One day in the life of a country can be both revealing and dispiriting – about the changelessness of power, who exercises it and why.
The very day (March 13) that Britain’s home secretary (or interior minister) put forward a controversial new asylum and migration law, the country’s prime minister vowed to stand “shoulder to shoulder” alongside his US and Australian counterparts to protect peace in the Indo-Pacific, thereby renewing the Anglosphere’s unique alliance.
Britain’s home secretary, Suella Braverman, is the daughter of Uma and Christie Fernandes, both of Indian origin, who emigrated to Britain in the 1960s from Mauritius and Kenya respectively. She is the second Asian woman to serve as home secretary (after Priti Patel), as well as being the second person of Indian ethnicity (after Ms Patel) and the third person of Asian heritage (after Ms Patel and Sajid Javed) to serve as home secretary.
The prime minister, Rishi Sunak, was born in Southampton to parents of Indian descent who migrated to Britain from East Africa in the 1960s. He is Britain’s first prime minister of Asian descent, its first Indian and Hindu politician to have risen to the highest office of state.
Together, Mr Sunak and Ms Braverman are engaged in doing what many a politician in the Anglosphere would consider eminently good policy as well as common sense. Australia had a “stop the boats” policy long years ago. It was brutal, flouted international law and staggeringly successful. (Click here to read my openDemocracy piece on the subject.)
The European far right is united in praise of Mr Sunak’s government. No matter that the UN refugee agency has said the UK will be in a “clear breach of the (1951) refugee convention” by making it possible to criminalise, detain and deport asylum seekers. No matter that these immigration policies have been described as “cruel and heartless” by a former adviser to the UK Home Office, one-time Conservative Party campaigner Nimco Ali. Interestingly, she has noted that it is “racist” and “painful” for Mr Sunak and Ms Braverman’s government to fail to make available to non-Ukrainians the routes currently possible for refugees from Ukraine.
Should we have expected different from Mr Sunak and Ms Braverman? She has challenged the idea that “someone of my background” should have “appropriate views” and has loudly protested she won’t be “patronised” by the notion “that a person’s skin colour should dictate their political views”. Click here to watch a clip of her statement to that effect in parliament.
As for her boss, Mr Sunak, he has previously joked about compliments for his “tan”. Click here to watch this at last year’s Conservative Party leadership hustings.
Diversity, as they say, is a meaningless word unless it signals real change.
What about his politics? When he joined America’s Joe Biden and Australia’s Anthony Albanese on a warship in the Pacific to renew the bond between the nations of the Anglosphere, the Aukus event was rich in historical echoes. Its intentions too were patently obvious. The Washington Post has called the Aukus accord, an arms and technology deal centred on supplying nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, potentially “the most consequential trilateral defense technology partnership in modern history”. But some strategists say the deal is merely exacerbating military tensions with China and it’s true the intent does seem less about peace than war.
When Mr Sunak became prime minister, Priyamvada Gopal, professor of Postcolonial Studies at Cambridge University, noted that he “represents the triumph of a carefully managed and trivialised diversity”. She added: “It is bizarre to invite people to set aside a politician’s politics to celebrate their ethnicity. It’s like asking people to set aside a fashion designer’s style or a chef’s ability to cook in judging their work. But we must also reject the racist notion that the content of what a Black or Asian leader offers is not relevant to questions of social change.”
Diversity, as they say, is a meaningless word unless it signals real change. The colour, cultural heritage or DNA of those who run the show may be changing. But not the politics.