Lying ill in bed, Tarsem Singh Sandhu faced up to the choice between the golden laws of his god and the iron-clad rules of the Wolverhampton transport department. Like many other employers, the transport department enforced a no-beards uniform code—and when Tarsem arrived from Punjab, his uncles cut his hair and shaved off his beard. Through three weeks of sick leave, though, Tarsem let his beard grow out again and showed up for work with a turban. The young immigrant was sent back home by bosses—but his protest set off struggles over identity and race that would shape an age.
England had been seized by culture wars in 1967, the year of Tarsem’s protest: Rolling Stones stars Keith Richards and Mick Jagger had been arrested after a bizarre drugs raid, consensual gay sex had been decriminalised, and the right to abortion recognised. The pound had been devalued in a desperate effort to cut imports.
The backlash was also forming. The newly-formed British National Front had become the vanguard of a new wave of anti-immigrant violence, drawing on White working-class fears over change.
Likely, Kenya-born Yashveer Sunak, who had just begun studying medicine at the University of Liverpool, watched the events unfold less than a hundred miles up the M6 with fascination as well as fear. Like other East African Asians, Yashveer—and his to-be wife Sraksha Sunak—had left their homelands amid growing racial tensions. England was their last refuge, but it wasn’t clear how long immigrants would remain welcome.
Their child, Rishi Sunak, is now prime minister—at the head of a party that has long stood for painting England whiter. Is this the final triumph of the new Britain that emerged from the culture wars of the 1960s—or has a reactionary English ruling class just rebranded itself, with a bit more colour?
Race and the English ruling class
Eighty years ago, novelist George Orwell observed the English ruling class was an “aristocracy constantly recruited from parvenus.” England’s masters, he argued, had a formidable talent for renewal, “like the knife which has had two new blades and three new handles.” Even though the old land-owning aristocracy lost influence, it intermarried with the new industrial élite. “The wealthy ship-owner or cotton-miller set up for himself an alibi as a country gentleman, while his sons learned the right mannerisms at public schools.”
The story of the rise of Sunak is, among other things, about the fluidity of the English elite, and its complex relationship with race.
From its early decades, historians Philip Morgan and Shaun Hawkins have noted, imperial Britain used education as a tool to create native middle classes enmeshed in its culture and values. The story of Dadabhai Naoroji is well known. An early nationalist, he was the second Indian to be elected as a British Member of Parliament in 1892, following Anglo-Indian David Ochterlony Dyce Sombre’s election in 1841. What is less well known, scholar Sumita Mukherjee records, is that the Conservatives also had an Indian MP elected just three years later, in 1895.
Even though race lurked under the surface—losing candidate George Howell bitterly wrote that he was “kicked out by a black man”—Victorian England had use for native gentlemen. The historian Jonathan Scheer suggests that Mancherjee Bhownaggree, a conservative politician of Parsi descent, personified the India of English aspiration: “ loyal, assimilated, obsequious.”
The Conservative party is, arguably, more racially-diverse than ever in its existence. Six of the ten candidates to replace Boris Johnson as prime minister—Suella Braverman, Kemi Badenoch, Nadim Zahawi, Sajid Javid and Rehman Chisti as well as Sunak—were from ethnic minorities. The Tories gave the United Kingdom its first woman home secretary, Priti Patel, and its first Muslim woman cabinet member, Sayeeda Warsi. Liz Truss’ short-lived cabinet was the most diverse in British history.
Even though this diversity is welcome, it isn’t the whole story. The Conservatives are also home to privilege. Like two-thirds of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s cabinet, research has shown, Sunak went to private schools—institutions just 7 per cent of the United Kingdom’s public can afford. Former Prime Minister David Cameron’s cabinet drew half its membership from private and independent schools.
The party, academic research shows, also remains overwhelmingly White. The rank-and-file is hostile to multiculturalism, opposed to gay marriage, supportive of the death penalty and anti-Europe.
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Immigrant protest and White nationalism
Following Tarsem Sandhu’s turban protest, the rising Conservative star Enoch Powell addressed his constituents in Walthamstow. “To claim special communal rights—or should I say rites—leads to a dangerous fragmentation of society,” he proclaimed in a now infamous 1968 speech. The rising numbers of immigrants, he went on, would inexorably allow them to “consolidate their members, to agitate and campaign against their fellow-citizens and to overawe and dominate the rest.”
“In this country in 15 or 20 years’ time,” he prophesied, “the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.”
The rise of Sunak makes it tempting to imagine history has a sense of humour. The somewhat sadistic anti-immigrant postures of key Conservative politicians—Braverman notably said it was her “obsession” to see asylum-seekers removed to Rwanda—suggests the need to nuance such appraisals. Like Braverman and other Conservatives of colour, Sunak supports deportation to Rwanda. He will condition future visas for countries like India on their governments accepting back illegal immigrants.
Language like this is of significance in the context of British Conservative politics. In the early 1960s, Conservative populists like MP Cyril Osborne had argued against immigration from former colonies. In one interview, Osborne proclaimed England was “a white man’s country and I wish it to remain so.” The Conservative candidate Peter Griffith used flagrantly racist language in his 1964 election campaign: “If you want a nigger neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour.”
Figures on the economic Right wing of the Conservative party, like Edward Boyle and Iain Macleod pushed back, arguing immigrants were playing a critical role in stopping wages from spiralling upwards. Fears of social unrest, together with these arguments, led to-be prime minister Edward Heath to sack Powell from his shadow cabinet after the 1968 race speech.
“Any political life,” Powell wrote in a book 10 years later, “ends in failure.” He was wrong.
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Making of new conservatism
Early in 1978, leader of the opposition Margaret Thatcher—soon to become prime minister—voiced White fears that “this country might be swamped by people with a different culture.” Following these remarks, Daniel Trilling notes, there was a dramatic shift in support away from Labour. Thatcher’s race politics marked a dramatic swing away from the traditional Conservatism of Heath to the strident White populism Powell had stood for. The hard line of immigration allowed her not just to win White working-class support, but also to crush her opponents on the far Right.
Thatcher also set in place the foundations of official multiculturalism, sociologist Jenny Bourne argues—enshrining a kind of informal apartheid that divided immigrant groups into distinct ethnic-religious enclaves, focusing on their purported cultural needs rather than economic empowerment.
Learning from successive electoral defeats, David Cameron—Prime Minister from 2010-2016—moved to draw in greater numbers of ethnic minorities and women candidates. A party that could appeal to “urban, liberal Britain” was needed to roll back Labour, argued Cameron. The party lunged Right again, though, with nationalists leveraging the Brexit issue to bring down Cameron.
The Boris Johnson government brought Whiteness back to centre stage. A report on race relations published by his government last year infamously suggested there might be room for a history that “speaks to the slave period not only being about profit and suffering but how culturally African people transformed themselves.” The prime minister later backed away from the report, which was accused of underplaying racial inequalities in the United Kingdom.
Fantasies that England is entering a post-racial utopia are at some distance from the truth. The wash of colour over its political landscape hides a grim, grey social tide.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)