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  1. The Staggers
7 September 2022

You can’t judge the cabinet’s diversity from a photo

What about class background?

By Pravina Rudra

Liz Truss’s new cabinet has more people of colour than any previous one. With Kwasi Kwarteng as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Suella Braverman as the Home Secretary and James Cleverly as the Foreign Secretary, Britain is for the first time led by a government in which none of the major offices of state is held by a white man.

This development has prompted an inevitable celebration from people on the right – who seem to believe it provides proof that, contrary to liberal orthodoxy, the Conservatives do better for people of colour and women. The suggestion is that the opportunities handed out to Tory MPs reflect the situations of people across the country.

For many on the left, the “diverse” cabinet is pure window-dressing. Under Boris Johnson, the Tories engaged in a culture war against those drawing attention to racism, and presided over an immigration policy that became so ugly that Prince Charles was said to be “appalled” by it.

In a way, then, the left ascribes just as much meaning to the diversity of the cabinet as the right; its ethnic make-up becomes a cynical ploy to legitimise Conservative actions against people of colour. Such a reading is the slightly offensive stuff you’d expect to hear from certain right-wingers – because it implies that the University Challenge winner and former Kennedy scholar Kwarteng, for example, could not be in No 11 on his own merit.

But one thing neither the left nor the right seems willing to consider is that the photographs of the new cabinet members doing the rounds on social media today don’t actually tell us much about diversity. Diversity is, after all, multifaceted, although we ought to be wary of falling into the lazy excuse that it can apply to anything (“this boardroom might not have any gay people, but it does have a lot of left-handed people!”). But diversity is certainly about far more than skin colour – take the “true cognitive diversity” Dominic Cummings wanted in the civil service, which seems at odds with the hegemonic “anti-woke” mindset that is shared by so many in the new cabinet, such as Braverman and Kemi Badenoch (now the International Trade Secretary).

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One particularly important way in which Truss’s cabinet is not diverse is in its schooling. Kwarteng, Cleverly and Braverman were all privately educated, and 68 per cent of the cabinet went to a fee-paying school. This is in sharp contrast to the wider population, which is 93 per cent state-educated. In this respect, the Truss ministry is homogeneous even by the standards of Conservative governments: according to the Sutton Trust, the social mobility charity, the proportion of the current cabinet that is privately educated amounts to more than twice that of Theresa May’s in 2016, and is worse than David Cameron’s in both the coalition cabinet of 2010 and in 2015. At degree level, the educational diversity becomes even more limited: with the exceptions of Gordon Brown, John Major and James Callaghan, every prime minister since 1955 studied at Oxford.

These facts are important to answering why, despite our progress with regards to gender and race equality, social mobility in the UK has atrophied in recent years, particularly compared with other countries. Perhaps it’s because class diversity is not so ripe for display on a brochure cover – can you tell at a glance what proportion of a cabinet had free school meals? And class is not – to use Truss’s unfortunate description of race, gender and sexuality issues – “fashionable” in more progressive circles, in the way that being “ethnically ambiguous”, for example, is.

It takes hard work to overcome class inequalities because they are harder to see – and it is easier to pit class against racial equality. The Conservatives rail against “woke issues”, which they say disadvantages white working-class boys, as though it is not possible to be, for example, both black and working class. But what is really required is difficult conversations about economic redistribution and the promise of “levelling up”, a promise that successive Tory governments have now failed to make good on. Only then might we see a cabinet that really represents the diversity of the UK.

[See also: Liz Truss and the cost of winning]

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