I hope this article doesn’t open with a classic piece of racial stereotyping. Though if the police come knocking on my door I know I can rely on the Home Secretary to help me out.
So, then. Many migrants from the Indian sub-continent live in such a way as to reduce the demand for government – an important conservative theme for the future and one to which this site will soon return.
They believe in strong families, and so believe that they have a responsibility to care for their elderly parents, rather than slough off the burden on the state. Ditto, good schools that offer a traditional education (their children have gained an increasing number of grammar school places in recent years). Ditto, well-paid jobs, often in finance, often in healthcare.
For the sum of the evidence suggests that if your family is strong, your education sound and your job a good one, you are less likely to be mastered by one of Iain Duncan Smith’s five giants: crime, sub-standard healthcare, problem debt, drug and alcohol dependency and (of course) failing schools.
Which in turn will mean lower demand on youth offending teams, probation services, prisons, mental health services, the NHS, social services, benefits, and so on. And so lower bills for taxpayers and, even more importantly, fewer lives blighted, more social mobility (on some measures, anyway) and a happier country.
These recent migrants are also more religious than their white counterparts, going more often to gurdwaras, mosques and temples than those others go to churches, and indeed going more often to churches themselves. (This explains why multi-ethnic, multi-cultural London has bucked the trend in attendance for the Church of England.)
If such a pen portrait is indeed a piece of stereotyping, one of the reasons will be that it stresses ethnicity at the expense of class – a trap that the Sewell Report on Race and Ethnic disparities avoided. It cited the difference in life chances between “the child of a Harrow-raised British Indian accountant and the child of a Bradford-raised British Pakistani taxi-driver”.
The report says that part of the reason is “the UK’s economic geography”, but class will supply another part. Where might the Southampton-raised Indian-origin son of a doctor and a pharmacist fit into the picture – especially if he was educated first privately and then at Oxbridge?
In Rishi Sunak’s case, part of the answer turns out to be the Conservative Party – which is surprising only because political engagement by anyone of any background from anywhere is unusual. But it’s not at all eyebrow-raising that his instincts are conservative because that’s not unusual for a man of his ethnicity, religion and class.
I found myself musing on all this during and after our ConservativeHome interview with the Prime Minister yesterday. Some see him as a bloodless technocrat, devoid of any ideology at all, let alone conservative instincts for a smaller state, tax cuts and less regulation.
It’s an image he has no interest in dispelling, with an exception I’ll come to later. It takes no genius to work out his game plan: set priorities you know you can hit, deliver them, declare that’s proof you can be trusted – and win the next election by persuading voters that you’re a safer bet than the other bloke.
Ask him what his beliefs are, and he’ll tell you that he’s focused on his five priorities. Ask him what makes him a Conservative, and he tells you that the five priorities are Conservative. This is government as permanent campaigning – part of a trend that picked up pace under Tony Blair.
Sunak will appreciates the deadly power of the Blairite slogan “what matters is what works”: never mind ideology – just get stuff done. It’s a pitch aimed at the sweet spot, if they have such a thing, of the great mass of disengaged voters, ranging from the cynically knowing to the ragingly angry.
The exception to Sunak’s apolitical pitch comes when he’s in front of a Conservative audience – as yesterday. He made much in the interview of the opposition of Tory councillors and members to housebuilding targets. That’s fine for a ConHome audience. It’s doubtless good for the coming local elections, bearing in mind his target audience.
It’s not so great for younger people, home ownership aspirations, and the wider electorate. Otherwise, he stayed relentlessly on message, a technique he has efficiently employed with far better interviewers – indeed, with the best of all, Andrew Neil, during last summer’s Conservative leadership election.
But if his housing answers were given with the local elections in mind, his trans answer seemed to me to reflect his conservative prejudices, small c, and those of many from a similar background. No doubt there was electoral calculation in him declaring that 100 per cent of women don’t have a penis. Nonetheless, I felt, rightly or wrongly, that there was more to it than that.
Anyway, there’s no great mystery to the Prime Minister. He’s a conservative of a classic kind – whose political mileu was Remain, in that nation-shaping referendum seven years ago, but whose own take was Leave. If he gives off vibes of a Remainy kind, that has an upside for him as well as a downside. Former Leave voters may not love him, but the Remain fanatics don’t hate him.
That may matter in an election in which turnout, tactical voting and motivation will play their part as ever. His own poll ratings aren’t at all bad. The Conservatives’, by contrast, are dreadful. But even as they are, he’s grounds for hope: Politico’s poll of polls shows the gap narrowing slightly.
Insofar as most people think about the Prime Minister at all, they’ll have clocked that government is calmer under him – no great feat in itself – and that he’s working at pace. “Is Sunak a politician?” I asked earlier this year. We’re beginning to get an answer, after Section 35, the Windsor Framework, AUKUS developments, CPTPP, and all that.
He has one glaring vulnerability. He has promised to Stop the Boats. I asked him yesterday if he will have done so by the time of the next election. He wouldn’t confirm it. And if he doesn’t deliver on all of his five pledges – or at the very least be straining ever sinew to do so – he will be seen as a house of cards, and will duly collapse like one.
He said yesterday that the Government will “robustly challenge” any adverse, interim ruling on its Rwanda scheme from the ECHR. But what would that mean were the unelected state – bits of the civil service, Ministers’ legal advisers, parts of border force – to down tools, dig in and declare that they weren’t prepared to defy the court?
The Prime Minister knows that there appears to be no Commons majority for quitting the ECHR altogether. Perhaps he has some scheme up his sleeve. But I can’t help wondering if he is moving towards – or rather being propelled towards by the force of events – a manifesto commitment to leave?