Hardeep Matharu explores what the rise of Conservative ethnic minority politicians reveals about the party’s approach to race and diversity.
As Rishi Sunak took his seat around the Cabinet table this morning as the new Chancellor, Boris Johnson will have considered him another boon; another example of his apparently progressive, modern, inclusive Conservative Party.
The rising star will serve a useful and clever smokescreen as part of Johnson’s colonial-style ‘divide and rule’ tactic – a practice steeped in Empire: the admittance of a minority of minorities to the sensibilities of the white British Establishment who, in their desire to be accepted and join the club, are considered pliable and open to getting their hands dirty on behalf of their rulers through the adoption of more severe positions. In the process, they feel and become ‘more British than British’.
That Britain now has another, albeit relatively unknown, Asian Chancellor – as well as an ethnic minority Home Secretary – fulfills a simplistic narrative of Britain’s progress on racism and diversity. But, what if the opposite is true and these diverse figures have been given a prominent platform – in part – because of their willingness to reinforce an elite white and conservative order, which will actually provide few benefits to minorities and the cause of diversity?
The Tanned William Hague
Born in Southampton to a Punjabi Indian family, Rishi Sunak told the BBC last year that he had fortunately not experienced much racism growing up, apart from one incident in which he was called the “The ‘P’ word”.
He said it “stings in a way that is hard to explain” but also couldn’t “conceive of that happening today” in the UK.
Having only been elected to Parliament in 2015, Sunak is the MP for Richmond in Yorkshire – the former Conservative Party Leader William Hague’s old safe Conservative seat.
In his maiden parliamentary speech, Sunak recalled an amusing exchange when he was first on the campaign trail in the constituency: “Wandering through an auction market, I was introduced to a farmer as ‘the new William Hague’. He looked at me, quizzically, then said, ‘Ah yes, Haguey! Good bloke. I like him. Bit pale, though. This one’s got a better tan’.”
In the speech, he also paid tribute to his grandparents who “arrived in this country with little” and his parents who “grew up wanting a better future for their children”.
“I owe a great debt to our country for what it has done for my family: showing tolerance, providing opportunities and rewarding their hard work,” he said.
what the papers don’t say
A supporter of Brexit, in his new position as Chancellor Sunak is clearly seen as Johnson and Dominic Cummings’ ‘yes’ man. The privately-educated son-in-law of a billionaire businessman, who has worked for the investment bank Goldman Sachs, a hedge fund and set up an investment firm, seems to have promising credentials to implement the sort of economic agenda Cummings will have up his sleeve. Importantly, in getting the top job, Sunak has agreed to pool advisors from No. 10 Downing Street and No. 11 and base his team in Downing Street rather than the Treasury – something Javid refused to do.
According to Andrew Gimson, contributing editor of the ConservativeHome site, Sunak is “extremely proud to be British”.
“The Prime Minister… delights to promote people such as Sajid Javid, Priti Patel, Alok Sharma and Sunak himself who demonstrate that Conservative values, including hard work, patriotism, bettering oneself by getting a good education and helping others to do the same, are every bit as appealing to people of immigrant descent as to anyone else,” he wrote yesterday.
“A generation ago, such ministers would almost certainly have joined the Labour Party. Now it is the Conservatives, thanks especially to the widening of the parliamentary party under David Cameron’s leadership, who have given them the chance to shine.”
But, how representative – with all of his privilege – is Sunak of ethnic minorities? And if he has ‘made it’ in British society, what price has he paid? His rise doesn’t mean that other minorities can necessarily follow his trajectory or that they would want to make the choices he has to get where he has, including about their identity.
The Unwelcoming Daughter of Immigrants
The London-born daughter of Indian parents from Uganda, Sunak’s colleague Priti Patel is another Conservative Party character who raises interesting questions.
Speaking triumphantly at the 2019 Conservative Party Conference, the Home Secretary said that the Conservative Government would be ending the free movement of people “once and for all”, that she wanted the “brightest and best” to come to the UK and an immigration system that is “under the control of the British Government”.
“Because, let me tell you something,” she added, with a smirk. “This daughter of immigrants, needs no lectures from the North London metropolitan liberal elite.”
Patel has been described in these pages by Musa Okwonga as a “racial gatekeeper” – “a crucial role because it allows a group of white people with racially regressive views to say: ‘Look at us, we have found a non-white person who agrees with us, our policies therefore do not have racially regressive effects’.”
They “pride themselves on their rebellious streak, yet the positions which they take rigidly reinforce the racial status quo,” Okwonga observes. “These are political positions that they honestly hold. They [are not] self-loathing, or ashamed of who they are – if anything, they are supremely proud of themselves, a defiant minority.”
With her uncompromising, authoritarian tendencies, Patel certainly fulfills Boris Johnson’s ‘tough justice’ agenda – aside from whether she has the ability to do the job effectively. This was demonstrated most recently in an interview in which she repeatedly referred to those who commit terrorist offences as “counter-terrorism offenders”.
So successful has she been in the creation of this hardline persona that David Merritt, the father of Jack Merritt – who was murdered in the London Bridge terror attacks last November – told me that he and his family had refused to speak with Patel after their son’s death because “she’s so reactionary and right-wing, so punitive and comes across as a very un-empathetic person”.
The Punjabi-Speaking Mummy’s Boy
While more cheery in his demeanour, the former Chancellor Sajid Javid – who is also proud of his heritage as the Rochdale-born son of Pakistani immigrants – has been accused himself of using racial dog whistles.
Having vowed to crackdown on “Asian paedophiles” while Home Secretary, he was criticised by the former co-chair of the Conservative Party Baroness Sayeeda Warsi who said “however much he panders to the right of our party, sadly the right of our party still believe he’s far too Muslim to be leader of the party”.
Despite being a Remainer, he was happy to become Chancellor after aligning himself with Johnson – a Prime Minister who has compared Muslim women wearing the hijab or niqab to “bank robbers” and “letter boxes”, under the cover of an apparently intellectual liberal argument about how women should be allowed to wear whatever they choose.
Javid refused to condemn the remarks, saying that Johnson had “explained why he used that language – it was to defend the rights of women, whether Muslim or otherwise”. But, the first turbaned Sikh MP, Labour’s Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, told me how Johnson had been employing a “divide and rule policy” through his comments, in order to “scapegoat one particular community and use that to gain the votes of the majority”.
Alongside Priti Patel’s proud declaration of being the “daughter of immigrants”, Javid also took to the stage at the 2019 Conservative Party Conference, where he spoke to his mother in Punjabi. “Mummy did you ever think we’d be here today?” he asked her.
In December, he hit back at the rapper Stormzy’s comments that Britain was a racist country. “Britain is the most successful multiracial democracy in the world, and one of the most welcoming and tolerant,” Javid wrote. “Of course more to do but also so much progress to be proud and optimistic about. Last week we elected our most diverse Parliament ever with 1 in 10 MPs from an ethnic minority.”
The Ultimate Tool of Division
‘Divide and rule’ is a useful tool for populists. A chosen minority within an oppressed minority group can come in handy as a means of pushing down on the majority of the oppressed.
The princely states run by Indians in cahoots with the British are one example from the Empire, as are the religious divisions encouraged and capitalised on in British India which led to Partition.
The British were used to “systematically promoting political divisions between Hindus and Muslims,” the Indian MP and writer Shashi Tharoor observes. “There is no greater indictment of the failures of British rule in India than the tragic manner of its ending.”
Whether politicians such as Sunak, Patel and Javid are genuinely representative of other minorities – having used their status as minorities for political capital – and the concept of them symbolising diverse representation should be questioned. Because, at worst, they are providing a clever smokescreen concealing the old racist perceptions and reinforcing the damaging structural discrimination which has been perpetuated over many years by the British Establishment.
The ultimate conclusion of Britain’s ‘divide and rule’, Tharoor observes, has been to create schisms so big that any attempts at reconciliation – the type talked about by Boris Johnson and his desire to heal the wounds of Brexit – become impossible. The division becomes entrenched, societies tear themselves apart and there is no way back.
“Divide et impera had worked too well: a device meant to perpetuate British rule in India ensured a united India could not survive without the British”.
Where is the Conservatives’ divide and rule going to lead Britain now?