The first clue that The Daily Show host Trevor Noah might not know that much about the UK or its political culture was when he referred to Rishi Sunak as “England’s first Prime Minister of colour, of Indian descent.” Sunak is, of course, not England’s Prime Minister, but the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. He then speaks about a supposed “backlash” that’s been happening here because Sunak is not white.
When the “Behind the Scenes” clip started going viral in the UK today there was widespread confusion from Brits who saw it, because..well…there has not been a “backlash” against Sunak. Certainly not because of his race.
Plenty on the left have criticised his policies, commented on his and his family’s wealth and demanded a General Election. That is how it works in a democracy. But they have certainly not been hitting out because Sunak isn’t white.
[Newsletter: Media Treats Politics Like a Parlour Game]
Nor is that really the case on the right. Save for a few fringe figures with their dog whistles, Conservative members and supporters have rightly taken pride in their party providing the UK’s first non-white Prime Minister. It’s worth noting, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt is currently the only white person currently holding a Great Office of State. Suella Braverman, whose parents are of Indian origin, is the Home Secretary while James Cleverly, whose mother is from Sierra Leon, is the Foreign Secretary. Noah did not mention this during his bizarre three minute monologue. Kemi Badenoch, whose parents are from Nigeria, is one of the most popular figures amongst the Tory grassroots, as evidenced in this summer’s leadership election.
All that is not to say there is no racism in the UK. Obviously, tragically, there is. I have no doubt that in various parts of the country you could find someone in a pub chuntering over their pint about “how you can’t say anything anymore” and moaning about Sunak’s race. I’m sure there are some Shire Tory toffs perplexed and upset that the leader of their party is not a white man or a Margaret Thatcher impersonator. But the idea there has been a widespread “backlash” to Sunak’s ascension to Prime Minister because of his ethnicity is farcical. There may have been a rather nutty call to LBC, which appears to be at least part of what Noah based his comments on, but there is no “birther” conspiracy gathering momentum here.
Instead, Noah’s comments are indicative of how American media, particularly on the liberal/left side of the divide, is either unable to understand what is going on beyond its own borders or tries to export and meld its own style of politics into that of other countries. In the clip, he clumsily talks about the British public and Tucker Carlson, the Fox News talk show host, in the same breath because that is seemingly the only prism through which he and others in US media can process issues.
For useful and nuanced reflections on Britain having its first Prime Minister of Indian origin, read Sunny Hundal’s piece at Semafor and Sathnam Sanghera’s piece for The Times.