Is Britain headed for a truly post-colonial moment, as it selects a new Prime Minister?
It’s a historic leadership contest; indeed, never have so many ethnic minority origin MPs ran for the prestigious and coveted post of Prime Minister of Great Britain. The final two – Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss – in the Conservative leadership contest have considerable experience and expertise between them, underlining the importance of substance over style for such a significant post.
Britain has probably been the most tolerant country in the West in terms of its attitude towards ethnic diversity, with far higher levels of community integration and cohesion than many of its European neighbours. For example, France suffers from routine riots among poorer minority people living in its inner cities and is also undergoing a political churn amidst a domestic extremism problem. Germany also has its struggles with integrating immigrant communities, with former Chancellor Angela Merkel calling Germany’s model of multiculturalism a failure. Eastern Europe does not allow significant immigration at all. Britain stands out in sharp contrast to the above examples. It has a model of community integration and social cohesion that broadly works. Two of Britain’s previous Chancellors, Sajid Javid and Rishi Sunak are of Indian origin, as is the current Home Secretary, Priti Patel.
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It is difficult to overstate the significance of Rishi Sunak being in the lead to become the next Prime Minister, at least among Conservative MPs (the general Conservative electorate of ordinary Tory Party members may be a different matter). The Conservative leadership election is two staged, with the first stage being fellow members of Parliament whittling the diverse field down to two people, then letting approximately 180,000 ordinary Party members decide by postal ballot. The winner will be announced on September 5. While Sunak faces numerous obstacles, it would undoubtedly be historic if he made it to Downing Street. The Tory leadership race, with Conservative stalwarts such as Kemi Badenoch going far in the race for the PM’s role before being eliminated, shows how much Britain has changed. Someone who is from a minority background could make it to the top job after all. The level of diversity in Britain’s body politic has improved markedly.
There can be no illusions that the UK is racism free. There have been too many incidents of discrimination across the spectrum of sport, media coverage of various issues and politics, to think that the ugly spectre of prejudice has been eliminated. It is probable that some of the public media hostility to Sunak stems from racism. It will be interesting to see how the race to be PM pans out in the end. Many challenges abound for the next British PM. Inflation is raging, with opposition Labour party gaining in the polls as the high cost of living starts to bite. The Russian-Ukrainian conflict is still ongoing, and Northern Ireland is teetering on the brink of yet more trouble after over two decades of peace. The winner of the race will need to be adept, competent, and experienced. Sunak does have many of these features, however will he survive the barrage of criticism that is surely headed his way? Britain is much more diverse and tolerant than in the past. The outcome of the race to be Prime Minister will tell us just how tolerant it truly is.
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The other notable change is within the Conservative Party itself. The most successful election winning machine in the history of Western democracy, it is utterly ruthless in deposing of leaders that it perceives as electoral losers. Iain Duncan Smith is one such example, while the way the Parliamentary party acted swiftly to crown Theresa May while blocking Andrea Leadsom in 2016 was very telling. It has historically been criticised for being racist. Certainly, the Conservatives have long campaigned on a platform of limiting immigration, which was frequently decried by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s Labour governments for being prejudiced. Therefore, it is even more remarkable that the Conservatives have fielded so many non-white candidates in this race, including one who has a robust chance of winning.
How did this change come about? It started with the rise of David Cameron to the post of Tory leader in 2005. Recognising that the Conservatives could not be competitive in a fast-changing Britain, he set about changing the Party to reflect the demographics of the modern UK more accurately. It was Cameron who first gave prominent Indian origin MPs such as Sunak, Patel and Alok Sharma their chance to rise through the ranks. David Cameron said in 2015 that it won’t be long before Britain has a Prime Minister of Indian origin. All of this should stand the Tories in good stead to gain more votes from a British-Indian community that is increasingly disillusioned by Labour, provided they continue the policy of reaching out to India and Indians. It also highlights how a diverse Tory Party has common ground with British Indians in terms of values, having siphoned British Indian votes away from Labour over the last couple of election cycles.
In fact, the Conservatives have made a concerted effort to reach out to India over the past 12 years, reflecting India’s pivotal role in trade, security and people to people ties in the modern world. This policy gained greater traction and urgency in the aftermath of the UK leaving the European Union. It also underlines India’s rise as the key swing power in a global coalition that finds itself in political opposition to China in the economically pivotal Indo-Pacific region.
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It was under Boris Johnson as PM that the British Indo-Pacific tilt began to realise its potential, for which he does deserve credit. Johnson also succeeded in getting India to commit to a substantial framework and timetable for a free trade deal, something which had eluded previous Prime Ministers. Of course, Johnson also hired the most diverse cabinet in British history, showing a substantial commitment to combating racial prejudice.
It is difficult to forecast foreign relations with any certainty, however one thing is clear. The Indo-UK relationship post-Boris Johnson will continue to grow robustly. After Brexit and the trauma of coronavirus the UK needs market access to countries with fast growing economies. As the world’s largest democracy and fastest growing economy India fits the bill perfectly. It is likely that a perceived common challenge from China will greatly increase the commitment to defence and security co-operation between London and New Delhi. As tensions increase in the Indo-Pacific, the technological capabilities of Britain and the sheer industrial might of India are a potentially powerful combination to try to check the Chinese challenge. Of course, if Sunak does go on to enter No. 10 Downing Street it is probable that there will be an even more robust emphasis in London on courting New Delhi.
Whatever the outcome of this leadership election, there can be little doubt that a more diverse, modern global Britain is the winner.
Jeevan Vipinachandran is a UK-based writer and political analyst specialising in political conflict and counter-terrorism. With a Masters in Comparative Politics: Conflict Studies from the London School of Economics (LSE), his core interest is in international relations with a special focus on the rise of India and its impact on the world stage.