In this moment, it is surely a privilege to recognise the achievement of Rishi Sunak - Christine Jardine

It seemed like the most appropriate symbolism. Diwali, the Hindu festival celebrating the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, welcomed our first British Asian Prime Minister, himself a practising Hindu, through the doors of number 10.

In that moment, our history and our future seemed to come together in the hope that this will be the start of a new way forward for us.

For although I may have fundamental disagreements with Rishi Sunak over social and economic policy, I found myself fighting back the tears as he addressed the nation for the first time as Prime Minister.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

In a time when unprecedented has become the most overused of words, here was a moment whose significance surely fitted the definition perfectly.

Finally, our Parliament and our Government can claim to reflect the cultural and ethnic diversity of the nation, and the term British seems to have graduated to a new and more acceptable 21st century definition.

We still have a long way to go and there are parts of our society where institutionalised racism has yet to be overcome, but this week I felt that we may be making progress.

Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday was electric with anticipation of what the former chancellor might bring to the despatch box in his new role.

Earlier that morning I had heard Radio 4 replay part of an interview with Rishi Sunak in which he had described bringing his Indian-born grandfather to visit parliament for the first time after becoming an MP.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks to the media during a visit to Croydon University Hospital, south London, on Friday. PIC: Leon Neal/PA WirePrime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks to the media during a visit to Croydon University Hospital, south London, on Friday. PIC: Leon Neal/PA Wire
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks to the media during a visit to Croydon University Hospital, south London, on Friday. PIC: Leon Neal/PA Wire

He described the pride his Grandfather showed in making a mobile phone call to an old friend to tell him where he was with his MP grandson.

We have all experienced that sort of moment.

The first time I walked into Downing Street as a special adviser to the coalition government in 2011, I remembered standing at the gates as an 8-year-old peering at this place I had only seen on TV and never dreamed I would one day be part of.

When I was elected in 2017, I wondered what my grandparents would have thought of the wee girl born in a Glasgow tenement now sitting where Churchill, Asquith and Ramsay Macdonald had been before.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

So I can only imagine the intense emotion Sunak’s grandfather must have felt to see him recognised in the place that had once been the symbol of imperial exploitation of India.

But perhaps the most remarkable thing about Rishi Sunak’s elevation to Prime Minister is how strangely unremarkable it felt.

Expected almost.

He was, after all, neither the first cabinet minister nor first Chancellor of the Exchequer of colour, and parliament’s benches are much more ethnically diverse now than in the past.

But if we underestimate or play down the significance of his promotion to the top job in British politics, we may fail to make the most of it.

I am old enough to remember what felt like a social and political earthquake when Margaret Thatcher became the first female Prime Minister in the united kingdom.

For millions of girls and young women seeing her in post, regardless of her politics, proved that anything was possible for them in their own chosen careers.

Millions of words were written and documentaries, TV dramas and a Holywood Movie made about the Iron Lady and how she changed British politics.

Now that three women have occupied number 10 the picture, though still far from perfect, looks very different.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

That is not to say that racism and sexism are the same thing or even comparable. Of course they are not.

And I know that as a white person that even though I find racism abhorrent I can never fully understand or appreciate what it is like to experience, or to have to protect your children from it’s abuses, although I strive every day for that understanding and do whatever I can to expunge it from our communities.

But as a woman I do know what discrimination feels like and how important role models can be in giving you the confidence to overcome it.

That is where Margaret Thatcher and others like Shirley Williams and Harriet Harman have been so crucial in their influence and where Rishi Sunak and other politicians from an ethnic minority background now have such an important role to play in further opening doors -and society’s mind - for future generations.

A colleague of mine recently explained why she personally dislikes many of the descriptors we use for ethnicity and prefers simply to be described as brown.

It was a small lesson but I think an important one about the need to not assume attitudes for all of us who were part of the conversation. It was also a reminder that we still have so much to learn as a society.

Decades from now, a future generation will judge the success of the Sunak premiership in dealing with the culmination of the crises which have engulfed us over the past decade and of which we need no reminder here.

I have no doubt there will be moments during his term in Downing Street when I will disagree vehemently with the new Prime Minister. We may clash across the house at PMQs and I will not demur from criticising when I feel his government has taken a wrong turn.

But in this moment it is surely a privilege to recognise his achievement and what will mean for those who have never seen themselves reflected in our leaders before.