It is a conundrum that will keep future historians of the United Kingdom well supplied with material for learned monographs. How come the Conservatives could choose a genuine Brexiteer as prime minister only when Brexit had lost its political power?
Rishi Sunak came out for Brexit on February 26th, 2016. That was just five days after Boris Johnson had transformed the referendum campaign by doing likewise.
But, unlike Johnson’s decision, which was patently opportunistic, Sunak’s seemed genuine. There was not, at that stage, any strong reason to see it is a smart career move for a young, sleek and patently ambitious MP.
Sunak most probably believed sincerely that, as he put it, “this is a once in a generation opportunity for our country to take back control of its destiny”. He passed the ideological test that so many other wishy-washy Tories failed.
And yet, since David Cameron fell on his sword after the referendum result, the Tories have elected four leaders. Theresa May was a Remainer; so was Liz Truss. Johnson didn’t give a damn about the issue either way — he simply chose the side of the debating society motion that allowed him to shine to best advantage.
In a literal sense, Sunak is indeed a globalist. Both in his person and in his ideas, he embodies a transnational elite of the super-rich
Thus, it has taken more than six years for the revolution to be led by an actual believer in its cause. It’s as if Robespierre had been a monarchist, Lenin a Menshevik and Michael Collins a closet unionist.
In a way, it’s even weirder than that. For the actual Brexiteer arrives in power only because Brexit has ceased to be the defining issue of English politics. It is not just that Sunak’s credentials as a true believer mean very little now that the great Revival meeting has folded its tent. It is that he could not hope to take power while the very cause he espoused was at its zenith.
Perhaps one way that those future historians might try to unravel these contradictions is by picking at a particular thread. Indeed, at one very particular word: globalist.
On Monday, just before Sunak’s ascension became official, the father of Brexit, Nigel Farage, tweeted that “the globalist coup has succeeded”. This is, of course, familiar Trumpian far-right conspiracist bilge.
The interesting question, though, is how come Farage felt able to dump it on the head of a fellow Brexiteer. Shouldn’t he be rejoicing that a man who essentially followed his own lead has now become prime minister? Shouldn’t he be claiming Sunak as, in some real ways, his political son? Why doesn’t the first real Brexiteer prime minister set the hearts of the reactionary right all a-flutter with pride and joy?
To answer those questions, we have to parse that word, globalist. For within it lies the great contradiction of the whole Brexit project, and the reason why it has fallen apart.
Globalist has two meanings. One is literal and relatively bland. The other is a term of abuse deployed by the neo- and protofascist right. It occupies the mental space where the international Jewish conspiracy used to be (and in some parts of the right, still is). Sunak falls between these meanings.
In a literal sense, Sunak is indeed a globalist. Both in his person and in his ideas, he embodies a transnational elite of the super-rich, for whom national boundaries and identities are fluid.
He moved (after the standard elite private school and Oxbridge education) to Goldman Sachs, on to Stanford, and thence to hedge fund management. His vast family fortune comes mostly from his wife Akshata Murty’s shares in her father’s India-based IT multinational, Infosys.
Until earlier this year, Murty claimed “non-domiciled” status in the UK, saving her an estimated £2.2 million a year in UK taxes, even while her husband was in charge of the UK’s national finances. Bizarrely, Sunak himself still held a US green card while he was chancellor of the exchequer, surrendering this right to permanent residence on another continent only a year before becoming prime minister of the UK.
But, and this is the crucial point, Sunak thought this kind of globalism was exactly what Brexit was about. When he came out for Leave, he did not try to hide his membership of the footloose transnational elite — he flaunted it.
“I have,” he boasted in his announcement that he was supporting Brexit, “spent my business career working around the world, investing in countries like the US, India and Brazil.”
His argument for Brexit was that the EU — ageing and stagnant — is clapped out and unimportant for nearly all British businesses. The real action lay on other continents and, freed from the need to adhere to European standards and regulations, Britain could go forth boldly and grab the lion’s share.
When Sunak contested — and lost — the Tory leadership election against Truss, her supporter Nadine Dorries dropped not-so-coded hints about his ‘£450 Prada shoes’ and ‘£3,500 suit’
It is a foolish idea, but not a surprising one. Sunak was expressing the worldview of his plutocratic class — place doesn’t matter. Geography, history, culture, ethnicity — none of them matter. Only money matters and it moves merrily across borders and time zones, just as Sunak himself had done.
What Sunak did not get, however, was that this kind of globalism, which is indeed the official ideology of Global Britain, sits as a thin crust on top of a political project in which “globalist” is the single most potent signifier of the ethnic enemy.
Global Britain is the elite idea of Brexit. But this carriage was yoked to a much more nativist workhorse: the anger of those for whom globalisation has been a false promise.
It was all very well for the hedge fund class to sip on dreams of making fortunes in Brazil and India. The red meat of Brexit was not internationalist but nationalist. Its core political consumers were not footloose but rooted — perhaps indeed stuck — in localities that feel not hyperconnected but increasingly marginalised.
They wanted to “take back” an idea of belonging that had, they felt, been taken away from them — by immigrants, experts, the rich and the highly educated. Sunak never seemed to grasp that he has a foot in all of the above camps.
Until he was told so in no uncertain terms. He must surely have had a rude awakening about the true meaning of Brexit when Theresa May, at the first post-Brexit Tory Party conference in October 2016, railed against “international elites”: “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.”
There’s a great cognitive dissonance here. Sunak, the British, Indian, American citizen of the unbounded world of mobile capital, was an actual Brexiteer, which May was not. But Brexit had become entirely performative. And in the performance of ethno-nationalism that the reactionary right required, Sunak looked like the citizen of nowhere from central casting.
Sunak is — because of his ethnicity, his ostentatious wealth and his detachment from ordinary English life — a soft target for the resentments that Brexit channelled
Being a true believer in Brexit was not enough to take that look off him. He may embody one idea of Global Britain. He could never represent those for whom “globalist” is a term of abuse.
When Sunak contested — and lost — the Tory leadership election against Truss, her supporter Nadine Dorries dropped not-so-coded hints about his “£450 Prada shoes” and “£3,500 suit”, which she contrasted with Truss’s sporting of a pair of earrings that cost £4.50.
These criticisms were not sartorial — they were ciphers for globalist elitism. Dorries warned her party not to be “fooled by appearances” into taking Sunak at face value. It is the old rhetoric of nativism everywhere: they may look civilised, but you can’t trust them.
Sunak will never be able to shake this off — simply because it is indeed his “appearance”. The ethnonationalism that Brexit both tapped into and validated will always define him as a globalist conspirator.
Brexit, with its weird mixture of globalist and anti-“globalist” impulses, had to lose its grip as an ethnic nationalist project before Sunak could come to power. Truss did him the favour of ending its reign as an effective rallying cry for the English right.
But there is still a Brexit-shaped hole in English identity. Sunak will return Britain to the pre-Brexit world of Cameron and George Osborne, slick rich boys savaging public services and presenting austerity for the already impoverished as “tough choices”.
Global markets may (for a while) think of that as stability and even as normality. But it is inherently unstable. It generates the kind of resentment that made Brexit inevitable.
And Sunak cannot disavow the nationalist revolution he so naively supported. In his resignation letter sent to Johnson on July 5th, he wrote: “Our people know that if something is too good to be true, then it is not true.” But the chances of him following through on that implied promise of honesty by acknowledging that his own fantasises of Global Britain were “too good to be true” seem impossibly remote.
Brexit was not a freak accident. It was a very bad answer to a very real question, a convulsion created by intolerable conditions. The same conditions will create some other upheaval.
The consolations of revolt against the EU have all dried up. That scapegoat has been killed. The promises of Global Britain, in the sense that Sunak understood the term, have evaporated.
But watch for the rise of that other use of “globalist” against Sunak. He is — because of his ethnicity, his ostentatious wealth and his detachment from ordinary English life — a soft target for the resentments that Brexit channelled but could not satisfy.
As Farage knows only too well, there will be a market for attacks on Sunak, based not on his policies, but on his being far too “global” to be properly English. It will get ugly.