a year ago

Rishi Sunak and his 'maiden' speech

Rishi Sunak delivered his first speech as the UK PM outside Downing Street, after an audience with King Charles at Buckingham Palace on Tuesday morning. —AP file photo
Rishi Sunak delivered his first speech as the UK PM outside Downing Street, after an audience with King Charles at Buckingham Palace on Tuesday morning. —AP file photo

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It may be facetious to  try to refresh the memory of those who have forgotten the meaning of the words  'maiden speech'  but is  worth  bearing  that risk because it has not been  used much, perhaps rarely, in public discourse for a long time. Is it because the eponymous   speech is not made these days  until much later  or when made is so banal and platitudinous that it is not worth remembering, not to speak of  mentioning? Be that as it may, in its heyday, when a new member of British Parliament was elected his senior colleagues in that august body and the curious members of the public, looked forward to hearing the first speech made by the neophyte parliamentarian with keen interest. It was the received wisdom that a new member's first speech  set the tone of his/ her performance  as a future lawmaker   and gave an insight into the qualities of the head and the heart.

By time-honoured standard, Rishi Sunak's maiden speech in the Parliament after his election as a member  from the constituency  of Richmond   in 2015, did not disappoint his audience. It was witty, humorous and intelligent. He amply demonstrated his gift of the gab; but what was most impressive was his sense of humility and penchant for self mockery, capable of disarming the most inveterate critics. His overall attitude, manifest in the maiden speech in the parliament, was overwhelmingly one of warm friendship, co- operation and accommodation. The speech also exuded confidence in his metier to forge ahead, come rain or shine. It must have been regarded high by the rookie parliamentarian's senior colleagues and members of the public who heard it, as one of the most memorable in recent times.

But a parliamentarian makes a maiden speech of another vintage, a more historical one, when he/she climbs the ladder of the political  career  and reaching the top, is invited by the monarch to become the prime minister. In the rough and tumble world of high politics only a few has the good fortune and opportunity for the same. This is preceded by long years of toil in the parliament, mostly in the backbench, both when the party is in power or in the opposition and moving slowly in the corridor of power, from junior posts to full minister ship and then on to No.10 Downing Street, if one is lucky. This scenario in politics is not guaranteed.

Rishi Sunak, who has just been given the coveted address to officially occupy it, is not only lucky but fabulously so. Just look at the trajectory of his political career. He became a member of the parliament at the young age of 35 and became the prime minister in the oldest democracy in the world only seven years later, at the age of forty two! In between, he served as a Treasury Officer in the finance ministry  for a few months  and soon after became Chancellor of exchequer (the chief financial minister), the second most important post in the United Kingdom (UK) cabinet. He resigned, in protest of the alleged unethical conduct of his political mentor, then prime minister Boris Johnson, declaring in the parliament that it would be the last time that he held a public office. But soon after, he threw his hat in the ringside when conservative MPs vied with each other for the top post, to replace Boris Johnson, the hapless prime minister who had  'Brexit done' and  led his party to a landslide victory  in the general election. The conservative party, notoriously known for its ' night of the long knife', did not hesitate a whit to forget his contributions and   to abandon the captain midstream, unleashing an unseemly fray among the hopefuls to succeed him.  That Rishi Sunak, his protégée, should be one among them must have hurt Johnson the most, making him wince in pain, with the cry muttered under the breath,  'thou too, Brutus'. But politics is not morality play and it chimes with the adage that 'everything is fair in love and war. 'So, apart from a few righteous minded, shocked at Rishi's ingratitude and machination  for the downfall of Boris Johnson, the  majority  of  conservative parliamentarians saw nothing wrong in his aspiration to become the leader of the party and the prime minister. When Rishi  Sunak  was  pitted against Lizz Truss, and mounted a campaign to have the majority support from the conservative party members, public poll consistently showed him trailing her. Rishi had the humility and humour of admitting that he was an underdog candidate. That he carried on his campaign, without any let up of vigour and enthusiasm, in spite of this awareness, was his bright political badge, redolent of mental courage and tenacity. What is more, he did not  change his slogan of ' hardship now, happiness later', opting for populist one of tax cut. His political opportunism did not trump economic rationalism, as he understood it. When Lizz Truss, as the next prime minister, flip flopped with her populist economic policy and the market responded against her vehemently, another turmoil roiled the Conservative party and one fine morning Rishi found him in Buckingham palace, where the King invited him to be the prime minister and form a new government.Fairy tales don't come any better than this and it will not be surprising if Rishi Sunak is still  pinching himself to realise whether it is for real.

This brings the narration back to the caption of the article, 'Rishi Sunak and his maiden speech'. As already explained in the beginning, a maiden speech is the first speech made by a newly elected member of parliament. But, according to this humble writer, the first speech made by a new prime minister in public,  is also a maiden speech, a more important one  for the import it carries for the future. The first speech of a new prime minister, especially at a time of crisis, is expected  to be   for uniting the party and the polity, if not around a person, at least  over the agenda he has to weather the crisis overwhelming the nation. But as W.B Yeats asked: can the dancer be separated from the dance?, the public and political analyst alike,  will strain hard  to separate the persona of Rishi Sunak from his economic programme. Both are likely to find his maiden speech before No. 10 Downing Street very disappointing, to say the least. In so far as the amiable and humble person they were looking for remembering the first maiden speech he delivered in the parliament on becoming a MP, it  is conspicuous by  its absence. They must be wondering if a sarcastic and arrogant person that emerges from the first speech as the prime minister can build a team  of colleagues and well-wishers  to be able to deliver what has been promised by him.

Sure enough, Rishi Sunak, as the new prime minister, in his 'maiden' speech was fulsome in his praise for his immediate predecessor, Lizz Truss and approved her ambition to achieve high growth for British economy. But he also said, not once but twice, that she had made mistake, which was not politically correct and in good taste. In the same vein, he paid his encomium to Boris Johnson for pulling a great victory for  the Conservative party in 2019 and then obliquely mocked him saying the 2019 mandate  of the party was not the ' personal property' of any  single persona not very civil expression. Hearing him one could not but remember the crafty doublespeak of Mark Anthony who tore apart the characters he apparently praised in his speech. This attitude of vengefulness and belittling the predecessors, both from his own party, left those who stood before him in Downing Street cold, both figuratively and metaphorically.  So taken aback and aghast were they that after he finished his short speech there was not even a faint sound of clapping. He had jovially said, in his maiden speech in the parliament in 2015 that when he appeared in public for the first time one of his listener's comment was, 'you are shorter than we thought'. The motley crowd gathered before No. 10 Downing Street, might have the same reaction but this time the stature in question was not physical but mental. The audience braving the chilly wind and waiting patiently to hear from him found out first hand, that their new prime minister was small minded  and incapable of being generous in felicitation and of catholicity  of feelings. They must have been shocked too, hear him say that he had been appointed prime minister  to ' fix the mistake' made by his immediate predecessor, Lizz Truss, an immodest and arrogant remark, to say the least.

 What Rishi Sunak should have done, standing before the historic portal of No.10 Downing Street, is heap praise on all 56 of his predecessors, belonging to different parties, who had striven hard to serve the people of Britain in happy times and during crisis. He should have then continued, saying, that it was a privilege for him to be their successor in the service of the people of Britain. All the more so, because he has been given the opportunity at such a young age.

On this subject, he could have concluded saying that he hoped to keep up their proud legacy of public service   with a united conservative party and the co- operation of the opposition. By that simple yet moving remark, he could have transitioned from a politician into a statesman, almost overnight. But his egoistic instinct let that opportunity pass.

In his preamble to the speech, Rishi Sunak said to the audience, 'Let me explain why I am here'. Then he mentioned with a dash of bravado that he had become prime minister to fix the crisis that Lizz Truss had failed to address (not exactly in these words, but purporting the same). It was both rambunctious and conceited, verging on rank arrogance, a point made earlier.  In his hubris, he sounded like the magician Merlin in the King Fisher myth, with the magic wand in his hand, ready to make true whatever he wished. It was a sickening manifestation of vainglory and megalomania.

Finally, Rishi Sunak's   maiden speech was completely silent about the much talked  fact of his being the first Asian to become the prime minister in the UK. He should have mentioned this with pride and in appreciation of the British establishment. He should have remembered, standing before the great portal of power, that he was there because of the millions of immigrants from all over the commonwealth who have given their 'blood sweat and tear'  through past several centuries  in the service of Britain, in peace and war and earned recognition from full-blooded  British citizens for the sane .After that he should have concluded, saying, that he was where is today, because of the hard-earned recognition of  all immigrants, past and present. That he alone, along with his wealthy wife, is not behind his success story and that he has a rich legacy made of immigrants' contribution to Britain, working in dingy factory floors as wage labourers, in NHS hospitals as nurses, in citadels of higher education as teachers, and in every walks of life, was completely lost on him.

Rishi Sunak demonstrated beyond any shadow of a doubt that he has no sense of history. Otherwise he would not have missed this opportunity of making another 'Gettysburg- like' or Churchill's ' Blood, sweat and tears'-- vintage speech. In the event, the maiden speech that he made as prime minister will be mentioned for its glaring failures to rise to the occasion. He got a second chance in his bid for No. 10 Downing Street and has succeeded. History may not give him a second chance to be remembered as great.

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