openDemocracyUK: Opinion

It’s no surprise that the first Brown prime minister will be a Tory

That’s how the colonial system of ‘divide and rule’ has always worked – it uses Brown faces in high places to serve the ruling class

Nandini Archer
24 January 2022, 2.19pm
Rishi Sunak, the first Brown prime minister in the UK?
Composite by openDemocracy via Geoff Pugh/Daily Telegraph/PA Wire/PA Images and Allstar Picture Library Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Chancellor Rishi Sunak has been dubbed the person to beat in the next Conservative Party leadership contest – whenever it ends up happening. Right-wing commentators have called him the “only choice” and praised his “calibre as a thinker and communicator” in recent weeks, while polling last December suggested he could win up to 60 seats more than a Johnson-led party.

Boris Johnson, meanwhile, has had a catastrophic few weeks, with never-ending ‘partygate’ revelations, rumours of an imminent no-confidence vote in his leadership and, most recently, allegations of Islamophobia on his watch.

After days of prevarication, the prime minister has just ordered a formal inquiry into allegations by Conservative MP Nusrat Ghani that she was sacked as a minister after being told her “Muslimness” was “making colleagues uncomfortable”, reigniting the scandal of Islamophobia that has long dogged the Tory party.

It might at first seem surprising that such a right-wing party could give us a man of colour at the top. The Tories are not ‘woke’, liberal or progressive. They say they hate identity politics; they care about conserving traditionalism – ‘pale male stale’ power, in other words.

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But the truth is, this is precisely how the British have always been most effective: using a token few Black and Brown faces in high places as tools to implement empire.

It’s called ‘divide and rule' and it dates back to the colonial system of indirect rule, which used existing local structures and elites to govern colonies, often placing some ethnicities or groups above others.

The British Raj, for example, used a policy of division and difference to stop the emergence of an Indian independence movement; Catholics were set against Protestants in Ireland; and slave owners in the Caribbean curbed rebellions by separating house and field slaves.

What we see in the Tory Party now, with “the most Indian cabinet ever” and Sunak being lined up for the top job, is just another iteration of the ruling class using this tactic.

Richest cabinet member

Nearly half of Conservative party members say Rishi Sunak would make a better Tory leader than Boris Johnson, according to a recent survey. He also beats the other favourite potential replacement, Liz Truss.

Sunak is easily the richest man in the cabinet, and time and again he's shown that he's out of touch with most Brown people – actually, with most people full stop.

His recent budgets have slashed the taxes paid by UK banks while increasing national insurance contributions for workers and cutting the £20-a-week from universal credit that was given to the six million poorest families in the country.

Sunak’s father, a GP, was born in Kenya and his mother, a pharmacist, in Tanzania, but his grandparents were originally Punjabi Indian. Researcher Neha Shah has traced the roots of these so-called “twice migrants”, describing how Indians in East Africa functioned as a subordinate ruling class during the colonial era. After independence in the 1960s and ’70s, many of these families left and brought their immense wealth to the UK.

This, Shah argues, is how British Indians such as Sunak became so prominent in the Conservative party – and why, since Thatcher’s day, the Tories have embraced the community as a model minority of what could be achieved under a free-market Conservative government.

No cause for celebration

Black historian Kehinde Andrews wrote in 2020 that a Sunak premiership would be “the perfect PR move for the Tories once the disaster of Brexit plays out”.

But it’s not just Sunak, he explains, also pointing out the other high-powered Black and Brown people in the Conservative Party. Lest we forget, it was Sajid Javid who, as home secretary at the time, stripped British teenager Shamima Begum of her citizenship, while equalities minister Kemi Badenoch downplayed Britain’s role in the transatlantic slave trade.

"This is one of the best countries in the world to be a Black person," Badenoch said in 2020 when Labour MP Zarah Sultana called for the government to tackle “systemic injustice”. She also claimed that some of the country’s leading Black authors “actually want a segregated society”.

Last year, she attacked Black UK journalist Nadine White, calling her "creepy and bizarre" for asking a question about the government’s response to vaccine hesitancy in the Black community. The government, of course, defended Badenoch.

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson put Tony Sewell in charge of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, despite Sewell having repeatedly downplayed racism and referred to the Black Lives Matter movement as a "lower middle class revolt". It’s no wonder that the commission’s 2021report into racial disparity controversially found that there was no institutional racism in the UK.

A cabinet packed with ministers with Brown skin wearing Tory masks represents the opposite of racial progress

When Johnson reshuffled his cabinet in February 2020, it was praised by some sections of the media for including a historic number of people of colour. But critics like Andrews have highlighted that these were some of the most hard-right people in the party and that “a cabinet packed with ministers with brown skin wearing Tory masks represents the opposite of racial progress”.

And, of course, current home secretary Priti Patel is another Brown face used to implement the very worst of the government’s policies. It’s no shock that it’s Patel who presides over Britain’s increasingly racist immigration system, or that it’s her pushing through the racist, draconian Police Bill.

Our ruling elite are experts in this game – they’ve had centuries of practice, after all – and are up to their usual tricks. Even if it’s not Sunak who becomes prime minister this time, I won’t be surprised when it does happen – and it certainly won’t be a cause for celebration for people of colour.

Having Brown faces in high places means nothing if it’s not backed by a genuine desire to change structural racism, rather than maintain the status quo and bolster the ruling elite.

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