Save the malingering shambles of Boris Johnson himself, there is no more telling example of failing upwards in UK public life than Suella Fernandes Braverman, the wildly – some used to say irrationally ambitious Attorney General who backed Liz Truss in the leadership contest that limped to close last week, with Rishi Sunak said to be running distant second. When the results are announced on Monday, it’s likely they will be followed by the appointment of this Goan-Mauritian Brexiteer even higher in the Cabinet to Home Secretary, one of the four “great offices of state” of the British polity.
What a ride it has been for Braverman, whose career began with defeat against the pioneering Goan member of parliament Keith Vaz in 2005. She kept trying for another decade, before winning Fareham in 2015. From debut, she tacked hard right, campaigning vociferously to leave the European Union, and continually doubling down on dodgy messaging that has ranged from naked xenophobia to an absurd “war on woke.” Rather remarkably, in the wasteland of UK politics in 2022, where the scenario is rigged to keep the Conservatives in power no matter how badly they perform, this ideological extremism has propelled her all the way to the top. Now the daughter of Christie Fernandes of Assagao and Nairobi is one of the most powerful politicians in the world.
This is a surreal situation, even for the UK, the only major country in the world where utterly incompetent (and mostly hereditary) elites have managed to strengthen their stranglehold on political power despite the Internet, universalisation of education, and transnational flooding of global capital. Consider how this “democracy” works in the picking of Johnson’s successor, after one of the most abysmal political performances imaginable: just 200,000 members of the Conservative Party have the right to vote (that’s 0.3% of the population), of which an amazing 44% are over 65 years of age, and an astonishing 97% are so-called “white.”
This one-dimensional voting pool is why the appalling Liz Truss will be slingshot all the way into 10 Downing Street, despite the safe choice of Rishi Sunak being available. Shashi Tharoor put it very nicely in The Week last month: “Sunak’s main problem is something that no British commentator is prepared to concede. He is not white. No one likes to admit that such considerations exist, because saying so is seen as politically incorrect in these supposedly enlightened times. But they are fundamental. No one should underestimate the lingering racism of the general British public. As the brown-skinned son of immigrants who is openly and unapologetically Hindu, Sunak, despite his upper-class British accent, cannot hide his foreignness. To many white Britons, he just isn’t one of them—and never will be.’
Tharoor writes that “no one will say it, but the unspoken realisation across the country will be that Britain still is not ready for an Indian prime minister. Still, Sunak has brought the Indian community in Britain a long way towards the highest office in the land. It is a journey that began in 1892, when Dadabhai Naoroji, the Indian nationalist who authored the “drain theory” about British colonial exploitation of India, stood as Liberal Party candidate for Central Finsbury and won. Two other Indian Parsis, one the pro-empire Mancherjee Bhownaggree, the other the communist Shapurji Saklatvala, were also elected in the early 20th century. But they remained curiosities, and none of them had a particularly long or illustrious parliamentary career. None ascended to any prestigious positions in government.”
Here, unfortunately, but as is common in such accounts, there is hidden Goan history that has not been accounted for. That is the case of Sir Ernest Soares, the son of a Goan merchant from Uccasaim who settled in Liverpool, who was elected to parliament from Barnstaple in 1900, and went on to serve prime minister Asquith as his Junior Lord of the Treasury. Fast forward all the way to Braverman’s day, and there are actually three Goan women in the current UK parliament (to compare with just three in the Goa legislature) with another serious up-and-comer in the Tory ranks the outstanding 37-year-old Clare Coutinho, who is also set for an important government job in the next administration, even though she backed Sunak.
What’s most fascinating about Braverman’s rise is that she has failed to distinguish herself in any role except ideologue. She has only issued statements to chart the very fringe of what’s acceptable, and that has been qualification enough to keep getting ahead. Her actions have been doctrinaire hard right. As listed by Prospect Magazine, when it warned against her appointment as Attorney General: “Braverman voted against gay marriage. She voted against legalising assisted suicide—which remains against the law despite her complaining that the courts are intervening in the issue. She has previously voted against the rights of EU nationals already living in the UK to remain post-Brexit. She has consistently voted against measures to limit the ability of government to undertake mass surveillance of people’s communications and activities.”
It should be noted that every audacious Braverman gambit has been met by ridicule, then inevitably followed by hand-wringing because her ascent has proved unstoppable. As Prospect points out, “just as Johnson’s conduct in office has called into question the idea that a prime minister can be trusted to respect the basic conventions surrounding their office, after Braverman we can no longer be confident that the attorney general will ensure that the government is fully and honestly advised on the law, respects the courts and their judgments, and does not do things that are obviously unlawful. Particularly in retrospect, it looks as if she treated her time as attorney as little more than a step on the ladder to high office, rather than as an office of constitutional importance demanding independence of judgment and a willingness, where necessary, to give unwelcome advice to senior ministers.”
But again, just like Johnson, the utter trashing of one essential office of government has not precluded being rewarded with an even more important position. In the night of long knives that finally brought down her boss, it was Suella Braverman who first cast her hat in the ring to replace him. There was long and sustained laughter, which only increased in volume and intensity as the young politician went on to rail at phantoms of the culture wars: anti-imperialists, welfare abusers, human rights activists. All fun and games while it lasted, but look who will be laughing the hardest after the leadership results on Monday.
(Vivek Menezes is a writer and photographer and co-founder and co-curator of the Goa Arts and Literature Festival)