Rishi Sunak is not the first prime minister from an ethnic minority – Benjamin Disraeli was ahead of him by 154 years. Tom Scott draws out some fascinating parallels.
Politicians like to think they’re making history but, with some exceptions, they are seldom much interested in history more than a few years old.
Still, one might have expected Nicola Sturgeon to do a quick fact check before tweeting to congratulate Rishi Sunak on his ascent to Number 10 with the words: “That he becomes the first British Asian – indeed the first from any minority ethnic background – to become PM is a genuinely significant moment.”
It is indeed significant – and a positive sign – that a British Asian can make it to the highest office in the land, even if he has done so not through the approval of voters, but as the result of the utter chaos inside the Conservative Party.
But as Benjamin Cohen swiftly pointed out, Sunak is very far from being the first prime minister from a minority background. That honour belongs to Benjamin Disraeli, who formed his first government as prime minister in 1868.
Like Sunak, Disraeli ascended to this position at a time of acute crisis, and did so by invitation rather than election after a weary and gout-ridden Lord Derby invited him to take over the reins.
Two years earlier, the so-called ‘Panic of 1866’, had seen financial market turmoil spark a crisis of confidence in UK government bonds and impact sharply on employment and wages. This in turn had raised pressure for political reform and the expansion of voting rights.
In July 1866, some 200,000 people stormed police lines blocking their entrance to a meeting of the Reform League in Hyde Park. Protests continued through a cold winter that brought great hardship to many, with trade unions playing a key part in these.
The Times warned gravely of the “ominous threat” of an alliance between “extreme Reformers and the Trades’ Unions”, while The Westminster Review described “the agitation that now convulses England” as “the legitimate fruits of the conduct and speeches in which the dominant class has indulged.” Plus ça change, although the antics of Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and their ministers make Lord Derby’s cabinet seem like a Sunday School outing.
Disraeli had, like Sunak, been chancellor of the Exchequer in previous Tory governments. where he had struggled to balance the demands of two bitterly opposed factions within his party: the protectionists and the free-traders. But it was his skill at addressing the urgent need for political reform – and in doing so ‘stealing the clothes’ of Gladstone’s Liberals – that marked him out as a politician of exceptional skill and daring.
Persuading the hidebound grandees of the Tory Party to back the Reform Act of 1867, which greatly expanded the electoral franchise, was an extraordinary political feat, akin to persuading latter-day Conservatives to back proportional representation, and it earned Disraeli the moniker of ‘Tory radical’. One of his Liberal opponents commented in the House of Commons:
“I have always thought the Chancellor of Exchequer was the greatest Radical in the House. He has achieved what no other man in the country could have done. He has lugged up that great omnibus full of stupid, heavy, country gentlemen – I only say ‘stupid’ in the parliamentary sense – and has converted these Conservatives into Radical Reformers.”
Any hope that Rishi Sunak might also prove a radical reformer, or even a new broom, evaporated as his gruesomely familiar cabinet choices were announced. But then his background is in some ways much more conventionally conservative than that of Disraeli.
Disraeli’s father Isaac was a literary critic and historian, the son of a Sephardic Jewish merchant who had immigrated from Italy by way of Germany; his mother Maria was also of Italian-Jewish descent. But it was a far from traditionally Jewish family, and in 1817 Isaac had all of his five children baptised into the Church of England – a decision without which Benjamin’s political career would have been much more difficult (Jews were not allowed to sit in the House of Commons till 1858). Sunak, by contrast, remains a Hindu, albeit not a particularly devout one.
Like Rishi Sunak’s parents, Isaac and Maria Disraeli decided to give their two younger sons the best chance of advancement within the British establishment by sending them to Winchester College – then, as now, one of the country’s most prestigious public schools. But for reasons unknown – perhaps because of their eldest son’s poor health or his markedly Jewish appearance – Benjamin was not given this head start but sent to an obscure establishment in Walthamstow. This was something he came later to resent.
There is no doubt that someone so very obviously Jewish as Disraeli would have faced merciless bullying at a 19th-century English public school. As far as is known, this is not something experienced by Sunak, who became head boy at Winchester and has since donated over £100,000 to his old school. As a politician, Disraeli was the object of vicious antisemitism, not least at election campaign meetings when hecklers would shout “Shylock!” and wave slices of ham and bacon in his face.
That said, tweets and callers-in to talk shows alleging that Sunak is “not British” suggest that racism is by no means a spent force in British politics. I suspect that this was one reason why he lost out to a candidate as feeble as Liz Truss in the Tory leadership election in the summer.
Disraeli’s response to what was no doubt the deeply painful experience of racism was interesting and complex. Far from rejecting race as a determining feature, he embraced it, writing that race is “the key of history”. Rather than oppose the idea of a hierarchy of races, he sought to raise status of the Jewish people within this.
Disraeli’s racism was intimately connected with the British imperialism for which he became a figurehead. As prime minister, he set himself up as the champion of an empire that the Liberal Party (he alleged) had failed to uphold or would even act to demolish. This helped to endear him to Queen Victoria – and Disraeli did more than anyone to promote the idea of the Queen as Empress, the ’benevolent’ ruler over a panoply of subject nations. As with much about Disraeli, the line between personal belief and political calculation is hard to make out.
It’s tempting to see Sunak’s embrace of some of his party’s most virulently anti-immigrant rhetoric in the same light, including his declared intention to expand the cruel Rwanda scheme.
There are other interesting parallels between Disraeli and Sunak. Both married into money – though the £5000 a year that Disraeli’s wife Mary Ann Lewis brought him was, even in those days, worth a great deal less than Mrs Sunak’s fortune.
Sunak is now faced with challenges that in some ways resemble those faced by Disraeli when he became prime minister – a divided party, an economic crisis, international conflict caused by Russia’s imperialist ambitions (Tsar Alexander II’s efforts to gobble up bits of the decaying Ottoman Empire, in Disraeli’s case). There are no doubt many in the Tory Party who hope to see ‘Rishi’ bring the same panache to these problems as that displayed by ‘Dizzy’ (as Disraeli became popularly known).
I think they will be disappointed. Whatever else Disraeli may have been, he was a thinker and a man of considerable imagination (it’s hard to imagine Sunak writing a novel, let alone the 17 that Disraeli penned). He was also a remarkable political innovator and reformer, whereas everything we have seen so far of Sunak’s premiership suggests he has no aspiration to reach beyond the tired and discredited ideology that has brought the UK to the brink of total collapse. And his approach to by far the most urgent problem of our time – the accelerating climate emergency – seems to be to pretend that it doesn’t exist.
Rishi may match Dizzy in terms of ambition, but I very much doubt he will turn out to have the same political longevity. Given the current state of the Conservative Party, and Sunak’s willingness to press on with many of its worst policies, he is more likely to prove that what Disraeli wrote about that party in a novel of 1826, before he became a politician and joined it, still holds true:
“There is no act of treachery or meanness of which a political party is not capable; for in politics there is no honour.”