Victory for multicultural Britain

ASAD LATIF

The ascension of the Indian-origin Rishi Sunak to the British premiership represents a moment of political fulfilment for all those of Indian provenance, whether they live in India or elsewhere.

However, it is important to not carry the ethnic argument too far because to do so would be to diminish the achievements of both Britain as a multicultural society and Mr Sunak's credentials as a successful politician.

On the second point, it is important to remember that Mr Sunak is the British prime minister not because he is Indian but because he is British (obviously). Indeed, his Indian connection is remote, to say the least.

He was born in Southampton to parents of Indian descent who migrated to Britain from East Africa in the 1960s. The family's roots lie in Gujranwala, now in Pakistan, which has embraced him as a pota, or grandson. Gujranwala is a city of wrestlers. I desist from picking a fight with them.

All right, it might be said then, why not consider him a South Asian or, at a pinch, an Asian in any case?

But even that subterfuge would fail. It was not his South Asianness or pan-Asianness that placed him on Britain's political trajectory but what he had done with his life till then.

He was educated at the elite Winchester College, graduated with a coveted First in philosophy, politics and economics from Lincoln College Oxford, and earned his MBA from Stanford University as a Fulbright Scholar.

His academic brilliance, which led to a career as an analyst for the investment bank Goldman Sachs, positioned him within the Tory leadership.

His marriage to Akshata, daughter of the entrepreneurial icon Narayana Murthy of Infosys, renewed his Indian "credentials" in a way, but he does not owe his rise in British politics to that (happy) conjugal choice.

He rose because he succeeded in navigating his way through the demands and pressures of a mercilessly competitive system where only the toughest remain on the home run.

What is important is that the people of Britain allowed him to run that lap. This leads on to the first point - the quality of British multiculturalism. It was the British system that enabled an ethnic Indian to rise to the highest political post on the land.

The majority of the inhabitants of that political system are not Indian or Asian. They are whites. But they are multicultural whites. They did not hold his ethnicity against him, or in his favour.

They judged him as they would anyone else: by that person's capacity to deliver good governance. That is the least to be expected of a prime minister.

Conservative Members of Parliament, whose majority in Parliament gives them a dominant voice in expressing the wishes of British voters, decided that Mr Sunak should lead the country.

That is what he will have to do now. He will have to prove that the first non-white prime minister of the world's oldest democracy, which has been ruled by a succession of white premiers both male and female, can hold its own in a globalised world where nations are like people: they mean little unless they can hold their own in the everyday combat of world events known as the market.

The previous, short lived dispensation's Budget caused markets to take fright and the pound to plummet in value.

One acclaimed commentator was driven to declare that Britain was "behaving a bit like an emerging market turning itself into a submerging market".

The need of the moment therefore is to reintroduce economic realism into political necessity so that markets remain stable and preserve the City's role as a global financial hub, among other objectives.

On the strategic front, Britain will need to prepare itself for an extremely uneasy period - or even an era - in world affairs.

The Ukraine war, which has turned into a contest of indefinite attrition between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, and the simultaneous challenge of dealing with the abrasive edges of China's military rise will test the sinews of British diplomacy and deterrence in the long years ahead.

This is not the time for partisan jousting at home, to say nothing of intramural bloodletting in the Tory parliamentary party.

Now that Mr Sunak's parliamentary colleagues have placed him at the political helm of British affairs, they owe it to their country to let him set it back on a global course.

Ethnicity has nothing to do with national survivability.

asad@sph.com.sg

Asad Latif is a leader writer for The Straits Times.

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