RIP the politics of representation – the evil you have done is enough
In the midst of a series of overlapping crises, as the UK marches towards a bleak winter, the campaign slogan of Britain’s newest Prime Minister – ‘ReadyforRishi’ – hangs in the air like something of an ominous rhetorical question: are we, in fact, ready for the government’s latest exercise in crisis management?
But for those among us committed to radical anti-racist politics, we must brace ourselves twice over. First for the terrors to emerge from this latest iteration of Tory rule – Austerity 2.0, further demonisation of asylum seekers and migrants, and the continued crackdown on protestors fighting to save a burning planet – and then for the tidal wave of congratulatory column pieces lauding Rishi Sunak’s rise as a “win” for anti-racism, or a step forward for the “representation” of non-white people in Britain.
Some of the commentariat who issued the early news of Sunak’s win have couched their words with a measure of caution – they’re not praising Sunak himself, but what he represents. They ask for a suspension of political concerns in order to appreciate the historical significance of Britain’s first non-white Prime Minister. But it feels offensive that the idea that the working classes of Britain – the racialised and migrants in particular – should celebrate the latest standard-bearer of austerity and state violence. For all the novelty of his identity, Rishi Sunak represents continuity in all other respects. In an age of spiralling deprivation, Sunak’s unprecedented wealth is no less obscene than the bluster of Boris Johnson. His enthusiasm for tax cuts and fiscal discipline is no less tone-deaf than Liz Truss’ strange, wooden decrees. And his commitment to the infamous Rwanda plan, as well as his – patently unworkable – proposal to expand the Government’s widely criticised counter-terrorism strategy Prevent to surveil those with ‘extreme hatred of Britain’ ensures that he will be no less of a danger to Britain’s racialised working classes than his predecessors.
In spite of the radically anti-migrant rhetoric and policies that Thatcher and her party would come to adopt, both out of and in power, attempts were still made under her leadership to cultivate support from the “immigrant vote” – particularly among the upper layer of Black and Asian communities. As part of these electoral calculations the Party established the short-lived Anglo-Asian Conservative Society (AACS) and the National Anglo-West Indian Conservative Society (NAWICS) prior to her 1979 election, and Thatcher even flirted with the idea of joining the BBC’s contemporary Asian-language show Nai Zindagi Naya Jeevan dressed in a sari to woo Asian voters. Mercifully – if nothing else than for having saved us from the inevitable discourse – she backed away from the plan after fierce reaction from party members.
More significantly, during Thatcher’s first term as Prime Minister and in response to the mass uprisings against state and racist violence in 1981, her government also moved to contain and absorb the militancy of Black and Asian-led anti-racism that had prevailed in the years prior. Inspired by President Nixon’s response to US Black Power, her strategy included attempts to nurture a Black and Asian business class, and to seize on growing class divides within these communities to prop up enterprise-minded individuals as “responsible black leaders”, in lieu of seasoned movement veterans whose demands for radical change could pose a threat to power.
This shift towards expanding Black and Asian business fit into the new spirit of entrepreneurialism that flowered under neoliberalism, redefining the political problem of racism as something which could be easily solved by ethnic enterprise – and helping secure the fortunes of families such as those of Rishi Sunak. And the limited amount of possibilities available to Black and Asian citizens of Britain reinforced the drive towards securing representation “firsts” as a supposed proxy for social progress.
As anti-racism was gutted of political substance and unmoored from its history, the rise of ‘representation politics’ came to fill the void, drawing energy towards the relentless pursuit of glass ceilings to be broken – and away from the injustices inflicted by state racism.
As a consequence of the Thatcher government’s efforts to reshape the terrain of ‘anti-racism’, popular notions of race were severed from class. Any understanding of racism also ended up being disconnected from the idea of ‘Britishness’ – the shifting parameters of inclusion and exclusion that determine who is deemed the racialised other in Britain.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is a perfect distillation of this process: as a multimillionaire, his experiences as an Asian man in Britain bear zero resemblance to the working-class Asians he is purported to ‘represent’ by virtue of ethnicity alone. And as the foremost symbol of the British national project, this son of migrants can ride the wave of reactionary British nationalism to preside over its brutal deportation regime without qualms.
Sunak is clear: it is not citizens, much less his skinfolk, he is there to ‘represent’ but capital. His Goldman Sachs pedigree is far more reliable a determinant of his politics than his ethnicity. Those pretending that this is a victory for anyone else are merely trying to protect their own interests. They depend on the currency of representation in order to advance their own careers, and as such will continue to churn out historic “firsts” until the end of days.
The response to Sunak’s ascension – and to the crass celebrations that are still to come – from the left should not be a retreat from the project of anti-racism. Instead, we need to redouble our efforts to highlight how racism, racist policing and border policies are, have been and will continue to be the means through which ruling class power is exercised in Britain – before being expanded to the working classes of Britain at large. Britain’s crises are manifold – and they are always racialised. The greatest crime of ‘representation politics’ is to mask and obscure this essential truth.
Azfar Shafi is a researcher and organiser with a focus on policing, counter-terrorism and imperialism. Ilyas Nagdee is an activist and writer focusing on anti-racism, civil liberties and policing. They are both the authors of Race to the Bottom: Reclaiming Antiracism released by Pluto Press (2022)