History’s Long Grasp

Rishi Sunak will now be the next leader of the Conservative Party in the UK and the next Prime Minister, starting in just a few days. In a way, I guess it’s a positive that this has gotten so relatively little mention. But I cannot not note the history his ascension brings with it. I saw one reference this morning to Sunak’s being the first “person of color” to be the British Prime Minister. But this somewhat understates the matter.

The British Raj was the central possession of the British Empire, both chronologically and geographically. When you look at the history of British imperialism in the 19th and 20th centuries it is always striking how many colonial endeavors on other continents were driven in large part by the imperative of protecting and preserving access to India. You could be in Singapore or Cairo or Afghanistan and it was the protection and preserving of access to India that was the core driver. It is a striking moment that a descendent of the Indian subcontinent will shortly be the British head of government — though given the state of the Tories at the moment and the UK economy, perhaps there’s some question about for how long.

I did a bit of research and Sunak’s family history is even more deeply enmeshed in the story of British colonialism than is obvious on the surface. His parents were not born in India. They were born in East Africa, in the British colonies of Kenya and Tanzania, a not uncommon pattern in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Of course, Sunak is about to be the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and in the context of contemporary UK politics he’s not only a conservative but was and is a Brexit voter. The best description of the Brexit movement I’ve ever heard remains that of Irish columnist Fintan O’Toole who described Brexit as at its core an English (not British, but English) nationalist movement. I think that remains correct.

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