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The Identity Trap: Race, Representation and the Rise of Conservative Diversity

Rishi Sunak is in the running to be Britain’s first prime minister of colour – but the debate around whether this will be a good thing for ethnic minorities has laid bare conflicting ideas about the ‘individual’ and the ‘collective’, writes Hardeep Matharu

Rishi Sunak and Priti Patel. Photo: PA/Alamy

The Identity TrapRace, Representation and the Rise of Conservative Diversity

Rishi Sunak is in the running to be Britain’s first prime minister of colour – but the debate around whether this will be a good thing for ethnic minorities has laid bare conflicting ideas about the ‘individual’ and ‘collective’, writes Hardeep Matharu 

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Surprising Identities

Three years ago, when I revealed in these pages why my parents – Punjabi immigrants from India and British Kenya – voted for Brexit, many readers found it an eye-opening explanation of something that had perplexed them.

Why would immigrants vote for a project which would keep other immigrants, trying to do what my parents had once done, out? How could they ‘go against their own interests’ by endorsing a campaign which fanned the flames of xenophobia and pushed the country’s leadership to the populist right?

The answers were as contradictory as they were complex – and revealed how assumptions can’t always be made about what we call ‘identity’. 

It’s an issue that has been at play in the Conservative leadership contest, which has shown that Britain’s first prime minister of colour is now not a matter of if, but when. 

For my parents, Britain has given them so much. After 50 years here, they don’t feel ‘other’ or like ‘immigrants’ but – as is common among this generation – ‘more British than the British’. They respect the UK for its opportunities to better themselves and the lives of their children, and this has inevitably shaped their political views. Hard work, aspiration and integration have all been key. Seen through their eyes, Brexit was a patriotic (I would argue mythic) expression of what Britain ‘needed to get back to’.

At the same time, our imperial past casts a long shadow. My father enjoyed growing up in British Kenya for the opportunities it gave him. In these stratified societies of British east Africa, many Indians were middle-class, ‘below’ their white rulers – with colour bars operating to keep them apart – but ‘above’ the black Kenyan majority whose country it was. Uganda, where Priti Patel’s family is from, was another of these colonies with a complicated hierarchy; while Rishi Sunak’s parents were also born and brought up in British east Africa. 

But, despite my father’s affinity with Britain, coming to a UK simmering with racial tensions in the 1960s was still tough. In reality, the impact of migration and a sense of ‘otherness’ never completely leaves you. The exploitation of countries like India and Kenya by the Empire, and brutality such as the 1919 Amritsar Massacre – which exposed the darkness around Britain’s ‘civilising mission’ – also hung heavy. 

If any group deserved allegiance and recognition from Britain for their contributions, why not those who had come here from its former colonies, whose relatives had fought for Britain in two world wars and had helped rebuild the country? Why should Europeans exercising their freedom of movement, who had not faced the adversity of their generation or have historic ties to the UK like they did, be prioritised? 

My parents were not always Tory voters. Opting for Labour in the past, including under Tony Blair, theirs has been an interesting political journey – one that has played out over several decades on the same street as the BNP had its headquarters in the 1990s and where riots followed the murder of Stephen Lawrence in nearby Eltham.   

Their political choices are ultimately only representative of their lives and experiences. But what they do show is how people can defy expectations when it comes to race because identity is more complicated than we think. We can have multiple, conflicting and changing strands in our conception of who we are; affiliations which don’t necessarily conform to preconceived ideas. 

‘Identity politics’ can label and box in ways that are reductive – but that’s not to say that identities don’t matter.

The Story of Brexitis the Story of EmpireWhy Did Asian ImmigrantsVote to Leave the EU?

Hardeep Matharu

Where would this generation of ethnic minority Conservative politicians be without the hard-fought progress for all people of colour in Britain over many years – the work done, at great personal cost, by those who had to fight to be heard, to ensure that the UK today is a country where running for office as a non-white person is a feasible option? 

The triumph of those collective battles is, in part, these ethnic minority Conservatives – who see themselves as ‘individuals’; partisan politicians who are not there to be ‘representatives’ for people of their race or carry expectations about what their backgrounds should require of them ideologically. Underlying this is a belief in a Thatcherite idea of meritocracy, rather than social responsibility, and the conviction that others can find the same success they had if they also help themselves. 

Their approach appears to be in stark contrast to those politicians of colour on the left, and elsewhere on the political spectrum, for whom ‘representation’ involves the recognition of race as a key identity and a responsibility to other ethnic minorities as part of a collective endeavour – social intervention to create structural change.

It is the clash of these competing ideas of what representation means for politicians of colour which has been at the heart of debates surrounding the Conservative leadership contest.  

It has led some on the left to question the ‘progress’ represented by politicians of colour who don’t seem to feel an obligation to improve the lives of other ethnic minorities once in power. In turn, these Conservatives argue that they do want to improve people’s lives – but not as a specific group based on their race or ethnicity. 

For some, Rishi Sunak becoming prime minister would put paid to critics who say Britain remains racist. For others, it is a worrying development that – at its worst – could prevent the deeper changes required for all ethnic minorities to succeed. 

There are those who have celebrated the Conservatives for ‘doing diversity so well’. Others have found it difficult to critique a party which may be technically diverse but is subject to claims of not taking racism seriously enough. 

Some have questioned whether Sunak’s race could hold him back from winning over the Tory membership. While others, backed by polling, believe his ethnic minority background is not a defining factor. 

Sunak himself has spoken little about race during his time as an MP. But declared during his leadership campaign that “I know what racism is. I’ve experienced it”, while launching a 10-point crackdown on illegal asylum seekers. 

That Britain’s first prime minister of colour is this close to being elected suggests the right of politics has stolen the thunder of the progressives.

Structural & Cultural Wars

“All people would see was a sea of white male faces,” David Cameron recalled recently. “The party of meritocracy needed to accelerate meritocracy.” When he took over the reins of the Conservatives in 2005, Cameron focused on making the party more diverse – to advance Tory meritocracy.

For years, the Conservatives have trailed the Labour Party on diversity within its ranks. Cameron wanted to bring more ethnic minorities in.

The result can be seen in the upper ranks of the party today, with half of the candidates in the current leadership race on the first ballot ethnic minorities. But, as the Conservatives have become a more diverse-looking party, it has also adopted an approach to race which has created new questions about what representation in politics is about. 

Last year’s much-criticised Sewell Report – which looked at why different outcomes persist for different racial and ethnic groups – found that an “unexplored approach” needed to be applied to understanding the impact of racism in Britain. “The extent individuals and their communities could help themselves through their own agency,” was a key factor, it said. 

Individual, rather than structural, failings should be focused on because “evidence shows that geography, family influence, socio-economic background, culture and religion have more significant impact on life chances than the existence of racism”. Tackling the “still real obstacles”, the report continued, “becomes much harder if people from ethnic minority backgrounds absorb a fatalistic narrative that says the deck is permanently stacked against them”.

Experts questioned the findings. Why, for instance, wasn’t the impact of race examined as a ‘cause of the causes’ when it comes to factors like “geography” and “socio-economic background”? Why are people of colour poor and living in areas of poverty in the first place?

Some also criticised the report for ‘pitting’ ethnic minorities against white working class children ‘left behind’ – arguing that such a framing presents one group’s gains as another’s loss. The report’s supporters argued that not including disparities for white groups would have been divisive.

The Government’s response to the Sewell Report published this year – Inclusive Britain – interestingly moved away from downplaying structural causes to talking about the irrelevance of “individual acts of prejudice”. Its 74 actions, which aim to create “a more inclusive and integrated society”, are laudable. But it remains to be seen how these can affect change in areas like “family influence” and “culture and religion”, which the Sewell Report claimed are so key.

But the Sewell Report hasn’t been the only area of concern for those who believe Boris Johnson’s Government has sought to trivialise racism. 

Hardeep’s father, Swaraj Singh Matharu, as a young boy with his sister in Nairobi, British Kenya. Photo: Pritam Singh Matharu

No matter how diverse the party has become, many point to its relentless attempts to whip up ‘culture war’ divisions and a politically expedient form of racism. ‘Dog whistle’ politics may appeal to a certain base but it has undermined the Government’s claims of taking racism seriously.

There are Boris Johnson’s comments about “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” and Muslim women looking like “bank robbers” and “letterboxes”. The Vote Leave campaign, which claimed that Turkey would soon be joining the EU and peddled a xenophobic and anti-immigration message. The accusations of institutional Islamophobia in the Conservatives – including most recently by the vice-chair of the influential 1922 Committee, Nusrat Ghani – remain unscrutinised (even if dismissed by the party). 

There has been the weaponisation of discussions around Britain’s imperial past which have focused on statues and attacks on cultural institutions trying to provide a more rounded understanding. The Sewell Report spoke of the need to teach schoolchildren about the “Caribbean experience” around slavery – despite the darker elements of Empire hardly being taught in classrooms to begin with.

Meanwhile, Priti Patel’s hardline Home Office has signed a deal to send asylum seekers to Rwanda (a policy which one seasoned and senior Brexit-supporting Conservative MP referred to as “the concentration camp scheme” to me). 

England’s footballing success in Euro 2020 exposed the limits of the Conservatives’ understanding of how far culture wars can get them. While Patel dismissed players taking the knee as “gesture politics” and she and Johnson refused to condemn those booing them for doing so, the Lions sped through to the finals. When three players of colour missed crucial penalties, Patel criticised the racist abuse they received online. But England’s Tyrone Mings set her straight: “You don’t get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our anti-racism message as ‘gesture politics’ and then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we’re campaigning against happens.”

As this culture war has rumbled on, a visibly diverse Cabinet has been politically useful to Johnson’s Government. It has also made unpicking the Conservatives’ approach to race more challenging for those on the left.

Solidarity & Freedom

When Labour’s Rushanara Ali asked Boris Johnson at Prime Minister’s Questions last January about new allegations of Islamophobia in the Conservatives by Tory MP Nusrat Ghani, he turned and pointed to his frontbench, where Priti Patel and others sat. 

“She talks about racism and Islamophobia,” Johnson said. “But look at this Government… look at the modern Conservative Party. We are the party of hope and opportunity for people across this country, irrespective of race or religion… all we care about is whether you are interested in ideas of aspiration and opportunity.”

Johnson has regularly dismissed any discussion of how seriously the Government takes racism by pointing to the people of colour in his Cabinet – the most diverse there has ever been. If people of colour can occupy the highest offices of state, how can anyone say that Britain still has problems with racism?

Patel agrees. When she vowed at the 2019 Conservative Party Conference to “end the free movement of people once and for all”, she claimed that “this daughter of immigrants needs no lectures from the north London, metropolitan, liberal elite”. In the wake of Britain’s Black Lives Matter protests, she told the Daily Mail “the fact you are sitting here speaking to me, a woman from an Asian minority background, shows we have such great opportunities… If this was a racist country, I would not be sitting where I am”.

Arguing that individual success stories suggest the lack of any wider issues is problematic. While Patel’s journey shows race isn’t a bar to high office, it doesn’t prove that others do not experience it to be. And while there are disagreements about whether Britain is inherently “racist”, discussion of racism in this country should not be dismissed. 

Criticising her approach, more than 30 Labour MPs of colour wrote to Patel in 2020, saying the Home Secretary had used her own “heritage and experiences of racism to gaslight the very real racism faced by black people and communities across the UK”. 

“We all have our personal stories,” they said. “Our shared experiences allow us to feel the pain that communities feel when they face racism, they allow us to show solidarity towards a common cause; they do not allow us to define, silence or impede on the feelings that other minority groups may face.”

Patel responded by recalling her own experiences of racism – that she had been called a “P*ki” in the playground and was encouraged to take her husband’s surname to advance her career. She reiterated that racism has no place in Britain and said she would not be “silenced” by Labour MPs “who continue to dismiss the contributions of those who don’t conform to their view of how ethnic minorities should behave”. 

For Patel, assuming things about people’s beliefs because they are ethnic minorities is a form of racism in itself. Why should she have to answer for not being ‘progressive’ or ‘left-wing’ in her views on race or anything else just because she comes from a minority background?

While this is a limited argument – it doesn’t address the fact that Patel’s individual experiences or journey can’t be representative of all other ethnic minorities’ – her view, that she should not be ‘boxed’ because of her race, seems a legitimate one.

When it comes to Patel and her ethnic minority colleagues, race does not appear to be an identity that they believe ultimately defines them and it’s not something they feel they are ‘representatives’ of. This isn’t to say they have ‘transcended their race’ because they are ashamed of it – in fact, they all say how proud they are of their backgrounds – or because they do not ‘see themselves as ethnic minorities’. But they have transcended the idea that racism can or will hold you back – because this wasn’t their experience. 

“Solidarity towards a common cause” therefore has little relevance for them. But a ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps’ mentality appears to. For Thatcher – who a number of these Conservative minority politicians describe as their idol – class wasn’t something that should hold people back. For others, race works in the same way. 

Speaking recently about scrapping diversity training for civil servants, Suella Braverman said the sessions were “based on an assumption that me, as an ethnic Asian woman from working-class roots, must be a victim, necessarily oppressed. That’s a mis-assumption”. 

In the foreword to the Inclusive Britain report, Kemi Badenoch wrote that “anyone in this country should be able to achieve anything, no matter where they live or come from. As a black woman, a first-generation immigrant… I passionately believe in this idea too. It is my lived experience”.

Rishi Sunak’s leadership campaign launch video begins with the story of his grandmother and parents’ journey to Britain – a Britain with opportunities Sunak has said he wants everyone to have. “My values are Thatcherite,” he has written. “I believe in hard work, family and integrity. I am running as a Thatcherite and I will govern as a Thatcherite.”

Class, opportunity and socio-economic status are hardly ever discussed as being key drivers of this ‘transcendence’. 

For playwright and commentator Bonnie Greer, it is the struggle of the generations that came before to make a better life for their children which is key. These “upwardly-mobile parents refused to have their children assumed to be something”, she has observed, because, for them, identity often meant identification – being put in a box.

That identity can’t always be assumed to work in certain ways was brought home to me again recently when I was chatting to a Labour MP about why the party was losing the support of Asian voters like my parents. “That’s why we need to keep showing that we’re pro-migrant,” they immediately replied. I explained that my parents don’t necessarily see themselves as ‘migrants’ – and that they voted for Brexit and Johnson for other reasons. 

I relayed the exchange to another Labour MP, who has been in the party for several decades, a few months later. In their view, Labour has still not resolved where it stands on race and identity as there is still an expectation that MPs of colour, like this MP, would be ‘ethnic minority MPs’ – when this isn’t something the MP saw themselves as. They had a different idea of what ‘representation’ as a politician of colour is about. 

Understanding that Conservative diversity is an appeal to individual rather than collective representation is key if the left is going to understand how to expose the problems with it – and confront its own.

Girls on stage at the 1978 ‘Rock Against Racism’ concert in London’s Brockwell Park. Photo: Mike Abrahams/Alamy

Roots & Legs

“Too many children and people have been given to understand ‘I have a problem, it is the government’s job to cope with it’,” Margaret Thatcher memorably said. “They are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing. There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.”

Thatcherism as a political force can’t be separated from the personality of the woman who coined it. Her belief in her story – the daughter of a greengrocer and alderman who went to Oxford University – shaped her worldview: that individual agency alone is the path to success and that barriers of social mobility and class can be overcome through hard work and aspiration.

But it seems absurd to suggest that the effects of poverty or racism can be solved for everyone merely through individual endeavour – that anyone can end up like Rishi Sunak, Priti Patel or Margaret Thatcher if they do what they did. 

It dismisses how individuals can benefit materially or emotionally in ways that can’t just be translated to other people’s lives. It also downplays the anti-racism work done collectively by people of colour that clearly changed Britain’s culture and politics for the better. Whether they identify with it or not, the Conservative politicians of colour today reap the benefits of the struggles ethnic minorities fought yesterday. 

The Labour MPs who wrote to Priti Patel were right to suggest that her experiences of racism – significant as they are – do not, in and of themselves, allow her to comprehend the impact of race on other people from ethnic minority backgrounds. Individuals are, by their nature, individual. 

Meanwhile, ethnic minorities are not a homogenous group. Those whose parents migrated from British east Africa will have different experiences to those with ancestors from the Caribbean who were enslaved. Muslims have different views from Sikhs. These differences can also lend themselves to racism within and between different ethnic minority groups – a well-known taboo for those of us from these communities. 

It is these individual Conservative ethnic minority MPs being held up by Boris Johnson as ‘representative’ of the lack of problems with racism in Britain which is therefore so disingenuous. The deflection of discussion with the personal successes of politicians who pride themselves on being individuals is also deeply cynical. 

In this way, while the Conservatives are content to elevate individual ethnic minorities, it seeks to curb questions about whether and how it aims to elevate the outcomes of ethnic minority people as a whole. Its basis for diversity lies in a Thatcherite belief in meritocracy. For its politicians of colour, representation isn’t the work of representing people from ethnic groups, but representing their own stories of success and embodying a certain conception of what Britain is.

While these politicians are accused of abandoning their backgrounds and ‘pulling up the ladder’ behind them, they find no contradiction. Instead, they implicitly suggest: ‘If I could do this, anyone can do this. We may have roots, but we also have legs.’

Beyond Binaries

People of colour occupying the highest offices of state is a form of progress that may inspire others from these backgrounds, but it is also true that Britain has not become a ‘post-racial’ society because of this or that its Government should be exempt from properly accounting for its policies and attitudes towards ethnic minorities and racism.

It’s not an either/or.

When people see a man of colour on their TV screens who could be the next prime minister, it matters. It also matters that another of his fellow ethnic minority leadership candidates, Kemi Badenoch, was endorsed by the far-right group Britain First.

We shouldn’t fall into the trap of binary thinking. We can praise the fact that a woman of colour is Britain’s Home Secretary. We can point out that, under her watch, hundreds of thousands of HongKongers are being welcomed to Britain – their former coloniser – to escape persecution at the hands of Beijing. We can also point out that, under her watch, people fleeing war and destitution are being sent to Rwanda – a scheme for which there is no evidence that its aim to reduce the numbers of people making these dangerous journeys will succeed. 

We can simultaneously point out where progress is being made on ethnic minority people’s lives and where it isn’t. We can call out the political racism still being employed by the Government and take it to task over why some immigrants and asylum seekers are treated differently. 

There is such a thing as society. And there is such a thing as individual responsibility and agency. You can’t have one without the other. And no political party can claim to truly represent the diversity of this country until they acknowledge the role that both the individual and the collective must play. 

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