Sunak’s rise is thanks to the Tory Hindu revolution. Labour, look and learnMihir Bose
There is a complex story behind his arrival at No 10. The Conservatives worked hard to erase a hatred that went back to the era of Churchill
Wed 26 Oct 2022 08.00 BST
Rishi Sunak’s arrival in No 10 is a more complex story than that of the first brown man to hold the highest office in the land advertising the diversity of our country. It is the result of a remarkable revolution in the Tory party’s attitude to the Hindus, which illustrates the complex nature of postwar Asian migration to this country. It should also ring loud alarm bells for Labour. The Tory Hindu revolution has seen it convert from a party that, historically, hated Hindus – and that is not too strong a word – to one that has pivoted enough towards the Hindus for the community to lose its old fear of the Tories.
The Tories may not like being reminded of their hatred for Hindus, but inside No 10 Sunak will be unable to miss the portrait of the man who articulated it: Winston Churchill. As recorded in the diaries of Churchill’s Downing Street secretary, John Colville, on returning from Yalta in February 1945, “the PM said the Hindus were a foul race, ‘protected by their mere pullulation from the doom that is their due’. And he wished Bert Harris [head of the RAF Bomber Command] could send some of his surplus bombers to destroy them”.
Tories will argue that they have moved a long way, spearheaded in particular by David Cameron, who, at a reception
in Wembley for Narendra Modi in 2015, wooed the Indian prime minister by speaking a few words in Gujarati, while his wife, Samantha, wore a sari. This continuing courtship was already paying rich dividends for the Tories: at the 2010 election, Labour had had a 13% lead among Hindus and a 48.5% lead among Sikhs, but by the 2015 election, the Tories had gone 8% ahead
among Hindus and Sikhs together.
However, this is where the complexity of Asian migration comes in – and with it the fact that Sunak does not represent all Asians. Unlike the West Indies and the Windrush, Asian migration cannot be symbolised by the arrival of one ship. There were two distinct migration streams. The first, known in the community as the “direct-flight” migrants, arrived soon after Britain left the subcontinent, and were mainly rural migrants from Punjab and Gujarat, with a large number of Muslims from Mirpur in Pakistan-Kashmir.
Sunak is part of a very different wave of Asians. In the days of the empire, his ancestors had been encouraged by the British to migrate to east Africa, to act as middlemen between the British and the Africans. But when these countries gained independence from Britain in the 60s, gaining new leaders and in some cases becoming more hostile towards their Asian populations, many of those migrants – including Sunak’s parents – moved to Britain. His father came from Kenya, and his mother from Tanzania. And these Asians who migrated from east Africa have historically had more reason to be grateful to the Tories than to Labour.
It was Harold Macmillan’s Tory government that agreed that Kenyan Asians could come to Britain if they were driven out of Kenya, and Harold Wilson’s Labour government that passed the Kenyan Asian bill, which went back on this promise. In 1972, it was Edward Heath’s Tory government that overcame opposition – including from many in Labour – to allow in Ugandan Asians who had been thrown out of the country by Idi Amin. Those Asians faced well documented racism and hardship, but still, with pluck and with much entrepreneurship, made their mark on British society and the British economy.
Sunak has made much of the pharmacy his mother ran, and the many long hours he worked there. His mother was one of many east African Asians who ran such businesses, in contrast to the image of the Asians of the direct-flight generation as factory workers.
In 1969, when I worked in a factory in Leicester during the summer holidays, I would have dismissed as fantasy the idea of Asians owning businesses. It is the children of these east African Asians who have done well, and particularly the Hindus: around two thirds of Hindu men are in managerial and professional jobs, but only around a third of Muslim men.
All of these Asian communities have come a long way since I, and Sunak’s parents, arrived in Britain. Back in 1972, when agreeing to rent a flatlet, my Tory landlady tried to convince me that I should not support Labour just because it had given India
independence. Winston Churchill, she assured me, would have done the same had he won in 1945.
Labour has often given the impression that it still sees the Asian community as a homogenous one, when, as Sunak’s rise shows, it is much more complex. It needs to learn from the Tories how to court the various divergent sections of Asian communities if it is not to see Sunak and his party further mine the Asian gold it has found.
- Mihir Bose is an author whose books include The Spirit of the Game, How Sport Made the Modern World, and From Midnight to Glorious Morning? India Since Independence
There is a complex story behind his arrival at No 10. The Conservatives worked hard to erase a hatred that went back to the era of Churchill, says author and broadcaster Mihir Bose