Anyone determined or patriotic enough to make a list of groundbreaking episodes in Britain’s long history is likely to add Rishi Sunak’s appointment as prime minister to it. Seeing a person of South Asian descent calling the shots in 10, Downing Street is undoubtedly one of those “I remember where I was when I heard” moments.
As the son of East African Indians, Sunak is a product of the British Empire. A descendant of the colonised, one could say, is now the premiere of the colonisers. That could be the typical view from the perspective of anti-colonial theory.
That has not been overlooked, of course, with members of Britain’s South Asian community hailing his appointment as hugely symbolic. Indians and Pakistanis alike, whether Hindu, Muslim or Sikh, have expressed pleasure at the development; Pakistani British MPs back his premiership, which supports that perception.
With all of the attendant fanfare, and in the subtle right-wing racism over his ethnicity, some are on the verge of regarding Sunak as a modern Che Guevara, Tipu Sultan, Mullah Omar, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Nelson Mandela or any other radical anti-colonial figure. That is, though, far from the reality.
In fact, there is nothing revolutionary about Sunak’s track record that has put him at odds with the Conservative Party’s primary positions or policies. Quite the contrary, in fact. He is seen as a safe pair of hands; one of “our guys”. If he wasn’t, he wouldn’t be prime minister.
Sunak voted against holding investigations into the 2003 invasion of Iraq and Britain’s role; he has favoured overseas military operations and voted for a stricter asylum system. And he voted in favour of mass surveillance of people’s activities and communications.
Such a voting record — to which can be added his support for welfare cuts and low tax rates for banks — hardly make Sunak a radical within his own party or British politics. Moreover, he is hugely wealthy, reportedly one of the wealthiest people in Britain. According to the Sunday Times Rich List, the former banker and his wife – the daughter and heiress of Indian tech moguls – have a combined fortune of around £730 million ($830 million), almost double the estimated wealth of the late Queen Elizabeth II.
Being one of the super-rich does not, of course, necessarily make him unfit to be prime minister. It is argued that his knowledge of the world of finance is a benefit for the government he will lead in the effort to get through this period of economic uncertainty. However, it is easy to see why there is a perception that he is out of touch with ordinary citizens, and is not a revolutionary figure.
Perhaps Sunak’s most important aspect of his make-up which endears him to the British political establishment is his avid support for Israel and Zionism. At a Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) event in August, just a week after Israeli forces killed dozens of Palestinian civilians in the occupation state’s latest assault on the Gaza Strip, Sunak openly declared Jerusalem to be “indisputably the historic capital” of Israel. There is, he said, a “very strong case” for moving the British Embassy from Tel Aviv to the holy city. “It’s something I’d like to do,” he said at the time, although, “If it was that easy, it would have been done by now.”
In an interview with the Jewish Chronicle, he called Israel a “shining beacon of hope” and also promised to increase government spending on Jewish security organisations such as the Community Security Trust (CST), something unique to Britain’s Jewish community.
In July, Sunak also wrote in an article for the Jewish News that he opposes the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against illegal Israeli settlement goods. If appointed premier, he said, he would continue to support the bill against BDS “that will prevent public bodies engaging in boycotts that undermine community cohesion.” Has he ever considered that support for a state which kills civilians and abuses their legitimate rights with impunity also undermines community cohesion?
He added that the “Jewish community is right to call out those who seek to damage the only Jewish state in the world.” At a stroke, Sunak dismissed Israel’s many human rights abuses, violations of international law — indeed, contempt for international law — and war crimes. He clearly ignores the fact that this “Jewish state” of which he is so supportive has been judged to be imposing “apartheid” on the Palestinians by no less than B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. The crime of apartheid is akin to a crime against humanity, and yet protecting this particular apartheid state is apparently more of a priority than making it accountable to the same standards as any other member of the UN.
That Sunak has such unshakeable faith in Tel Aviv is sufficient to discount him as a radical prime minister who will enact any meaningful changes or policies in support of the developing world and its people, let alone the people of occupied Palestine. He may be a symbol of unity amongst communities from the Global South based purely on ethnicity – a perception which is likely to alter soon – but he is no anti-colonial figure.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.