Britain's rising conservative star offers viable alternatives to both free-market economics and identity politics, charting a new course for the right.
Republicans are looking at four years of rebuilding and preparing for the next presidential election. By that time, no Republican presidential nominee will have won the popular vote in twenty years. However, President Donald Trump’s strong showing among Hispanic voters in Florida and Texas, scoring around 32 per cent of Hispanic voters nationally, has shown there is potential for the Republicans to expand their base and build a multi-ethnic, working-class coalition that can win a majority.
Reaching this point is easier said than done, especially after the failure of the past four years to secure significant policy victories for working-class Americans. In Britain, the Conservative Government is facing a similar challenge as it tries to deliver change for the new working-class voters it gained by promising to deliver on Brexit. As Britain tackles the second wave of coronavirus, one of the politicians whose reputation has been buoyed by the crisis is Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who heads the Treasury. An innovative economic response has made him a household name and a strong contender as a future Conservative leader.
Sunak grew up in Southampton, in the South of England, where his Indian grandparents arrived with their children from East Africa in the 1960s. His parents worked hard to get him into a prestigious private school. From there, Sunak went onto Oxford University and a Fulbright scholarship at Stanford University. It was at Stanford where he met his future wife, Akshata Murphy, the daughter of an Indian tech billionaire. Following graduation, Sunak began a career in investment banking, developing a reputation for quick thinking and problem-solving.
Despite his origins in the South and global finance, Sunak became an MP for a constituency in the North of England that backed Brexit in 2016. Sunak himself is a Brexiteer who was also fast to support Boris Johnson in the Conservative party leadership election last year. As a young politician, only entering Parliament in 2015, he carries very little ideological baggage. Instead, Sunak presents himself as a pragmatic, compassionate and patriotic Conservative.
Since becoming Chancellor in February, Sunak has pledged “to do whatever it takes” to get the economy through the pandemic, providing over £200 billion of wage subsidies, grants and loans to towns, businesses, and workers. The economic impact of the virus is devastating Main Street, and Sunak is trying to make sure the Conservatives stand by the little guy and not just big business. The combination of a strong communications operation and radical policy approach has turned Sunak into an effective and popular Chancellor.
In one of Sunak’s signature schemes, Eat Out to Help Out, the Treasury funded a 50 percent discount on all food and non-alcoholic drinks served by participating hospitality businesses on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays through the whole of August. Written off as a populist gimmick by the Labour opposition, it became a runaway success with over 100 million meals covered, helping recovering businesses. Sunak gained the media nickname “Dishy Rishi” for his good looks as well as his scheme’s popularity. Restaurants, bars, and pubs continued to use his personal brand for promoting new discounts and offers even after the scheme ended.
The spending on coronavirus schemes will have to be paid back once the crisis has passed, which has created serious questions for the Chancellor over how to keep the promises made by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in last year’s general election to “level up” the country. The Conservatives have made it their mission to tackle the socio-economic divide between the North and South of England through increased investment in infrastructure and services for working-class communities that backed Brexit and have been left behind by globalization.
After Britain entered a second national lockdown this month, many of these costly coronavirus programs have been extended through to next year. How Sunak addresses this challenge of leading the recovery and “levelling up” will define the Conservative Government for the next four years, but his rapid rise to power poses other questions for the Conservatives in light of the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests.
Although the Conservatives have fewer ethnic minority MPs than Labour, they have one of the most ethnically diverse Cabinets in British history. Two of the four great offices of state, the Treasury and the Home Office, are held by British Asians. Sunak’s position and popularity have made him a major target for the left. A Labour-affiliated group ran a viral attack ad criticizing Sunak for his successful business background and personal wealth with classic class-war rhetoric. On a BBC radio show, a comedian claimed that Sunak is “not representing most brown people” and is “what Prince Charles would look like in brownface”. In much the same way that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was at the receiving end of misogynistic vitriol from the left, so it is becoming common for ethnic minority Conservatives to be targeted.
After questions around racism dominated the headlines in Britain this summer in response to the Black Lives Matter protests, the Conservatives have been getting to grips with putting forward a counter-argument to “critical race theory” and broader identity politics. While accepting that racism exists in Britain and that there are racial inequalities, Sunak defended Britain’s heritage, making clear that Britain has become a more inclusive and diverse place. In Burkean language, he also denounced “the acts of violence and vandalism” and argued that “a better society doesn’t happen overnight—like all great acts of creation, it happens slowly, and depends on the cooperation of each of us toward that common goal.”
Framing the Conservatives’ message to people from ethnic minority backgrounds in Britain is not new territory for Sunak. Before entering Parliament, he worked with a center-right think tank to take an in-depth look at this issue as the head of their Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) Research Unit. Despite the differences between people from various ethnic minority backgrounds, his research found that there is a shared commitment to “British-ness” that is stronger than among their white peers. Inspired by the success of the Canadian Conservatives in winning over ethnic minority voters, Sunak made the case for significant community engagement with different ethnic minority communities to gain a hearing and show that Conservatives share their values, such as hard work, faith, family, and community.
As Chancellor, Sunak has acted on these beliefs by launching a new “Diversity Built Britain” coin to recognize the contribution of minority communities to British history. Rather than supporting the call to tear down statues and airbrush the history books, Sunak is helping make the case for building up the representation of non-white Britons as part of the national story. To bring the country together, Sunak believes it is better to show how everyone has a stake in Britain and can feel a sense of belonging, not resentment or shame towards its past.
Sunak is creating a center-right vision with broad appeal that could hold onto and expand the party’s Brexit coalition of working-class voters ahead of the next general election. Britain is ahead of the curve, but Republicans can follow Sunak’s progress as they start thinking strategically about how to win a majority again.
David A. Cowan is a writer based in London, UK, and is a graduate of the University of Cambridge.
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