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Rishi Sunak Becoming First British-Asian Prime Minister Seen As "Historic Moment”

Rishi Sunak has been elected unopposed as the next Prime Minister, and the first from a British Asian background (Alamy)

5 min read

The appointment of Rishi Sunak as the first British Asian to become Prime Minister has been hailed as a “historic moment” by the Conservative Friends of India.

As Hindus celebrate the holy festival of Diwali today, the former Chancellor’s victory in the race to replace Liz Truss was described as a “moment of pride for British Asians”.

Sunak’s victory was secured after his only remaining rival for the Tory leadership contest, Commons leader Penny Mordaunt, withdrew as the deadline to reach the threshold of 100 nominations by MPs arrived at 2pm.

The 42-year-old will be the first British Prime Minister to practice a non-Christian faith, and the second from an ethnic minority after Benjamin Disraeli – Prime Minister in the 19th Century – who was born into a Jewish family, and became an Anglican at age 12.

Born in Southampton to parents of Punjabi descent, Sunak has taken the oath of service in the House of Commons on the Bhagavad Gita, a sacred Sanskrit text.

Back in 2020 during the pandemic when he was Chancellor he lit candles to mark Diwali on the doorstep of Number 11 Downing Street, and told The Times earlier this year it was “one of my proudest moments”, saying his faith “gives me strength, it gives me purpose. It’s part of who I am”.

Although there has been a marked increase in politicians of colour serving in senior Cabinet roles in recent years, culminating with Liz Truss appointing non-white MPs to be her Chancellor, Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary – three out of the four so-called ‘Great Offices of State’ – when she became Prime Minister last month. 

Responding to Sunak’s victory, Shailesh Solanki, executive editor of the Eastern Eye newspaper, told PoliticsHome: “This is a hugely significant moment for all people of colour in Britain and a particular moment of pride for British Asians, coming on the day we are celebrating the festival of Diwali.

“This is another glass ceiling smashed for ethnic communities in Britain and will no doubt inspire the next generation to follow his example in public service.

“To see a fellow British Asian assume the highest and most significant office in the land is a moment I did not think I would witness in my lifetime."

But Solanki warned that while the Asian community “has made great strides over the last few decades” there remains widening inequalities particularly amongst ethnic communities and said he hoped this was an area Sunak will address as PM.

Rishi Sunak lighting a candle for Diwali outside Number 11 Downing Street as Chancellor in 202

In a statement the Conservative Friends of India group called the news “a historic moment” which they welcome “with a great sense of pride, especially being on Diwali day”.

They added:  “His appointment as the Leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister of our  great nation, is testament to the values of both Britain and the Conservative Party. Today reflects that Britain is a forward-looking country."

Sunder Katwala, director of the integration and immigration think tank British Future, said Sunak becoming the first British Indian Prime Minister “simply would not have been possible even a decade or two ago,” adding: “It shows that public service in the highest office in Britain can be open to those of all faiths and ethnic backgrounds.”

Katwala added: “This will be a source of pride to many British Asians – including many who do not share Rishi Sunak’s Conservative politics.

“It will be especially meaningful to the first generation of migrants, like my father, who arrived in 1968 when politics was dominated by Enoch Powell’s call to ‘send them back’.”

But he said while we “should not underestimate this important social change”, it is right for the new PM to realise that him “reaching 10 Downing Street does not make Britain a perfect meritocracy” either.

Sathnam Sanghera, columnist and author of the book Empireland, wrote in The Times of Sunak’s victory: “It’s amazing. The difference it will make in terms of the aspirations of young brown British people is incalculable.

“The most successful Asian I knew as a kid was a branch manager at a local bank, and so for many years the only career I aspired to was his. Seeing someone like myself (albeit much shorter) in the highest possible office would have supercharged my aspirations. All sorts of brown kids in all sorts of places will dream higher as a result of Sunak’s appointment.”

Rishi Sunak spoke to the Conservative Friends of India group at last year's party conference

Former Chancellor George Osborne said people should “celebrate the first British Asian becoming PM and be proud of our country where this can happen,” but Home Secretary Grant Shapps downplayed the significance of Sunak becoming the UK’s first prime minister of colour.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the appointment “would be a moment for the country” but “in other ways it is unremarkable, little commented on, and that is one of the great things about the United Kingdom – that we are able to get along”.

Sunak’s elevation to Downing Street was welcomed by politicians from other parties, with Liberal Democrat MP Munira Wilson tweeting: “I disagree profoundly with Rishi Sunak's politics and with the process by which he's become Prime Minister.

“But my family and I are heartened to witness the first ever brown PM in Downing Street.

“My parents were convinced it couldn't/wouldn't happen. Glad they were proved wrong!”

Anas Sarwar, leader of the Scottish Labour party, said it was “important to recognise the significance of Britain’s first Prime Minister of South Asian heritage”, adding: “It’s not something our grandparents would ever have imagined when they made the UK home.”

But the Labour MP Nadia Whittome said Sunak’s victory “isn’t a win for Asian representation”, tweeting: “He’s a multi-millionaire who, as Chancellor, cut taxes on bank profits while overseeing the biggest drop in living standards since 1956.”

She added: “Black, white or Asian: if you work for a living, he is not on your side.”

That sentiment was echoed by the SNP’s Anum Qaisar, who wrote: “Just because you share the same characteristics as someone, does not mean that you’ll be supportive of that community.”

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