The Uses of Diversity
Martin Shaw considers why so many politicians of colour have been appointed to top ministerial roles by white Conservative leaders
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Under Liz Truss, there will be – for the first time – no white males occupying any of the great offices of state. As well as a new female Prime Minister, the new Chancellor, Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary are all politicians of colour. What does it mean that white prime ministers have now appointed four successive chancellors and three successive home secretaries from minority backgrounds?
Many assume that there is nothing to see here except that, significantly in historical perspective, the Conservative Party now accepts – indeed promotes – ethnic minority politicians. The party which long epitomised the racialised British Empire; with an iconic wartime leader, Winston Churchill, who later wanted to fight an election on the slogan ‘Keep Britain White’; and which produced the notorious anti-immigrant racism of Enoch Powell, has now had more people of colour in senior roles than Labour.
There clearly has been a cultural transformation in the elite and the parliamentary party, if perhaps not so fully at the grassroots. Having the right political attitudes and class affiliations (especially having gone to private schools) now appears to trump ethnicity.
Yet the outgoing Prime Minister was notorious for his racial language (“piccanninies”), and his exploitation of racism to first win the EU Referendum and then the Conservative leadership (“bank robbers”). Truss seems to have less overt baggage but she dismissed “fashionable” concerns with racial equality when Johnson made her Equalities Minister, and recently referred to “setting up your own business” as a Jewish value, a view which was widely seen as antisemitic.
At the policy level, the Conservatives’ euphemistically renamed ‘compliant’ (formerly ‘hostile’) environment for mainly less-skilled and lower-waged immigrants, as well as their cruel, internationally illegal policies towards refugees, reflect the ongoing importance of racism to their political offer.
It is striking that (with the exception of Sajid Javid’s challenge to Conservative Islamophobia in 2019) all ministers of colour have fully accepted, like their white colleagues, the party’s elements of continuing political racism, including the deportation of asylum seekers to Rwanda.
In the context of Johnson’s racist vocabulary and the exploitation of racism for electoral gain, it is legitimate to ask: why have white prime ministers surrounded themselves with senior colleagues of colour to an extent which is heavily disproportionate to the representation of minorities within the Conservative parliamentary party and membership, and even to UK society as a whole?
The question is difficult to answer conclusively, as neither Johnson nor Truss have said anything which directly aids an answer. It could also be argued that, while the pattern is suggestive, the period is short, the sample small (the total of these ministers is still in single figures), and individual factors have played important roles (the new Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, for example, is a long-time collaborator and close friend of Liz Truss).
It could also be argued that some of the ministers may have been the best candidates for their roles.
Nevertheless, there are three ways in which racial attitudes could have played a part.
First, the appointments of Sajid Javid (by Theresa May), Priti Patel (by Boris Johnson) and now Suella Braverman as Home Secretary have been widely viewed through the lens of racial stereotyping, because their family migration backgrounds made them ideal proponents of the Government’s reactionary immigration policies.
Second, but more speculatively, the fact that all three of Johnson’s chancellors were very rich, partly or wholly self-made, men could be significant. His well-known personal obsession with money suggests that he could have viewed them as capable because of their financial success.
Finally, there is the question of whether these appointments of minority politicians may have been seen as intrinsically rather less threatening than those of white candidates. It might seem anachronistic to raise this question after Rishi Sunak came fairly close – with a plurality among MPs and 42% of the membership vote – to winning the Conservative leadership. It should be remembered, however, not only that he ultimately lost to a white candidate, but also that his prime ministerial potential was hardly foreseen when he was appointed Chancellor.
Johnson first appointed Javid as Chancellor. He was then the sole Muslim in senior Conservative ranks, who had stood for the leadership in 2019 but was eliminated before the membership vote – while polling during the campaign showed that more than 40% of members would not be happy with a Muslim prime minister. When Johnson appointed him, he must have calculated that he had a chancellor who would be less likely than others to successfully exploit the second position in government to challenge his own position.
Javid surprised Johnson, however, when he resigned over his diktat that the Chancellor should subordinate his special advisors to Dominic Cummings. Johnson then promoted Sunak, a second-tier and relatively unknown politician, who accepted the terms which Javid rejected. Johnson must have thought he had a pliable minister who was unlikely to prove a threat. Neither could have envisaged Sunak’s prominence as the face of the pandemic furlough scheme led to his becoming as the most popular politician among both Conservative members and the public in 2020-21.
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The unresolvable question in all this is how far Sunak’s ultimate defeat was influenced by his ethnicity. Certainly his star had already declined before the leadership election and there were other reasons why Truss outsmarted him. These included the portrayal of Sunak as a global elitist; despite his 2016 Leave vote, he was ultimately not as convincing a Brexiter as Truss.
The proportion of Conservative members polled during the campaign who admitted rejecting Sunak on racial grounds was certainly tiny. But given the character of the membership, it is difficult to rule out the possibility that these could have played an unarticulated role.
Sunak is not a Muslim, but the well-documented Conservative hostility towards Muslims could represent the tip of a larger iceberg of unacknowledged prejudice among a section of members, no longer overtly expressed because it has been delegitimised, but which still weighs at least somewhat against minority politicians – especially when it comes to the premiership.
Liz Truss’ Government’s electoral hopes are likely to depend heavily on the large ‘social conservative’ minority of the electorate who are likely to share the Conservative Brexiter reservations which helped to sink Sunak. Truss cannot afford to dispense with the political racism that Priti Patel helped Johnson to orchestrate, any more than with the ultra-nationalism that she herself cultivated for him.
The paradox that white politicians have won the last two leadership contests against credible candidates of colour, and have then surrounded themselves with senior minority politicians, suggests that diversity has a range of uses for the UK’s new Prime Minister. But it may also have its limits.