WITH RISHI SUNAK’S “CORONATION” as Britain’s third prime minister in as many months, numerous imperial ghosts have been awakened. Sunak’s personal history is inextricably intertwined with the history of the British Empire’s rapid and reckless dissolution.
Beyond its personal dimensions, however, Sunak’s rise speaks to the extraordinary dynamism and diversity of global capitalism. Brexiteer though Sunak may be, his rise to the top will strike many Brexit voters as yet further proof that, like the guests at the Hotel California, they can check out any time they want, but they can never leave.
Global capitalism will always have the last laugh – eh Liz?
Born in Southampton, Sunak is no less “British” than his hapless predecessor. All of us are, however, an inextricable part of our parents’ stories, and Sunak’s parents’ story is about East Africa.
For the peoples of India and Africa the Indian Ocean has always been a mighty highway. Backwards and forwards across it travelled all kinds of cargoes and all kinds of people. Under the tutelage of successive empires, this easy commerce, and the cultural enclaves it created, thrived. It was only when the last of these overlords, the British, cut and ran, that East African cosmopolitanism began to fray.
Substantial Indian minorities in the newly independent former colonies of the British Empire sat uneasily alongside the African nationalist majorities who found themselves governing nation states whose borders owed more to the compromises of competing imperial map-makers than they did to the economic and cultural history of the regions they were carved out of.
Descendants of the tens-of-thousands of indentured Indian labourers imported by the British to build their imperial infrastructure, and of the Indian entrepreneurs and fortune-seekers who accompanied them, the Indians of East Africa had every reason to follow the retreating imperialists back to Britain. Among those who made their way to the Empire’s enfeebled heart were Yashvir and Usha Sunak, from Kenya and Tanzania respectively, Rishi Sunak’s parents.
Decolonisation and the struggle for independence have become a staple of the contemporary Left’s love affair with identity. Its lazy historiography casts all but the white villains of the imperial story as heroes. But, the thing to remember about empires, and the complex human societies they nurture, is that those positioned below the imperial rulers are by no means all inclined to cry: “I am Spartacus!” Certainly, empires can keep people down, but they can also lift them up. Imperialism creates winners as well as losers.
Rishi Sunak’s parents were never losers. Professionally-trained, English-speaking, confident in their ability to negotiate the labyrinthine class structure of British society, Sunak’s mother and father did everything within their power to ensure that their clever son’s abilities were fully revealed to those most likely to value them. Trees that fall in the forests of Winchester and Oxford are more or less guaranteed to make a great deal of noise.
From the dreaming spires of Oxford, the transition to the gleaming towers of London, was relatively seamless. Like so many who climb their way to the top of a social pyramid (as opposed to being born there) Sunak made a close study of those whose ranks he planned to join.
For all their sneers, the British upper-classes have never forgotten that cash-money is always trumps. A coat-of-arms is no substitute for a seven-figure bank-balance – not least because a nine-figure bank-balance can always buy you one!
To fully appreciate the role of money in a globalised capitalist world there is no experience more educative than working for a hedge-fund. And assuredly, there is no more telling proof of how much a hedge-fund manager has learned than arranging to marry a billionaire’s daughter.
Interestingly, among the last hedge-funds with which Sunak was associated was called Theleme Partners. The name is instructive. It is derived from the Greek word for the human will. “Thelema”, derived from the same word, was (and maybe still is!) the name given to a belief system combining occult knowledge with esoteric philosophy. Among its most famous devotees were the British “magus”, Aleister “The Beast” Crowley, and the founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard.
The first rule of Thelema sounds about right for a hedge-fund manager: but, maybe, just a little bit alarming for the Prime Minister of Britain.
“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 28 October 2022.