Rishi Sunak’s return to Britain’s power corridors as the first Asian and the youngest prime minister is being closely observed, discussed and debated by leading strategists, media experts, scholars and critics around the world.
Obviously, Sunak’s premiership remains an extraordinary event in the history of the United Kingdom for various reasons. As a graduate of Oxford and Stanford, in addition to being wealthy and well-networked, Sunak’s key task is to fix the world’s sixth-largest economy that is currently “broken” possibly because of Brexit. Britain is now struggling on multiple fronts, especially in foreign policy, global business ventures and world politics.
Meanwhile, several specialists and policymakers have put their trust in Sunak’s extraordinary abilities to cope with the current challenges, and there are also a few prominent pundits who think attaching high levels of expectations and hopes to Sunak’s intellectual capabilities may result in dismay.
As political events unfold with the passage of time, the world will witness whether or not the Conservatives' choice of electing a non-white premier was a textbook example for the rest of the world, where even thinking of electing a premier from an ethnic minority group is nothing more than a daydream. Anyway, hopes and worries are bumper to bumper in the prediction racing so let’s wait and see which group of intellectuals' predictions will turn out to be true in the end.
As I flipped through the pages of the recent report “U.K.’s global role” published by a recognized think-tank, Chatham House, it became clear that Sunak will be facing tough times ahead, with the report emphasizing “Britain’s influence in the world, the concept of "Global Britain," soft power and identity, and the future of the nation-state.” The questions raised in the Chatham House report also include: “Can the country remain internationally influential by serving as the broker of solutions to global challenges? Can it help link together liberal democracies and others to address shared international challenges constructively? Will the U.K. government’s proposed D10 group of democracies come to fruition?”
As Britain’s youngest and first brown prime minister, Sunak offers a classic example of Western democracy and how Britain has converted itself from being known for its racist, colonial past to a brand-new protagonist democracy that allows people of color to rise above the host status. So, what does it mean for Asians and other minority groups? How will Britain be perceived in other parts of the world?
As the U.K. gets a Hindu prime minister, Shashi Tharoor asks, “Can a non-Sikh Buddhist, Jain or a Christian become an Indian Prime Minister?” Although it’s true in the case of Manmohan Singh, according to Tharoor’s understanding that “Sikhs and Hindus were seen as the same,” Tharoor also said, “I think all of us will have to acknowledge that the Brits have done something very rare in the world, to place a member of a visible minority in the most powerful office. As we Indians celebrate the ascent of @RishiSunak, let’s honestly ask: Can it happen here?” With those remarks, Tharoor points to the fact that “Hindus are just 7% of Britain’s population.”
Britain’s "broken" economy needs fixing, but how?
Post-Brexit Britain’s economy is in a gloomy state of affairs as high costs of living, rising inflation, taxes and energy crisis are now worries commonplace for ordinary people in the street, to people working in mainstream industries. A short while ago, commentators were suggesting that “removing Boris Johnson might help” but then we have seen Britain remove two of its premiers, as Rishi became the third one in the row.
Overall media reporting especially reflects the British public mood and priority: an urgent need of revisiting and redesigning Britain’s economy. A series of questions displays amazing resemblances, What to expect under Rishi Sunak? So is it a leadership problem? Or it is bad governance or wrong policies? Why did all this has happened in the first place? Although, the deteriorating global economies are now a global shared concern, however, in Britain's case, as many commentators argue, “The Torie's crisis won’t end until they accept the neoliberal age is over.”
A few leading analysts think “UK economy: is there worse to come?”; “Britain’s economy is falling behind the G7...why?” and more importantly “how the U.K. should reset its global role following Brexit?”
Expert on British politics, professor Keith Laybourn told me the same, stating that: “The simple reason for the chaos in Britain is the commitment by a Conservative government to a policy of neoliberalism (capitalism) which do not want state ownership, reduced taxes, regulation, trade unions, and democracy. In fact, the rich hide their wealth in off-shore accounts, in effect this means that new– liberalism is about making the rich richer and operating a low-wage economy.”
The British High Commissioner to India, Alex Ellis, recapped, “Prime Minister Rishi Sunak made clear that economy was going to be a top priority when he stood on the steps of Downing Street.” The British High Commissioner hopes to double the U.K.-India bilateral trade by 2030, and a perfect way to achieve it is through “a free-trade agreement, which is an excellent way of doing that.”
The emerging narrative following Rishi’s arrival at the No. 10
Conservatives had a troubled recent past with David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and now Sunak; and the big question is whether or not the latter comes out as a successful Conservative leader. The point is how Sunak may use his leverage, associations and personal relations to get Britain out of the economic turmoil.
I reviewed considerable sections of the British press reporting to figure out the latest trends and emerging discourses following Sunak’s premiership, which mainly talks of his awaited challenges and tests ahead to fix the broken economy rather than Sunak’s identity, race and religious associations.
Oxford University emeritus professor Robin Cohen sees Sunak’s appointment as the British prime minister as “hailed as a triumph of ethnic minority mobility, even as a signal that a post-race society is emerging.”
“This is an exaggeration. Sunak is privately educated, rich and with an Oxford degree. The class has trumped race,” Cohen also said. He also reiterated that Sunak previously “lost to Truss, an obviously less suitable candidate, when Conservative Party members exercised their vote. He is yet to face a general election when his ethnicity will count against him, though we are talking of a minority of the electorate.”
Professor Humeira Iqtidar, at the Department of Politics at the King's College London, believes that “Rishi Sunak is seen as a safe pair of hands by many in the conservative party especially compared to Truss.”
Answering the question posed by Daily Sabah, which inquired what does Sunak's entry into No. 10 means for the Asian and other minority groups in Britain, Iqtidar said: “It is hard to say at this point if Sunak's entry to No. 10 signals a post-racial U.K. and immigration-friendly U.K. Like other prominent South Asian members of the Conservative Party (Priti Patel and Suella Braverman) Sunak is keen to appear tough on immigration. He has also tended to stay away from highlighting questions of racial justice.”
Iqtidar further elaborated her point, saying: “The Rwanda policy, that Rishi has supported, is deeply problematic on the grounds of human rights but more importantly, from the point of view of the economy, there is a real challenge regarding the right balance of migration into the post-Brexit U.K. to support economic activity.”
Last, it is essential for us to consider an important point that “Sunak lost when the Conservative Party members and not just the parliamentary party were allowed to vote on this. Britain is not yet a post-racial society and Sunak has a narrow popular base and short window of opportunity to make positive changes.”
Honestly speaking, Sunak’s entry into No.10 has exhilarated many in Britain, especially the members of ethnic groups, but a few of them like Leeds businessperson Chaudhary Yasir are a bit fretful as to whether at some point Sunak may become Britain’s Barrack Obama who failed black Americans’ expectations.