Zoom out, for a moment, from the daily claims and counter-claims between Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, as the blue-on-blue dogfight moves to hustings across Britain and on live television, until September 5, when the new prime minister will be unveiled. Leave aside the question whether Sunak is right to promise tax cuts only after taming inflation, or whether Truss has a point when she promises immediate tax cuts to boost growth. Both candidates have been evoking a range of opinions – from the benign to the biting – while over 160,000 members of the Conservative party accounting for less than 1 per cent of the British public prepare to cast their postal votes to decide the next prime minister through a uniquely convoluted system.
Take a step back and see the larger picture, which is more interesting at many levels; particularly three that exert considerable influence in the election: legacies of two former prime ministers (Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron) and the University of Oxford. The election presents another example of a more vibrant context than the immediate text, the macro rather than the micro, amounting to another moment of change and continuity in the history of British politics.
Thatcher, one of the most popular and controversial prime ministers – some of whose statues continue to be vandalised – has a domineering presence in the election, her legacy often recalled in glowing terms by several candidates. Both Sunak and Truss have been burnishing their Thatcherite credentials by the day. Truss appears to have adopted the iconography associated with Thatcher, including her dress, donning a white blouse with a big bow tied at the front and a black blazer during a television debate last week, eerily similar to the dress once worn by Thatcher. Soon after, social media was agog with images of similarly dressed Thatcher and Truss. Some months ago, many were reminded of a 1986 photo of Thatcher in a British Army tank, when Truss posed in military gear in a heavy-duty tank while visiting British troops in Estonia.
Not to be outdone, Sunak has harped on Thatcher’s legacy, promising to run the economy like his icon; never mind that Thatcher’s legacy on the economic front remains deeply divisive. “I will be the heir to Margaret Thatcher”, he wrote in The Daily Telegraph, the newspaper perceived to be pro-Conservative with a large readership comprising members of the party. Sunak wrote: “My values are Thatcherite. I believe in hard work, family and integrity. I am a Thatcherite, I am running as a Thatcherite and I will govern as a Thatcherite…If I were privileged enough to become PM, I would deliver a set of reforms as radical as the ones Thatcher drove in the 1980s to unleash growth and prosperity to all corners of the UK”.
Unlike Thatcher, Cameron is hardly mentioned by the candidates, but had it not been for what can be described as the ‘Cameron doctrine’ to proactively push and put up non-white
candidates in elections, Sunak would not have been where he is. Cameron took over as leader of the Conservative party in 2005, became prime minister in 2010 and won another election in 2015, only to resign in 2016 when the EU referendum led to the Brexit vote. The House of Commons today has the largest number of non-white MPs in history: 65. Earlier, non-white MPs were mostly from Labour, but Cameron made a concerted effort to alter the party’s image and launched his ‘A-list’ in 2005, a scheme that encouraged local Conservative units to choose from a list of preferred candidates, half of whom were women and a significant proportion non-whites.
In 2015, Sunak was given the safe seat of Richmond in Yorkshire, previously held by former party leader William Hague. Cameron’s push was carried forward, with many non-whites given cabinet and other ministerial posts, including by Boris Johnson, who put together the ‘most desi government’ in British history after the 2019 win. In the eyes of minority communities, the Conservative party was long seen as the ‘nasty party’, but the ‘Cameron doctrine’ has ensured that younger, professional and aspirational children of first-generation immigrant gravitate to the party in recent elections, including a large section of the British Indian community.
The third domineering presence is of the University of Oxford, which has educated 28 prime ministers. And whoever is declared the winner on September 5, the university will have its 29th former student in Downing Street. Both Sunak and Truss went to Oxford, both did the same course: Philosophy, Politics and Economics, better known as PPE. The course, designed to train future leaders, has been available at the university for nearly a century. Its alumni are at the top across various sectors and professions, from the judiciary, to journalism, to finance, to diplomacy, to politics, and beyond. Their domination in British public life is often highlighted, including the obvious implications for the terms of discourse and engagement. Before Oxford, Sunak went to Winchester College, one of the elite schools, but not as elite as Eton, which has taught 20 prime ministers, including Johnson. Winchester has had only one prime minister (Henry Addington) and six chancellors.
Much has been made of the diversity of candidates in the election, including Sunak’s candidature. It is a rare moment in British politics, but also raises questions of whether it will mean real change on sensitive issues such as racism, inequality, structural bias, or will it again amount to what the 19th century French novelist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr wrote, ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’ (the more it changes the more it remains the same).
The writer is a senior journalist based in London.
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