British Prime Minister Sunak Britain’s Obama Moment?

by Vijaya Chandrasoma

The parallels between the recent rise to premiership of the United Kingdom of Rishi Sunak and the election to the presidency of the United States of Barack Obama in 2008 bear a few similarities. They also represent the differences in the circumstances by which leadership could be achieved in two of the leading democracies in the world; similarities and differences both personal and national.The main personal and national similarity is that both Sunak and Obama were the first heads of state of countries never previously been so adorned by men of colour. They were both young when they took on the mantle of leadership. Sunak is 42-years old now. Obama was 47 when he was first elected to the presidency.

They are both highly educated. Sunak got his first degree at Worcester College, Oxford and an MBA on a Fulbright Scholarship at Stanford University in California. Obama earned his degrees from the Universities of Columbia and Harvard Law School. They are both extremely good-looking. In fact, Sunak is known as Dishy Rishi, and Obama has always been considered to be attractive by the opposite sex. Coincidentally, both their fathers were born and raised in Kenya, though of different ethnicities. And, probably most importantly, each have the great good fortune of being blessed with two lovely daughters.

Sunak being elevated to be the occupant of No. 10, Downing Street would have that infamous Indian hater, Winston Churchill spinning violently in his grave. He was the first British Prime Minister to vociferously bemoan the disintegration of the British Empire, especially its crown jewel, India. Obama’s election to the US presidency would have evoked a similar upheaval in the grave of Jefferson Davis, the first and only President of the Confederate States from 1861 till the end of the Civil War in 1865, who publicly decried the Emancipation Proclamation, by which Lincoln granted freedom to all slaves in the United States of America.

The similarities seem to end there. Although they both had brilliant academic careers, the routes which got them their education differed greatly both in family circumstances and the systems of education in England and the United States.

Sunak is a first generation Britisher, born in Southampton in 1980; his parents were of Indian origin, having emigrated to England from East Africa in the 1960s. His father was a doctor and his mother ran her own pharmacy; good upper middle-class stock able to send their son to Winchester College, one of the leading – and most expensive – private schools in England and then to the University of Oxford.

Obama is a first generation American, born in Hawaii, to a Kenyan father and a white American woman from Kansas. Barack Obama Snr. won a scholarship to study in America. He met his wife, Obama’s mother, while they were both studying at the University of Hawaii. Obama’s parents divorced in 1964, when he was two years old. After his graduation from the University of Hawaii, Obama Snr. went on to Harvard to study for a doctoral program in economics. He went back to Kenya after completing his Master’s degree, to become a senior economist in the Kenyan government.

Junior’s mother remarried another foreign student from Indonesia, and Barack spent a couple of his formative years at a government-run school in Jakarta. He returned to Hawaii in 1971, lived with his grandparents and graduated from an elite preparatory academy in Honolulu. He then attended Occidental College in Los Angeles, transferred to Columbia University in New York, where he received a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science. Barack went on to Harvard Law School for his Juris Doctor (JD). After a few years of study of literature and philosophy, while serving as a writer and editor for a publisher, he decided to enter politics in 1985, serving as a community organizer in Chicago. He was elected to the US Senate in 2004.

A career totally different from that of Sunak, who, after Stanford and Oxford, worked at Goldman Sachs and then moved onto Hedge Fund management. He entered politics, being elected as an MP to a safe Conservative seat in north Yorkshire in 2015. Sunak had a rapid rise in the Conservative Party, being appointed as Chancellor of the Exchequer (Finance Minister) by Boris Johnson in 2020.

Their wives could not be more different. Michelle Robinson was the descendant of African slaves, who grew up as part of a working-class family in a poor neighbourhood in the South Side of Chicago. The family lived in a one-roomed apartment. She shared her “bedroom” – which was the living room split down the center – with her brother. Michelle’s father, Fraser Robinson, suffered from multiple sclerosis, worked as a city pump operator, and never missed a day of work. He ingrained into his children the values of achievement through hard work. Michelle excelled in her secondary education, and then followed her brother, Craig with a scholarship to Princeton University. She went on to get her law degree at Harvard University, returned home to Chicago, where she met Barack. They were married in 1992 when Obama was working as a community organizer for the Democratic Party in the South Side of Chicago.

Sunak’s wife, Akshata Murthy, is the daughter of Indian billionaire, Narayan Murthy, the founder of Infosys, who has often been dubbed as the Bill Gates of India. She went on to study economics and French at a private liberal college in Claremont, California. She met Sunak while they were both studying at Stanford. She is the heiress to a fortune, worth billions. They were married in a simple but elegant ceremony in Bangalore in 2009. Rishi Sunak is said to be the richest politician in Britain.

At least, he was a rich man before he became the Prime Minister, unlike many Sri Lankans who held that coveted office. From rags to red sashes is the thought that comes to mind when talking about our politics.As for their religions, Sunak is a practicing Hindu, Obama is a Christian. England pays no heed to one’s religion as a requirement for any job, including Prime Minister. In fact, when a reporter questioned a British Prime Minister in the 90s about his religion, I may be wrong but I think it was Blair, his response was “that’s none of your bloody business.”

As we all know, it would be impossible to win the US presidency without placing one hand on the Bible, the other holding an AR15 military style rifle. Sunak and Obama inherited near recession economies. Obama rose to the challenge, and ran a progressive, scandal free, two-term administration, which saw a thriving economy, ending with 72 months of growth and the lowest unemployment figures in history. Through the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), he gave health-care insurance to over 30 million hitherto uninsured Americans. All this achieved despite a hostile and confrontational Republican majority in Congress.

Time will only tell what economic and political strategies Sunak will use to pull Britain out of its current economic malaise. Being a lifelong Conservative, these will almost certainly not be the progressive measures which helped Obama to get out of the near recession he inherited from Bush.

Sunak is a Conservative, at a time when both his Party and the British economy are fractured. He doesn’t represent change, hope or success against the odds as Obama did a decade ago. A formidable task of rescue awaits him, for which his seven-year career in national politics has hardly prepared him. The truncated nature of his period as Prime Minister – the next British general election will be held no later than January 2025 – won’t give him sufficient time to address, much less solve the immediate problems facing the British economy. Also, with a divided Conservative Party, the task of remaining in power over the next two years, and so avoiding the possibility of No. 10 Downing Street having a revolving door, highlighted by the recent departures of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, will be formidable.In any event, Ms Truss can truthfully boast that her 44 days as the British Prime Minister spanned two monarchies!

Mr. Sunak has one advantage over the Americans, in racism against minorities and coloured people. Britain and America were both apologetically racist as late as in the 1960s. Though racism still exists in Britain, it has evolved to be far more muted. I have no doubt that there are white supremacists longing for the good old days when Britain ruled the world. But it certainly has not grown into the virulent post-Trump, racist monstrosity that represents fascism and white supremacy currently dominating the United States.

Britain surely will not have a Hitler moment that is threatening to destroy democracy. They have, by and large, racially evolved and accepted the diverse reality of their country. In any event, Sunak is more British than the British. His ultimate departure from office will not end in the pathological resentment and fear in America, caused by Obama’s successful presidency, which has led to the racial violence by white Americans terrified of losing the centuries-long privileges they have enjoyed.

We will know the fate of America’s future at the midterm elections on November 8. My most fervent hope, against all polls, is that a sufficient majority of decent American people will understand the real and present danger to the nation presented by Trump and his white supremacist cult; that they will come out in droves and vote to wipe out an armed, violent and bigoted Republican Party.

Whatever the result will be, whichever Party will be elected to control one or both Houses in Congress on November 8, it is certain that there will be widespread allegations of voter fraud with the inevitable violence in the streets. That political violence has already begun with the recent brutal, Trump-motivated attack on Speaker Pelosis’s 82-year-old husband in San Francisco.

As Sonia Sodha, London Observer columnist writes, “Ultimately, I am not sure it is any less bigoted to apply benevolent rather than malevolent stereotypes to Asian and black people. It undermines the goal of a society where the colour of someone’s skin isn’t worth commenting on because it genuinely no longer matters…. when we understand that our common humanity encompasses the good and the bad.”

That indeed is the noble goal, the achievement of which, on present form, is in the long-distant future for the United States of America. If ever. But hopefully doable in the United Kingdom as they continue to emulate the progressive, socially and economically just policies of developed nations in Europe and beyond.

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