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‘Rishi Sunak is “Living Proof” a Prime Minister of Colour is No Evidence of a Britain Beyond Racism’

By refusing to condemn Lee Anderson’s comments about Sadiq Khan as Islamophobic, the Prime Minister exposed the cynical fallacy at the heart of ‘the most diverse Cabinet in history’ 

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Photo: Imageplotter/Alamy

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When Rishi Sunak became Prime Minister in 2022, Asian WhatsApp groups posted memes and messages marking the occasion. 

One sent to me depicted Rishi Sunak, London Mayor Sadiq Khan, and King Charles mocked up in the original film poster for Amar Akbar Anthony – a 1977 Bollywood ‘masala’ movie.

It centres on the story of three brothers separated as children and then adopted and raised by Hindu, Muslim and Christian families. Masala films explored landmark issues of tolerance in Bollywood. And the pride of those sharing the meme was clear: look how far on race and diversity Britain has come. 

Nearly a year-and-a-half on, the fallacy of this ‘watershed’ represented by people of colour in positions of power has been exposed by Sunak himself.

In the wake of comments by former Conservative Deputy Chair Lee Anderson – baselessly and conspiratorially claiming that Sadiq Khan, who is Muslim, has handed the city to “Islamists” – Sunak removed the whip from the MP and said his remarks were “wrong”. But he refused to call them Islamophobic, something Khan (who, as the victim of the claims, is the best judge of how they were received) has been unequivocal about. 

This refusal to condemn Anderson’s remarks as racist remarks matters.

Sunak’s response to the Anderson affair was that “any form of prejudice or racism” is unacceptable as that is not who “we are as a country”. 

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“We’re a proud multi-ethnic democracy, one of the most successful anywhere in the world,” the Prime Minister added.

But if Britain is the “proud multi-ethnic democracy” he describes, and one of the most successful at this “anywhere in the world”, how can we explain that it has a Prime Minister who refuses to call racism what it is?

Following the furore, Sunak also said how proud he was to be the UK’s first Asian Prime Minister and that this had happened without note (reading between the lines, he meant objections from the Conservative Party). He is “living proof”, he claimed, of Britain’s success when it comes to race.

But if he is “living proof” of Britain’s success on race, how can we explain his refusal to call racism what it is?  

Racism as a Political Tool

The Conservative Party led by Sunak has been all too willing to normalise a political culture in which Lee Anderson felt it was acceptable to make such comments. While this may not have started with Sunak, he has been happy to either turn a blind-eye or indulge in the ‘culture war’ now eating the party up.   

Conservative peer Baroness Sayeeda Warsi – the first Muslim to serve as a Cabinet minister in David Cameron’s Government – has spoken many times in recent years of how she doesn’t recognise the elements of her party taking this route. For her, Anderson’s comments showed how the Conservative Party sees Muslims as “fair game” and “convenient electoral campaign fodder”.

As Peter Oborne has observed, Sunak appears to have a clear strategy faced with the prospect of a heavy defeat in the next general election: ‘other’ minorities and sow fear and division in order to tempt a hard-right base eyeing up the Reform Party. “It’s horrible politics which shames Britain,” writes Oborne. “Enoch Powell will be smiling in his grave.” 

For the former political commentator of the Mail, the Telegraph and the Spectator, “there has been an understandable tendency for mainstream commentators to give Sunak an easy ride on the problem of Conservative racism on the basis that he himself comes from an immigrant family. I was initially minded to do so myself. But this argument no longer holds”.

It is an argument I believe never had any substance.

From the beginning of his tenure, Sunak has legitimised the use of racism as a political tool by the likes of Anderson, Suella Braverman and others.

In this way, the ‘most diverse Cabinet in history’ does show how far Britain has come: having an Asian Prime Minister who refuses to call out racism but instead uses the example of his own personal success as an ethnic minority to suggest that we should be focused on these ‘bigger wins’ and not the ‘smaller losses’ exemplified by Anderson’s “unacceptable” comments.

But Sunak’s experience as an ethnic minority is not representative of any experience but his own. The richest person to ever be Prime Minister, how many people in the country in general can relate to him? And how many other ethnic minorities – who are not a homogenous group – see their experience mirrored in his success?


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The ‘Diversity’ Shield

Using its high-ranking politicians of colour as a shield against legitimate scrutiny of its record on racism, and how seriously it takes the issue, has become a strategy of choice for the Conservatives in recent years.

The logic seems to be that if Sunak, Braverman, James Cleverly, Priti Patel and others can pull themselves up their bootstraps and reach high office, all other ethnic minorities should be able to too, regardless of what we know or don’t know of their life circumstances. And if they don’t, that’s a personal failing – not evidence of any structural challenges they face.

Boris Johnson – who has written of “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” and Muslim women looking like “bank robbers” and “letterboxes” – knew exactly how to deploy the diversity of his Cabinet to deflect from questions about Conservative racism as Prime Minister. 

When asked about new allegations of Islamophobia in his party by Tory MP Nusrat Ghani in 2021, he turned and pointed to his frontbench, where Priti Patel and others sat. “She talks about racism and Islamophobia,” Johnson said. “But look at this Government… look at the modern Conservative Party. We are the party of hope and opportunity for people across this country, irrespective of race or religion.”

Patel also referred to her own personal experience and success as an ethnic minority to answer questions about racism and the issues faced by other ethnic minorities.

“The fact you are sitting here speaking to me, a woman from an Asian minority background, shows we have such great opportunities,” she told the Daily Mail in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. “If this was a racist country, I would not be sitting where I am.”

Many have found the hard-right views of politicians such as Patel perplexing, given their ethnic minority backgrounds. Exploring the complexities of this in these pages previously, I have argued that they are right to not want to be ‘boxed in’ by their identities: that just because they are ethnic minorities doesn’t mean they should be ‘more liberal’ on issues such as immigration.

But their motives for advancing such a hardline worldview also matter. The evidence base for the controversial Rwanda scheme, for instance, pioneered by Patel and ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court, does not exist and it is not clear why the Conservatives are making this policy a priority – beyond any culture war votes it hopes to win with it. When Patel’s successor at the Home Office, Suella Braverman, said it was her “dream” to see a deportation flight take off to Rwanda, it is legitimate to ask what is motivating these politicians.


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And to question why they use their own individual experiences to dismiss the issues faced by other groups of people of colour, who have very different lives, and may not enjoy the same privileges as they do.

The lives lived by working-class black teenagers growing up and attending state schools in Tottenham, north London, for example, may well be very different from middle-class Asian boys at Sunak’s alma mater Winchester College.

The Prime Minister and the Mayor of London may both be Asian men in high office but it is Khan who has the dog-whistles sounded around unfounded claims that he is befriending “Islamists” and who has been receiving top-level police protection for the past seven years, usually reserved for a small number of senior Cabinet ministers.

Stoking Not Moderating

By offering himself up as “living proof” of this country’s record on race, the Prime Minister exposed how he is happy to weaponise race when it suits, just like Lee Anderson.

In his refusal to call out Islamophobia, or acknowledge that his success is no answer to racism, Sunak laid bare the very reason why we need to keep talking about racism, the complexity of how it is used politically, and the reality that minority groups have very different experiences.

Fundamentally, it clarifies that representation and diversity is about a lot more than having people of colour in positions of power. At its best, it should be about rising above narrow political and personal interests and attempting to at least understand the lives of those with different experiences, regardless of whether they voted for you. I don’t believe Rishi Sunak’s Government is interested in this.

Interviewing former Conservative Attorney General Dominic Grieve in 2021 about the culture war direction his party was taking under Boris Johnson – who expelled him and a number of ‘One Nation’ Conservatives – he said: “If you are pandering to people’s prejudices, because it is a way of getting short-term fixes, to your lack of policy and your being a shambles, it’s inevitably going to take you down this road.

“As an MP, people come in [to see you] and feel angry or unhappy or upset and want change. And, generally speaking, the Conservative Party has seen itself as absorbing this, by acting as a check and moderator. If you decide to no longer be a moderator, because it suits your short-term agenda… this is the route down which you’re going to be pushed.”

Rishi Sunak’s time as Britain’s first Asian Prime Minister will have been shameful for its normalisation of a political culture in which the use of racism as a tool of division was felt acceptable to allow.

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