Opinion: What Britain’s first Asian prime minister meant to my family

Editor’s Note: Sunder Katwala is the director of British Future, an independent think tank researching public attitudes to integration, immigration, identity and race. He is the author of “How to Be a Patriot: Why love of country can end our very British culture war.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more CNN Opinion.

The crushing defeat of the Conservative Party in the UK election ends Rishi Sunak’s two-year premiership. He has a place in history books as the first British Asian prime minister — but now also as the prime minister to suffer one of the heaviest election defeats in Britain’s modern political history.

Sunder Katwala - Courtesy Sunder Katwala
Sunder Katwala - Courtesy Sunder Katwala

Sunak was dealt an almost impossible hand on becoming prime minister two years ago — the latest in a head-spinning carousel of Conservatives to take the top job. He was the UK’s third prime minister in the space of two months. Already, Boris Johnson had squandered a dominant political position with rule-breaking parties in Downing Street during the pandemic before Liz Truss’s premiership imploded within weeks as her bold tax-cutting budget fell apart.

When Sunak became prime minister, my father told me how important a symbolic moment it felt to him, having come to Britain from India as a young doctor in 1968. Now 80, Dad felt torn by a dilemma of how to cast his own vote.

When the general election was called six weeks ago, Dad told me he would probably vote for Sunak, despite his doubts about an unruly and divided Conservative Party. He saw Sunak as a decent man, trying to do his best in difficult times. It almost sounded like a plan to cast a sympathy vote for Sunak, just in case nobody else did.

But as the election campaign wore on, he became less sure. “I would like to see him carry on as prime minister — but the country also needs a change of government,” Dad said. “His being Indian and Hindu are probably not the right reasons to vote for him … but he did well during the terrifying times of Covid,” he added of Sunak’s stint as Chancellor of the Exchequer before becoming prime minister.

He planned to finally decide inside the polling booth.

Meanwhile my 18-year-old daughter, deciding how to cast her first ever vote, could not conceive of Sunak’s identity influencing her choice. Her priority issues were climate change and rising homelessness. Her friends — including those of Asian heritage — associate Sunak more with his wealth and educational privilege than his ethnic heritage or his faith.

After 14 years of Conservatives in power, the country’s youngest adults have never known another government. A little younger than 10 years old when Britain voted for Brexit, they have grown up knowing that had been a big argument, while often feeling that nobody had really tried to explain what the point of it had been.

The UK has had a swift turnaround of Conservative prime ministers in recent years, including, from left to right: Liz Truss, Rishi Sunak, Boris Johnson and Theresa May, all pictured at the National Service of Remembrance in London, in November last year. - Richard Pohle/Reuters
The UK has had a swift turnaround of Conservative prime ministers in recent years, including, from left to right: Liz Truss, Rishi Sunak, Boris Johnson and Theresa May, all pictured at the National Service of Remembrance in London, in November last year. - Richard Pohle/Reuters

Youth – and political inexperience

At 44 years old, Sunak leaves office as the youngest ex-prime minister for well over a century. He became prime minister just seven years after becoming an MP — shorter than any other recent occupant of Downing Street. Sunak’s political inexperience was reflected in some of the mistakes made in a bruising election campaign.

He apologised profusely for his decision to leave the recent D-Day commemorations in France partway through. A few of the criticisms of his apparent lack of respect for British traditions had a suspicious, prejudiced undertone: that Sunak did not understand how much it meant.

Sunak, as an individual, often seems less impressed with the ceremonial aspects of his role. But traditions of Remembrance do matter to British Asians too. Indeed, the armies that fought the world wars resemble today’s Britain of 2024 more than that of 1944. They were drawn from across the Commonwealth — including a massive contribution from India — that is finally being increasingly recognized.

What really sunk Sunak

As the election campaign entered its final week, Sunak spoke out powerfully against racist comments by a campaigner for the right-wing populist Reform UK party, which had been captured on film. He said that his daughters should never have to hear such language about him. 

Yet while Sunak’s election defeat was political and personal, it had little to do with his faith or ethnic heritage. Sunak was unable to revive his party after 14 years in power — and negative perceptions of his wealth did seem to make it harder for him to forge a connection with voters in such tough economic times.

Ultimately, this crushing defeat has much more to do with the Conservative blue color of his party than the color of his skin.

Rationally, the evidence is that Sunak’s ethnicity must be marginal in public perceptions of him, given just how much his reputation has surged and fallen over a short time. Sunak had been one of the most popular British politicians for decades when he first came to public attention as Chancellor of the Exchequer during the Covid pandemic.

He was seen more as a technocrat than a party politician, and his furlough scheme — where the taxpayer subsidized the wages of those who could not work virtually during lockdown — was enormously popular. Sunak’s popularity was dented once the pandemic was over. Having taken on debt, he had to raise taxes. His family wealth and wife’s tax arrangements became more controversial, too.

Again, on becoming prime minister, Sunak personally had a much better public reputation than his Conservative Party. But after two years in office, their reputations had converged — downwards. The political and economic context changed. Sunak’s ethnicity did not.

Diversity at the top

Sunak as a Hindu was the first ever British prime minister to practice a non-Christian faith. This was discussed much more in India than in Britain, reflecting a secular political culture and some awkward uncertainty too about how to talk about faith here. Sunak celebrates his faith openly — lighting Diwali lamps on the Downing Street steps. He emphasized too that he welcomed the cultural norm of seeing diversity at the top as no big deal.

The UK has had ethnic minority leaders in Downing Street and in devolved governments in Scotland and Wales — though each chosen by their party, rather than the public. If diversity becomes a new norm in British politics, minority leadership will ebb and flow depending on how leaders grapple with the dilemmas of leadership.

The electoral reckoning for Sunak could barely have been more brutal — yet British voters will feel that both the man and his party were given a fair shot.

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