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Suella Braverman’s Rwandan Dream 

By Clementine Ewokolo Burnley


‘The good immigrant’ is a trope for the outsider who makes their way successfully in their adopted country. In being re-appointed to head the Home Office, Suella Braverman (née Fernandes) may have fulfilled an immigrant’s wildest dreams. It’s been a meteoric rise. In the 1960s, Braverman’s father, Christie Fernandes fled to Britain from an independent Kenya. His daughter’s gone from Attorney General under Boris Johnson to Home Secretary under Liz Truss and has been reinstated to that position by the new Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak. In a single generation, Braverman has moved from the ‘petit bourgeoisie’ into an upper-class ruling elite. 

In so far as the Brexit referendum split the British into anti-immigration Leavers and pro-migration Remainers, there’s a certain irony in the great offices of state being filled by people with a recent family history of migration, including the present Prime Minister (both he and Braverman were Leavers). Braverman’s bullish approach to ‘protecting “our” borders’ has been the focus of much outrage, partly on the basis of her own migrant background. But Braverman can’t be dismissed as a token ‘Other’ lip-synching the xenophobia of her backers. Along with the Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, and the International Trade Secretary Olukemi Badenoch who is also President of the Board of Trade and Minister for Women and Equalities, Suella Braverman represents the changed face of a modern, plural Britain. Their parents may have arrived as outsiders, but Sunak, Braverman and Cleverly hold the top three political posts.

So, why have the new members of the Conservative Party hierarchy faced such sharp criticism from white, left-wing, South Asian and black commentators alike, as well as some other Tories? A piece by the British Sikh commentator Sunny Hundal in The Independent calls Braverman ‘a brown, female version of Trump.’ Those who are outraged by Braverman’s anti-immigrant political positions had assumed that her experience and affiliation was brown, was Indian, was against colonial rule, was refugee, or at any rate migrant. 

Before addressing this, it’s worth noting that Braverman replaced another  fiercely conservative British woman of Indian heritage at the Home Office, Priti Patel. In a recent Guardian article, one of Braverman’s allies admiringly called  her ‘Priti on steroids’. Both women are hardliners on immigration, are for Brexit, court big business and chase the populist vote. There are other biographical parallels. Braverman and Patel are in Britain as the result of British imperial migration policies, which moved their forebears around the colonies – from India to East Africa. While some South Asians arrived in Africa with assets and set up businesses, others came as indentured labourers. A segregated education and job system cemented racial hierarchies and divisions between South Asians and black Africans. The South Asians were used to form a buffer class between black Africans and white English settlers and administrators in British colonial setups. However, in Kenya, indentured South Asian labourers sometimes organised together with black African labourers. The Indian and African Kenyan trade unions, for example, united into a single Labour Trade Union of Kenya, with its members working together against the British colonial regime.

When countries like Kenya and Uganda became independent from Britain in the 1960s, many South Asian communities were forced out. They came to a mother country that was frantically devising immigration legislation to keep them out. Now Braverman represents a Tory party as far to the right as it has been since Enoch Powell’s infamous, anti-immigration ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968. Her reference to asylum-seeking migrants as an ‘invasion’ – a throwback to those darker, openly racist days – alarms many, and not only left-wing liberals.

Perhaps it’s time, then, to widen ideas of ‘black’ and ‘brown’ in the current political context. The idea of political blackness had currency in the 1960s and 70s. At the time, South Asian and black communities faced a wall of white racism which included the unions, political organisations and business. Political blackness was an umbrella under which black and brown people could organise to uplift each other. The Bristol Bus Boycott of 1963 was organised in that spirit, and when it was over, Sikh, Jamaican and Pakistani men could be employed on bus crews in the city. An assumption that Britain has moved on from such widespread racial discrimination in employment and housing, and that that kind of activism is no longer required, is now in question. Enoch Powell’s dream of a white ethno-state appears to be very much in line with current Home Office immigration policies, which effectively shift the focus of continuing, exclusionary tensions to the borders. 

Surely, being a (highly successful) product of forced migration, might predispose a politician to promote the positives for British society of admitting refugees and immigrants to the country and economy? Surely Braverman should understand the situation of people who share some of her own family’s experiences? Why would the daughter of Kenyan and Mauritian Indians send refugees to processing centres on the Ascension Islands, or to Rwanda? 

Some clues can be found by looking at British Asian history. The Ugandan President Idi Amin unleashed a brutal ethnic cleansing policy against the Ugandan South Asian community. The impact on Ugandan Asians was enormous. It would also have been an object lesson in the dangers of being politically side-lined and without power. Though he’d also been subjected to colonialism and racism, Idi Amin didn’t line up under a ‘black and brown’ banner. He used his power against a group he saw as competitors for control of assets and land. 

Returning to Britain, South Asians and black people have always had a range of political affiliations. When we lump them together as brown and black, we elide real differences in their positions. To categorise anyone only by biological markers like skin colour or by cultural markers like religion is to deny them the same complex lives as anyone else. It’s to box individuals into monolithic identities which don’t necessarily have personal currency. How do we know who people identify with, or see as ‘their own’?’ Rishi Sunak, Suella Braverman and Kemi Badenoch have as much talent as, comparable educations to, and overlapping connections with their white Tory peers. Black and brown people are, of course, entitled to serve their personal interests, such as their careers, and their own class interests; some are wealthy. Holding them to different standards just because black and brown communities suffer disproportionately from racist security, economic and social policies, might be… racist?  

To complicate matters, powerful black and brown leaders may still be subject to racism. They can easily be undermined as not competent, and ‘not really British.’ The ex-Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s nickname was an early signal of his fate. We have had The Iron Lady, Teflon Tony and BoJo. Dishy Rishi has a very different feel from Kami-Kwasi. Once the press baptises a public figure with a nickname that alludes to their foreign origin, their days are numbered.

The Conservatives have shown that racial diversity can serve right-wing parties in several ways. The optics are good. In the Indian press the British Conservatives are held up as a diverse, meritocratic party of the kind Narendra Modi’s Hindu ethno-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would do well to emulate. To ‘conserve’ is to keep the status quo from changing. And if the cost of maintaining the status quo of white privilege based on populist policies is to include conservative black and brown people, then that’s a calculation which is working well for the Tories. Poor, isolated, vulnerable people, made highly visible by religious and racial difference, are low-cost targets. Fair game for hunting in the streets, in politics and in the media. You might have black and brown politicians bring in anti-working class, anti-immigrant legislation precisely because it’s hard to frame a policy as oppressive, racist or Islamophobic when a black or brown person legitimizes it. 

Suella Braverman isn’t unique in being accused of having ‘sold out her own’. Both the rapper, Kanye West and US Supreme Court Justice, Clarence Thomas have supported an openly racist Donald Trump. So, too, the Trinidadian-origin writer, V.S. Naipaul and now also Suella Braverman have pushed against automatic alignment with liberal, left-wing narratives. According to Hilton Als in The New Yorker, ‘Naipaul himself was indoctrinated in bigotry by his father.‘ Some members of V.S. Naipaul’s family displayed racism towards black Trinidadians. Other members of the Naipaul family did not. As in Uganda, where some South Asian and black Ugandans competed for assets and resources under British imperial governance, some brown and black Trinidadians competed to win recognition from the white British. Having moved to England, V.S. Naipaul competed with black Trinidadian writers to be the good immigrant writer.

So, what are the lessons? You can bring black and brown people in to lead the Home Office to implement more equitable migration policies. Or you can bring them in because it’s politically expedient to have them push policies which disproportionally target black and brown communities. Just as Clarence Thomas voted to eliminate the quota systems under which he entered university, so too the former Home Secretary, Priti Patel, who didn’t pay for university, voted for higher university fees. Both Braverman and Patel have proved they can be trusted to implement policies which disproportionately target black and brown and poorer communities. And both women align closely with the Conservative grassroots. Adrian Wooldridge in The Washington Post quotes Patel: ‘if you think I’m right wing, you should look at the average voter.’ 

Brexit and its political afterlife have shown that being descended from migrants doesn’t mean being pro-migrant, or being anti-racist, or being against the abuse of power over others. Rather, it is the most privileged in every group who benefit from a populist politics of representation. People like Braverman, Naipaul and Thomas stand out because they espouse what are thought to be atypical positions for their communities. It’s a sparsely populated field, offering a direct path to power. Braverman is determined to end Britain’s adherence to the European convention on human rights, and to push through deportation flights to Rwanda. That, she says, is her dream. Delivering anti-migrant policies isn’t a price Braverman must pay. It’s her ticket into higher tiers of privilege only the populist mainstream can deliver. It’s the path of her meteoric rise – Suella Braverman’s Rwandan dream.

Expecting Braverman to lead the right wing of the Tory party away from its rabidly anti-immigrant stance would be expecting the tail to wag the dog.  Politicians who want to rise in the current polarised climate must align to mainstream voters, and distance themselves from socially vulnerable groups. This strategy, the Braverman strategy, may well help some migrants to move up in the social hierarchy. Many, perhaps most immigrants, understandably hanker after upward mobility. They want to arrive; they want to belong to the mainstream of the societies in which they live. But by the same token, groups which suffer from racism, and social exclusion, cannot continue to demand solidarity from brown and black politicians whose allegiance is to white mainstream voters. Populist politicians of all skin shades will unite to maintain and perhaps worsen existing inequalities. Marginalised groups need systems change, not over-promoted role models.

According to the author and journalist Tim Lott in the Guardian, on the day in 1979 when Margaret Thatcher was elected, feminist demonstrators held up placards that said, ‘We want women’s rights – not a right-wing woman’. Today, activists might raise placards that say, ‘We want migrants’ rights – not right-wing migrants’.