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The Head Boy In the Bubble

Rishi Sunak might have grown up in an industrial city, but he spent most of his life in a bubble – made clear not only by the fact he never made any working-class friends, but that he seems to understand nothing about strikes.

Britain's Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, attends the Lord Mayor's Banquet at The Guildhall on 28 November 2022 in London, United Kingdom. (Carl Court / Getty Images)

Southampton is, in a very mundane way, a bit of a secret city. Not for the 250,000 people who live there, or the over a million people who live in the conurbation it shares with Portsmouth, which is one of the largest urban areas in Britain: but for everyone else. No films, no novels, no TV series, and a handful of famous people who make up a puzzling bunch—Craig David, Benny Hill, Ken Russell. Because nobody talks much about Southampton, it is perhaps not surprising that nobody has made anything of the fact our gormless techbro Prime Minister hails from the city. Given it doesn’t evoke much of a response in the rest of the country, Southampton features little in the PM’s origin story. This is in great contrast with the parodically authentocratic manner in which Liz Truss constantly talked about her background in Leeds and Paisley, regardless of the fact that it was in reality an extremely comfortable upbringing in the left-wing intelligentsia.

Being from Southampton myself, I’ve been puzzled by one of Sunak’s most notorious quips—that he has friends who are aristocrats, friends who are middle class, friends who are working class… ‘well, not working class’. Growing up in Southampton you would have to make an active effort not to know anyone who was working class. Exploring how this actually happened to Rishi Sunak might explain a little of his bluntly ideological, know-nothing response to the demands of striking workers across the country.

There’s no need to exaggerate the fact—it’s not Liverpool—but by the standards of the south of England, and even more so of Hampshire, where it stands, Southampton is a leftwing city—certainly a damn sight more leftwing than the part of Yorkshire where Sunak has his Parliamentary seat. With a couple of recent blips as its outer suburbs have drifted rightwards, Southampton City Council has usually been Labour since the 1940s, and one of the two parliamentary seats stayed Labour even in the 2019 election. This is mostly because of the city’s industrial history. It has been a medieval port and a Georgian spa, but the city that exists now was built mainly because of the huge expansion of its docks at the very end of the nineteenth century, which gradually brought motor manufacturing, aerospace and shipbuilding among other heavy and light industries to the city. Southampton University, given its charter in the ’50s, has long been deeply entwined with the British military-industrial complex.

Most importantly, unlike similar industrial cities in the north, the boom never entirely burst, as unlike in London, Liverpool or Bristol the inner-city docks never disappeared—the double-tides of Southampton Water mean that you’ll still find piles of shipping containers just spitting distance from the railway station and the medieval walls. From the Spitfire to fibre-optic cables, hugely important things have been invented in Southampton without anyone much noticing it. Southampton is also a very green city, with grand Victorian parks and a vast Common at its heart; but this hides the fact it is actually the fourth-densest city in England (after London, Leicester, and adjacent Portsmouth).

But if it seems affluent and successful on paper, on the streets it seldom feels it. Most of that late-developing industry has gone, replaced with insecure service sector work. The University and its immediate surroundings look moneyed, but there is a great deal of poverty, both in multicultural inner city areas like Northam and St Mary’s, and in the peripheral, sprawling estates like the ’30s Flower Estate and the ’60s Millbrook. Like much of the country after 13 years of Tory rule, the city’s townscape, from the cracked pavements to the derelict shopfronts, is deeply neglected; it is polluted, with acrid air and far too much traffic for so small a city. Housing is expensive, but a city which from the ’20s until the ’70s had one of the most expansive council housing programmes in the country has barely built any since the early ’80s. Malls aimed at the affluent Hampshire commuter belt dominate the city centre, and the aggressive road system designed to get things quickly in and out of the port means that Hants shoppers can zip in and out without really even having to look at the city.

So where does the Prime Minister fit into all this? With a few small changes to the choices his parents made for their eldest son, I might have been able to ask him. Rishi Sunak was born in Southampton General in 1980; I was born there the following year. He lived in the ’80s and ’90s in studenty Portswood and then in leafy Bassett; as a teenager, I lived in the adjacent Flower Estate, and must at least once have availed myself of the services of the Burgess Road branch of Sunak’s Pharmacy, run by his mother. The reason I’ve never met the man is mostly because he did not go to what would have been the local secondary school, a short walk from their big house in Bassett: Cantell, a big, multicultural comprehensive which was failed by OFSTED and then completely reconstructed in the early 2000s (it is now rated ‘Good’). You could meet a lot of different kinds of people at Cantell—friends’ parents came from India, Pakistan, Tanzania, St Lucia, Cyprus, Italy, just listing those off the top of my head. My close friends there included the twin grandsons of the CIA and MI6 officer Brian Crozier and the son of the local Labour MP. Several people in my year there now have PhDs; others went to prison. In that sense, it was a little microcosm of Britain. But Sunak never lived in this country as most people experience it.

Sunak’s parents might have sent him to work in Kuti’s Restaurant at the weekends to prepare him for ‘real life’, but that realness was never allowed to impinge on his schooling. He was sent first to a prep school in the wealthy market town of Romsey, and then, famously, as a ‘day boy’ to Winchester, one of the oldest and most powerful public schools in the country, where he became Head Boy. From there, the path was clear to PPE at Oxford, Stanford, Hedge Funds, Chancellor, and then lame duck Prime Minister. All of this has ensured that the man has spent most of his life in a bubble, where the concerns of the majority of people became entirely baffling and puzzling to him. But those concerns were not physically distant, as they might have been for a genuinely aristo Prime Minister such as David Cameron—they will have been all around him, but his education provided a carapace meaning he could ignore them.

If he knew his hometown a little better, though, perhaps Sunak might not be picking fights with the unions. In 2011, one of those brief Tory Councils took power in the city, and immediately took on council workers, with a thousand sackings planned. A wave of rolling strikes by Unite and Unison members that brought the city to a standstill dragged the council’s overconfident leaders to the negotiating table, and the redundancies were called off. The Prime Minister can be forgiven for not knowing about this, of course; at the time, Rishi Sunak was living in California.