visible diversity, questions are not being asked about other relevant factors such as class and opportunity.

In the short period when he was head of the Policy Exchange think tank’s BME Research Unit in 2014, Sunak co-authored a report focusing on Britain’s five biggest ethnic minority communities. It found that Indians are four times more likely to vote Conservative than black Africans and that “although Indians disproportionately concentrate in the highest skilled professions and compare favourably with the white population, all BME communities exhibit lower economic activity rates, higher unemployment and lower levels of full-time workers than the white population”.

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“There is a tendency in the media to assume that all BME communities can be treated as a single political entity – as if all ethnic minorities held similar views and lived similar lives,” the report’s introduction says. “But clearly there is no single ‘BME community’. Families that came to the UK decades ago from the Caribbean will be quite different to recent arrivals from Somalia, or indeed Indian immigrants from East Africa… These differences should be understood by policy-makers and politicians.”

This leads us to what ‘representation’ actually is and how it can be achieved. 

“We need to have a more nuanced discussion about what representation means – whether or not it is just something which is skin deep,” says Amankona. “When it is skin deep and then people say ‘oh no, it doesn’t count because he’s not a socialist’ then obviously something more matters than just the colour of your skin. 

“Is it that we want to have a Cabinet that has more people from state schools in it, like Theresa May’s Cabinet? Nobody spoke about the ‘diversity’ of that Cabinet… it was actually on a similar level to Gordon Brown’s… Every single Cabinet since then, yes it’s been ethnically diverse which is fantastic, but in terms of what might be more important – socio-economic backgrounds – it’s not actually been that different.” 

Amankona believes it is “not accurate to think that ethnic minority Conservatives all have the same point of view” – just as it’s “wrong to think that all ethnic minorities support the Labour Party”.

“We have a shared Conservative ideology but how that expresses itself, and what things we’re passionate about, what things we’re less passionate about, that’s different for the individuals involved,” he says.

He cites the 2021 Census, which found that one in six people in England and Wales were born outside the UK (a 13.4% increase on 2011), as one of the reasons “it is becoming increasingly important that the Conservative Party presents itself in a way which is going to appeal to ethnic minority voters and even immigrant voters… we’re going to have to talk in a way which is going to be attractive to many groups of people who we haven’t been as attractive to in the past”. 

One of those groups has been the Windrush generation, who may have come to Britain with small-c conservative values but did not feel welcomed by a party which included talk of Britain being “swamped” and “the river Tiber foaming with much blood”.

“The Conservatives were blocking out a group of voters who probably would have been more at home with them, as they had a more conservative ideology of aspiration, wanting to own their homes and not take hand-outs,” Amankona says. “Those barriers that stopped immigrants and ethnic minorities with small-c conservative values from voting Conservative in the 20th Century have changed – not as much as I would have liked them to but they have changed because, in 2015, we had 25% of ethnic minorities voting Conservative and every election since it’s been about 20% or so.”

For Amankona, those on the left of the political spectrum need to “think about how they’re going to get their heads around the fact that there are going to be prominent ethnic minority Conservatives probably forever”.

“Maybe it’s time to stop talking about politics as being a place of a ‘snowy peak’ and start thinking about other kinds of diversity which are important but which we haven’t been paying much attention to like people from state schools, for example, or people who didn’t go to university at all. 

“If what matters is political ideology – i.e. left-wingers thinking that a Cabinet full of white, straight males who are liberals is better for ethnic minorities than a Conservative Cabinet with four of the great offices of state not including white males, then does that ‘representation matters’ mentality really make any sense? No it doesn’t.

“If that’s what you think, maybe we need to have a broader conversation about what diversity actually means and what diversity is good and what diversity is bad and, if that’s diversity of thought, well let’s have that conversation.”

Amankona holds up Labour MP Rupa Huq’s comments about former Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng – who she said was “superficially black” – as an example of “racial discrimination”.

“Let’s have an argument about policies, but let’s not argue about whether or not someone is authentically black or Asian… Let’s take the wins where we find them.”

For some, the ‘win’ represented by Rishi Sunak and Conservative diversity is the recognition that people of colour with whatever politics – who do not conform to other people’s assumptions of what their ideology or identity should be – can make it to the top as individual, partisan, politicians in their own right. For them, race has not been a barrier. 

Can we find a way, then, to make ‘representation’ about the individual as well as the collective?

‘Racism Evolves and Revolves’

The day after Rishi Sunak was appointed Prime Minister, Nels Abbey paid a visit to his mother, who came to Britain from Nigeria in 1963. 

“She lived through Powellism, the Black and White Minstrel Shows, outright, extreme racism which has shaped much of her life and she said ‘is it not beautiful that we have an Indian Prime Minister?’” 

Abbey says he could “see the happiness oozing from her face” and that this joy at Sunak’s rise “has to be acknowledged, particularly for an older generation who possibly never saw this coming”.

For the author of Think Like a White Man, “racists have more to celebrate than black or brown people” when it comes to figures such as Priti Patel, Kemi Badenoch and Suella Braverman and the politics of the Rwanda scheme, the Sewell Report and talk of an “invasion” of Britain’s southern coast. “It will often do more for their cause than it will for anybody else’s.”

“The true legacy of Boris Johnson is that he has diversified racism; that he has placed the business of racism into the hands of ethnic minorities”, according to Abbey – who doesn’t include Sunak in this assessment.

“The sight of Rishi Sunak lighting a candle outside of Number 11 for Diwali was very good from a very symbolic-representative point of view,” he says. “With that said, Rishi Sunak is worth an unbelievable amount of money – in terms of class solidarity, most black and brown people can’t relate to him in the slightest bit. 

“But when I’ve met him in the past, he’s truly one of the loveliest politicians. I respect him, I hold him in high esteem… We have to be grateful that, of all the potential ethnic minorities that could have become prime minister, Rishi Sunak is probably the most gentle and thoughtful.”

Despite this, Sunak has still indulged in rhetoric around “unlimited immigration” which means that “today’s equivalent of my mum in 1963 will hear the exact same words” towards migrants that she did. “The more things have changed, the more things have stayed the same,” Abbey observes.

“I think it goes back to Windrush”. It was a moment he believes changed everything. 

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In 2017, it emerged that hundreds of Commonwealth citizens had been wrongly detained and deported as part of the Conservatives’ ‘hostile environment’, even though many had arrived as young British subjects with the rights to live and work permanently in the UK.

Until the scandal broke, no person of colour had occupied one of the great offices of state. But, in the wake of Home Secretary Amber Rudd’s resignation, Sajid Javid was appointed as her successor. Since then, the post has been given to a series of ethnic minority Conservatives.

“The Windrush Scandal was a flagship moment in the history of state racism in Britain,” Abbey says. “It’s the time when they showed their hand a little too soon, a little too flagrantly, and they got caught. Normally, when something like Windrush happens, you find out about it 50 or 60 years after the fact – here we found out about it while it was still going on and some of the people were still alive.

“It is not a coincidence that the Home Office is actually consistently having hard-right ethnic minority politicians… it’s strategy. If you wish to perform any act that you know could be perceived to be racist, the first thing you do is find someone who is an ethnic minority to cover for it.”

Abbey says that politicians such as Badenoch and Braverman are seen as “threats” by many in the black community because “they offer our community as red meat for the Conservative base”. During this summer’s leadership contest, Badenoch was endorsed by the far-right group Britain First.

“We’ve always had people from our community who have stepped up to the plate to collaborate with our oppressors… I do think that their psychology is something that should be up for discussion and study. Any form of extremism requires psychological analysis to a certain degree. Particularly extremism that hinges, quite literally, against people like you; the group you’ve emerged from.”

He believes some people “are being a bit naïve on some of these things” because “racism evolves and revolves and adjusts to the time”. These people are very good at calling out explicit discrimination when it emerges, but “when racism plays its hand through the political system, they are not that good at detecting it and not recognising the game that is being played”.

The author says that ‘representation’ has become “a term that has no relationship with reality” in Britain today and that it is “largely meaningless”.

“Representation to most people means black and brown faces in high places – but the norm is that those people often don’t represent us in the slightest bit… To the best of my knowledge, they have no desire to represent us and some of them do the opposite of representing us – they misrepresent us, they actually slur us and slander us and put us down.”

In the pursuit of populist politics and ‘them versus us’ social media soundbites, nuance rarely sees the light of day. But it must if we are to understand that we live in a pluralistic society.

We won’t always agree with others – shaped as they are by their own lives and experiences – but in most people we can usually find some point of mutual understanding; something to think more about.

Rishi Sunak’s story is not simply one of a win or not for representation. 

By considering the variety of ways in which his rise can be understood, we can build up a richer picture of race and migration in Britain’s past and present – one that goes beyond simplistic narratives and challenges us to engage with the complexity of issues too many of our politicians would rather we wouldn’t. 

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