First Asian Prime Minister of Britain: a sign of equality & diversity coming of age?

Prof Dieu Hack-Polay writes:

The new British Prime Minster, Rishi Sunak, has been greeted with euphoria in many circles, both among minority and majority groups. This has been seized as evidence of the culmination of equality and diversity frameworks in the United Kingdom. Some have applauded the emergence of a new dawn for Asians, Blacks and all minorities in the workplace and society in our country. However, the enthusiasm must be taken with caution. We have waited over 400 years (since the 16th century when Britain started to flirt with overseas cultures) to have the first non-white prime minster when Britain has been seen as a multicultural country for decades.


Lessons must be drawn from the Obama presidency in the US: the rise to power of the US first black president (Barack Obama) has brought a wind of confidence among young black Americans and planted the seeds of hope. In fact, the ascendence to power of Barack Obama led to the wildest dreams among Black and minorities in the United States. It was meant to change perceptions of Blacks and non-white people in the US. Obama’s two terms as president brought about some social policy changes, namely in the areas of education, criminal justice and voting rights and healthcare (Obamacare) in which black people and minorities were seriously disadvantaged. However, soon reality reasserted itself and the establishment struck back. Many of the far-reaching diversity laws that the first Black President attempted were opposed or unnecessarily delayed, for example student debt cancellation which would have helped many minorities did not pass under President Obama; the reform to the healthcare system to ensure greater insurance coverage for the poor was defeated several times in parliament before eventually a watered-down version was approved. Police brutality against minorities has not abated. The bottom line is that, notwithstanding Obama’s intent and vigorous campaigning and lobbying, there has been little change in the material, social and esteem situation of Black and minority American workers, as well as the poor. 


In Britain, if we are to build on the appointment of the first non-white prime minister, what is needed is a fundamental change in the social fabric and the thought system. This should start by redefining and propagating a reformed idea of Britishness which is more inclusive and transcends the restricted imperial view of who has a legitimate claim to Britishness. Politicians, academics and company CEOs, pressure groups and the general public all have a key role to play. For me, a key battleground is the educational system where the curriculum needs not only to be decolonised (or just tweaked) but ought to be rewritten to tell the true story of our modern nation, a nation of many. Such a reconstructed curriculum will shed light on the construction of ethnic disadvantage in the UK and offer a fresh start to the children of the white citizen, the Asian citizen, and the Black citizen.


Parading Mr Sunak as the embodiment of our perfected equality and diversity framework would simply be pretence. The difficult issue of racism, disadvantage of the many and the excessive privileges afforded to the fortunate few in our society will not disappear without systematic action to rout out those evils. Failing this, at the end of Mr Sunak’s tenure as the first Asian British Prime Minster, the conditions of minorities in the United Kingdom would not have changed even by one iota. There is momentum and optimism with Mr Sunak's appointment to the prime minster role. We should all work together (and relentlessly) to ensure that the seed that has been planted germinates and grows to provide viable equal opportunities to all.  

Prof Hack-Polay is Organisational Development Consultant at ResPeo and Professor of Organisational Studies at the University of Lincoln and Crandall University.