Rishi Sunak, the British and race

RW Johnson writes on what Trevor Noah & Co. get wrong about the Conservatives' choice of the new PM

Rishi Sunak’s ascension as prime minister of Britain has been greeted both by Trevor Noah and Ashwin Desai as a remarkable – and thus perhaps bogus – victory over racism, for their common assumption was that the British, imperialists and colonialists par excellence, are deeply racist.

In fact, their remarks merely betray a South African parochialism. They would have been advised to pay more attention to the fact that around half of all the candidates for the Tory leadership were people of colour and that at no stage during the lengthy election process was there any attempt to introduce the subject of race.

Racism is, of course, not dead in Britain but it is now openly expressed only on the extreme fringes of British society – by the far right, football hooligans and lager louts. Any such expressions are always strongly denounced by the large majority. For a long time now black and brown children have been a common sight in British schools – there has been no history of segregation – and most adult Britons have grown up in that environment.

Far back in the nineteenth century there was a history of elite Asians attending British schools and universities – in Oxford Balliol College was always famed for its often excellent Indian students. A number of Indians also became famous as sportsmen - the great K.S. Ranjitsinhji, who played cricket for England, the Nawab of Pataudi and, in my student days, Imran Khan of Pakistan.

This was also reflected in fiction – in Vanity Fair Becky Sharp’s schoolgirl friends include a mulatto heiress from the West Indies while Billy Bunter’s friends at Greyfriars included Hurree Jamset Ram Singh. At my college, Magdalen, the story was often told of how the Japanese Crown Prince, Chichibu, had arrived as a student. Asked by the college President what his name meant, Chichibu said “The son of God”. “Ah well”, the President replied, “you’ll find that here at Magdalen we have the sons of many famous men.”

This easy elite mixing did not prepare the country for the arrival en masse of West Indians in the 1950s. This triggered popular resentment and the Notting Hill race riots of 1958. But the shock of the riots led to the outlawing of racial discrimination and of racial hate speech.

In Britain a Julius Malema would serve serious jail time for talking about killing whites. (Indeed, because of such statements it is likely that Malema would be denied a visa to enter the UK in the first place.) Britain is serious about non-racism in a way that South Africa simply isn’t.

There was also a series of very deliberate and sustained attempts to foster good race relations. Nonetheless, the continuing inflow of West Indians, Pakistanis and Indians created a simmering opposition to “coloured immigration” which really broke the surface after Enoch Powell’s famous speeches against this phenomenon in 1968.

For a few years feelings remained high but by the 1970s even Powell had become far more involved in Northern Ireland and hardly mentioned race again. At which point Powell came to speak in Oxford – he was the supreme parliamentary orator of his day. His audience that day was mainly composed of black and brown students but he held them utterly spellbound.

Afterwards I asked him whether his views on race had changed. “No”, he said, “but I’m not worried about the blacks. They’re going to mix in just fine. They’re Christians, wonderful at cricket and, clearly, now at soccer too. And our young people love their music. You can see young black and white people mingling easily.” He was, he explained, far more concerned about the tendency of many Asians, particularly Muslims, to constitute a separate, parallel society.

This attitude is very similar to that of the French. They value the fact of “the French Republic, one and indivisible”, which is to say a single integrated society in which all are equal under the law. It was perfectly accepted and normal that Leopold Senghor and Felix Houphouet-Boigny should serve in the French cabinet of the 1950s: race was no barrier.

But, rightly or wrongly, it deeply offends that national republican sensitivity if millions of their fellow citizens want to live under their own legal system, insist on the inequality of women or make women wear restrictive forms of dress. It offends them even more if non-Muslim French women cannot walk through the streets of a French town without being harassed because their style of dress is not acceptable to Muslim standards. The same is true in Britain.

Let us leave aside whether one thinks that such feelings are right or wrong. The point is that they exist, and they are strong. The French talk increasingly of how they feel parts of their own country have become foreign and now need to be “liberated”. There is even talk of civil war. But the point that needs stressing is that this is a very different set of feelings than what South Africans mean when they talk of racial difference. It’s not about the colour of people’s skin.

In the case of Britain one has to remember that as the West Indians arrived in the 1950s it was easy enough for them all to become British citizens in five years, enjoying the same right to the vote, to the National Health Service or to council housing as any other Briton. There was no disenfranchisement, no legalised segregation and never any job reservation. And when Idi Amin, Jomo Kenyatta and Julius Nyerere threw the Asians out of Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania the British government made special arrangements so that these Asians could settle in Britain. They too integrated easily – they all spoke English and were often middle-class professionals.

This early right to full citizenship in Britain was of critical importance. In many parts of Europe immigrants remained gastarbeiter (“guest workers”) for many years and were thus disenfranchised. Since it was accepted as normal in Britain that black and Asian immigrants voted it passed almost without comment when they began to crop up as city councillors, trade union officials, lawyers, accountants, television announcers and, increasingly, as MPs.

My old Oxford college now holds special annual programmes to increase the number of BAME (Black, Asian, Muslim, Ethnic) entrants – although they are already demographically over-represented.

With the passage of time some of the immigrant groups achieved social mobility. It was most striking of all in the case of the East African Asians (like the Sunaks: Rishi’s father was a doctor, his mother a pharmacist) but in the following generation the same has also applied to Asians in general. Today in all the professions, in many schools and universities and even in cricket training sessions one is conscious of young Asians being pushed forward by their ambitious and supportive families.

This is much less the case with black families though one notices that in Premier League soccer (where every player is a multi-millionaire) where once a single black player was a noteworthy figure, many teams are now half black. Similarly, the British athletics team includes many black athletes.

So British spectators are used to cheering on black sportsmen and women as their own. On the other hand, if India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or the West Indies cricket teams tour England, their local compatriots will pack the stadiums so that English teams feel they are playing away. This is taken in good part by one and all.

The picture will soon change again. Already 300,000 Hong Kong Chinese have taken advantage of the British government offer to settle in Britain. In all some 800,000 are expected to come. Like the East African Asians they are usually professional people, often arrive with enough money to buy a house, are fluent English speakers and are often well educated. They are notably keen to stay clear of the established Chinese population for fear that they may be pro-Beijing in their sympathies. It seems certain that this group will rise like yeast and quickly become prominent in every walk of life.

Ashwin Desai makes much of the fact that Rishi Sunak is a Hindu. British people know that but don’t care much. Britain is a secular country of Christian tradition. Generally, religion is seen as a private matter and not something that needs to be taken into account politically.

Probably the most important thing about Hinduism as far as voters are concerned, is that it’s non-threatening. There is, at least in Britain, no history of Hindu terrorism. Hindus don’t demand their own legal system and seem happy enough to be equal with everyone else under British law. The same would apply to Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs and Shintoists.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that despite all the bad things normally said about colonialism and imperialism, the attraction of British or French culture is strong. When the East African Asians were kicked out of Africa they could have gone to a number of other countries including India or Pakistan. Having experienced British colonial rule they almost all chose to settle in Britain. The same is true of the Hong Kong Chinese and of the large numbers of North Africans, Malians and Senegalese who want to settle in France.

Similarly, for many years now the British have told the inhabitants of Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands that they can choose to live under Spanish or Argentinian rule if they want. Time after time they vote by 99% majorities to stay under British rule. And there is no doubt at all that the Hong Kong Chinese would opt massively for continued British colonial rule if that were an option.

Under British rule they had free elections, habeas corpus, the rule of law, judicial independence, freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Beijing got rid of all these things the minute it took over.

R.W. Johnson