Can Britain’s trailblazing new prime minister be more than a wolf in sleek clothing?
On October 24th, following the historically short-lived reign of Liz Truss, Rishi Sunak became the third Conservative in as many months to take up residence at 10 Downing Street. His ascension comes amidst immense fiscal and geopolitical tumult for the United Kingdom, with Brexit negotiations crawling to unhappy compromise, bond markets in disarray, and costs of living rising at rapid pace. Perhaps especially as a result of the state of affairs, Sunak’s arrival has been touted for breaking ground (he is Britain’s first Prime Minister of color and its youngest in centuries). But this storyline should be complicated, as his triumph may do far more to reaffirm the status quo than shake it up.
Off the bat, Sunak is neither a political newcomer nor “a man of the people”. He entered the limelight as Boris Johnson’s chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister) before resigning in July – a move largely attributed to the former leader’s downfall. Prior to his tenure at the Treasury, Sunak represented Richmond, North Yorkshire in the House of Commons from 2015 until 2018, when Theresa May appointed him to her second government as the Under-Secretary of State for Local Government. And, before his political career, Sunak was a financial analyst and hedge fund manager, including a short stint at Goldman Sachs he now omits from his résumé. Neither was his academic route exactly the path less travelled, from private boarding school Winchester College to Oxford University, where five of Britain’s last six prime ministers were also educated.
Sunak’s background in the bastions of the English elite proved immensely profitable for the 42-year-old near billionaire. He and his wife Akshata Murthy, fashion designer and daughter of an Indian telecommunications mogul, own homes in West London, Santa Monica, and Yorkshire. Sunak has both an embarrassment of riches and an almost embarrassingly expensive taste for designer clothing (including a pair of £95 luxury slides he donned ahead of a budget announcement last autumn) and new tech (like a $200 self-heating mug). He’s strained often to brush off his public perception as out-of-touch and advantaged. In March, Sunak borrowed the Kia Rio of a supermarket employee for a photo-op orchestrated to tout policy measures cutting the costs of living. The stunt earned him little admiration and a great deal of mockery – but the surface is less important than the substance.
While Sunak represents an ethnic minority previously not reflected in the highest seats of power, he also hails from an economic minority far less disenfranchised. As Helen Lewis wrote for The Atlantic, “British democracy is shrinking, and the result is Sunak” – whom she described as the “scion of Britain’s new ruling class.” The past three prime ministers have been elected by an exponentially smaller and more privileged swath of the population. At the end of 2019, 14 million Britons chose the Tories, and subsequently Boris Johnson, to lead the nation. Earlier this autumn, just 140,000 Conservative Party members selected Liz Truss as his replacement. And now Rishi Sunak has been elevated to head of government with the support of no more than 195 members of Parliament, also known as the “men in gray suits” – entirely as detached and impersonal as they sound. Lewis quotes George Orwell on the early 1900s, “England was ruled by an aristocracy constantly recruited from parvenus.” In some ways Sunak may not look a whole lot like any of his predecessors, but his rise to the top has otherwise adorned him with all the same symbols of status quo.
These two storylines need not be held in contradiction. As we come to understand identity as intersectional, we understand our many parts as interrelated rather than clashing or disconnected. Since the post-war wave of decolonization, scholarship has considered the consequences of a politics defined by identity and ‘representation.’ In 1967, Kwame Ture wrote in Black Power of “token leaders” – his categorization of Black politicians in the United States whose position in the broader structure resembled the model of “indirect rule” used infamously in the British colonial empire. Ture writes “[c]olonial politics causes the subject to muffle his voice while participating in the councils of the white power structure” – and while much has changed in half a century, some things stay the same. Little shattered dreams of a post-racial present more than the Obama presidency, which rode a tidal wave of hope only to ebb and erode progressive dreams, revealing an austere truth.
As Jodi Melamed writes, politics of representation serves to mask “the centrality of race and racism to neoliberalism”
… multiculturalism codes the wealth, mobility, and political power of neoliberalism’s beneficiaries to be the just desserts of ‘multicultural world citizens,’ while representing those neoliberalism dispossesses to be handicapped by their own ‘monoculturalism’ or other historico-cultural deficiencies. A language of multiculturalism consistently portrays act of force required for neoliberal restructuring to be humanitarian… (1)
It sutures official anti-racism to state policy in a manner that hinders the calling into question of global capitalism, it produces new privileged and stigmatized forms of humanity, and it deploys a normative cultural model of race (which now sometimes displaces conventional racial reference altogether) as a discourse to justify inequality for some as fair or natural (14).
Put simply, representation created a dream of upward mobility or assimilation into a privileged elite, setting a somewhat amalgamated, a-national but inherently liberal and West-affirming cosmopolitan identity – thus slightly readjusting yet still reaffirming a stratification of society rooted in a supremacy of the global North. As such, Sunak’s cultural background and personal wealth are not competing forces but essentially intertwined. His family’s immigrant story espouses an ideal of the “good” immigrant, who – in his words – “came to this country, integrated, [and] worked hard.” This narrative, shared by others, has become the basis for a less white, but still deeply anti-immigration and xenophobic Tory party.
And now, the so-called “Thatcherite in trainers” has begun to aggressively pursue a politics of austerity – despite his initial popularity owing tribute to significant public spending on business loans, furlough schemes, and local investment incentives – all while costs of living continue to rise, harming the poorest Britons more than anyone else. Sunak, per the Tory line, will undoubtedly continue to divert responsibility from corporations and the über-wealthy, perpetuating the allegedly common sense but evidently disastrous cycle of boom and bust – each of which seem only to further burden the poor with debt while lining the pockets of the rich. So it goes on, the white supremacist violence of capitalism sustained by pluralist appeal, all the while fueling climate catastrophe doomed to wreak havoc along class and racial lines.