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9 July 2022

It’s absurd to say the Conservative Party isn’t ready for a non-white leader

The suggestion that ethnic minority Tories have betrayed their identity is its own form of racism.

By Tomiwa Owolade

The first ethnic minority British prime minister was Benjamin Disraeli – and many Jews, from Leon Brittan to Nigel Lawson and Malcolm Rifkind, have occupied the great offices of state. The first brown chancellor of the Exchequer was Sajid Javid in 2019. The second brown chancellor of the Exchequer was Rishi Sunak a year later. The third brown chancellor of the Exchequer was Nadhim Zahawi, who was appointed on 5 July. The first brown home secretary was Sajid Javid in 2018. The second brown home secretary was Priti Patel, who still holds the post. What they all have in common is they have represented or currently represent the Conservative Party. 

When Sunak launched his campaign to be the next prime minister, the QC and campaigner Jolyon Maugham responded with a pointed question on Twitter: “Do you think the members of your Party are ready to select a brown man, Rishi?” After receiving criticism for this question, Maugham explained why he asked it: “My point was, I want, we should all want, greater representation of people of colour leading all political parties.” If that is the case, Maugham should be pleased by the upcoming Tory leadership contest: Sunak, Javid, Zahawi, Suella Braverman and Kemi Badenoch have all announced they are standing for the leadership. But that is not the case. 

There’s a deeper point to Maugham’s statement, which he doesn’t spell out but is clear from the incredulous tone of his tweet: that there is a dissonance between ethnic minority people and the Conservative Party. This point was explicitly articulated by Nadine White, the race correspondent of the Independent, when she tweeted: “Can you imagine a Black or Asian person leading the Conservative Party? Others argue that the very concept is diametrically opposed to the party’s core values.” The implication of White’s tweet is that the Conservative Party is so profoundly racist that any leader of it from an ethnic minority constitutes a deep contradiction that needs to be explained. 

The problem with this mindset – framing the relationship between ethnic minority people and conservatism as a remarkable contradiction – is that it justifies the racist hostility directed against many prominent conservative politicians. In aligning themselves with the party, so the argument goes, they have fundamentally betrayed their identity. The nature of the insults that someone like Badenoch receives reflects this dynamic – she is called a coon, a house negro, and so forth, by many people who strangely also call themselves anti-racist. In reality, political allegiances are more complex: they don’t reflect someone’s identity but their values, and this cuts across race and ethnicity. 

The first woman to be the prime minister of the UK was a Conservative politician, and so was the second. The third female prime minister might also be a Tory. Labour has never even had a female leader. It seems likely that the first Asian leader of Britain will be a politician from the Conservative Party, and so will the first black prime minister of this country. A large part of all of this is explained by Britain’s being is a small-c conservative country. Any future prime minister is likelier than not to be a Conservative: there has only been one Labour leader born in the past 100 years to have won a general election, and that was Tony Blair. 

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A second point worth reflecting on is that Labour does not have a monopoly on virtue when it comes to bigotry. The first Labour leader, Keir Hardie, viciously campaigned against Lithunian immigrants in Scotland. It was a Labour government that introduced the 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act, which discriminated against Asians trying to come to Britain from Kenya, and which Auberon Waugh, in the Spectator of all places, described as “one of the most immoral pieces of legislation to have emerged from any British Parliament”. Labour under Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, became the second party to be investigated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission – after the BNP.

But the third and most pressing point is this: why shouldn’t an ethnic minority person be a Conservative? If we accept that not all ethnic minority people are the same – which should be the first plank of anti-racism – then we have to accept that they do not all share the same political perspective. And nor should they. Political pluralism should be staunchly defended: it is as important an element of diversity as any other.

[ See also: Can Rishi Sunak regain his past popularity?]

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This article appears in the 13 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Selfish Giant