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Has the UK had its Obama moment?

27 October 2022

By James Surallie

As Black History Month comes to an end for another year, this month has seen some historic landmarks when it comes to representation. We have witnessed the first British Asian and Hindu Prime Minister with the election of Rishi Sunak, just a few weeks after Kwasi Kwarteng became the UK’s first Black Chancellor in the most ethnically diverse cabinet in history under Liz Truss. While some have praised these milestones as Britain’s “Obama moment”, comparing it to the election of Barack Obama as the first Black American President in 2008, many have been sceptical of how big an impact it will actually have.  

At Sunak’s first Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday, all sides of the House of Commons marked the significance of his appointment. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said that: “The first British Asian prime minister is a significant moment in our national story, and it's a reminder that for all the challenges we face as a country, Britain is a place where people of all races and all beliefs can fulfil their dreams". Considering the fact that it has only been 35 years since the House of Commons saw its first wave of ethnic minority MPs following the election of Labour MPs Diane Abbott, Paul Boateng, Bernie Grant and Keith Vaz in the 1987 general election, this is a huge milestone in such a short space of time.    

Following the tragic death of George Floyd, the discussion around the need for increased ethnic minority representation has been largely focused on “descriptive representation”. This is the idea that groups elect an individual to represent them, who possesses or mirrors their own characteristics, i.e. choosing someone black because you are black. In recent years, many companies have announced initiatives aimed at promoting diversity and inclusion, as attention shifted towards the lack of diversity in certain industries and senior roles. Research suggests that this push will eventually pay dividends, with a report by McKinsey finding that large companies in the top quartile for ethnic and cultural diversity outperform those in the bottom quartile by 36 percent.   

Despite the rise of Sunak and Kwarteng to the highest political offices, the dialogue surrounding representation has seemingly changed. Many have noted how the Prime Minister and the former Chancellor’s lived experience is vastly different to the average ethnic minority living in Britain – with both attending elite private schools, graduating from Oxbridge, and being worth millions of pounds. On top of this, some have been critical about those ethnic minorities who have reached the top in government but are not perceived to advocate for issues which impact people of colour. For example, International Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch previously stated that she does not “care about colonialism” and believes that teaching critical race theory in schools is “absolutely terrifying”, while Sunak promised to “do whatever it takes” to make the controversial Rwanda policy work.  

As a result, the debate around improving ethnic minority representation is now considering other factors, such as class, which is arguably an important step in understanding its complexities. Just because someone looks like you does not automatically mean they will represent your views, and this evolution should eventually allow people of colour the freedom to be their own individuals rather than being pigeonholed into having the same opinions. 

Whether or not the UK has experienced its ‘Obama moment’ remains to be seen. Rishi Sunak, unlike Barack Obama, was not elected by the public and he was even rejected by the Conservative Party membership earlier this summer in favour of Liz Truss.  

In spite of this, his appointment should be celebrated. “Descriptive representation” will still play a vital role in improving ethnic minority representation, even as the debate evolves, and the appointment of Rishi Sunak as Prime Minister will likely inspire millions of kids to believe that one day, they too could be Prime Minister.