Rishi Sunak has become the UK’s first prime minister of colour and first Hindu prime minister, both milestones in Britain’s evolution as a multi-cultural and multi-faith society.
Although there has been a marked increase in politicians of colour being appointed to senior cabinet roles, including the key posts of chancellor, home secretary and foreign secretary, the UK has never had a black or brown prime minister before.
Sunak is a practising Hindu, although he has rarely talked publicly about his faith. He was named as the UK’s new leader on Diwali, the festival of lights celebrated by millions of Hindus, Sikhs and Jains across the world. It celebrates new beginnings and the triumph of good over evil and light over darkness.
Two years ago, when Sunak was chancellor, he lit candles to mark Diwali on the doorstep of No 11 Downing St at a time when Covid restrictions remained in force.
“It was one of my proudest moments that I was able to do that on the steps of Downing Street. It was one of my proudest moments of the job that I had for the last two years,” he told the Times earlier this year.
His faith “gives me strength, it gives me purpose. It’s part of who I am,” he said.
After the 2017 general election, he swore his oath to parliament upon the sacred Hindu text the Bhagavad Gita.
Grant Shapps, who became home secretary last week, downplayed the significance of Sunak becoming the UK’s first prime minister of colour.
His appointment “would be a moment for the country,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “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. I can imagine in other countries, that would be the only and the leading coverage. Here it’s an afterthought, and isn’t that great?”
But Tariq Modood, professor of sociology, politics and public policy at the University of Bristol, said: “Whatever his political views, Sunak becoming prime minister is a historic moment for multiculturalism and racial equality. It has happened much sooner than anyone would have predicted even a few years ago – and nor would anyone have predicted that the first ethnic minority prime minister would be a Tory.”
Neema Begum, assistant professor in British politics at the University of Nottingham, said Sunak’s appointment “shows how far ethnic minority representation has come in politics”.
She added: “Ethnic minority representation in the Conservative party has increased significantly since David Cameron modernised the party and fielded more ethnic minority candidates in Tory safe seats. But the majority of ethnic minorities continue to vote Labour.
“Sunak as prime minister is not necessarily a cause for celebration for all ethnic minorities. It shouldn’t be used to refute the ongoing existence of racism or obscure the fact that there are well-documented systemic racial and ethnic inequalities in housing, health and education.”
Liz Truss’s cabinet included five people of colour: James Cleverly, Nadhim Zahawi, Alok Sharma, Kemi Badenoch and Ranil Jayawardena. Another two, Kwasi Kawarteng and Suella Braverman, were sacked in recent days.
Sunak’s parents are of Indian descent. His father, Yashvir, was born in Kenya and his mother, Usha, was born in Tanzania. They migrated to the UK in the 1960s.
The families of a clutch of other senior Conservative MPs, including Priti Patel, Braverman, Cleverley and Kwarteng, also emigrated to the UK from east and west Africa.
Sunak is also possibly the UK’s first teetotal prime minister since David Lloyd George, with Coca-Cola his favoured tipple. There is no clear prohibition on alcohol in Hinduism, but many Hindus choose not to drink.