It is not the British version of the Obama moment, when the election in 2008 of an African American to the White House appeared to mark a significant moment in American history. The magnitude of slavery in US history, the memory of Jim Crow segregation and the depth of racism that black people have had to endure made the election of Barack Obama truly symbolic.
Nevertheless, the possibility that Britain might have a non-white prime minister by the autumn, and the breadth of diversity among the Tory leadership candidates, has provoked much discussion, and not just in Britain. The fact that it is a party of the right rather than of the left that embodies such diversity has particularly captured the attention.
The debate about Tory diversity reveals the degree to which Britain has changed in recent decades. It also reveals many of the problems with the ways in which we think of diversity.
When the first British Social Attitudes survey was published in 1983, more than half the white population would not countenance a spouse of a different race. By 2020, nine out of 10 Britons declared themselves happy for their child to marry someone of another ethnic group. Just 3% thought someone had to be white to be “truly British”.
While the change in social attitudes in Britain has been marinading for decades, the rise of a more diverse parliament has been more recent and more sudden. In 1997, there were just nine non-white MPs, all Labour. By 2005, that had risen to 15, only two of whom were Tory. In the 2019 election, more than four times that many non-white MPs – 65 – entered parliament, including 22 Tories, 11 times the number just 14 years earlier.
Much of the Tory change rests on a concerted effort made by David Cameron to alter the image of the party. In 2005, he launched his “A-list”, a scheme that encouraged Conservative associations to choose from a list of preferred candidates, half of whom were women and a significant proportion ethnic minorities.
What is striking about the Tory change is that it has turned the normal diversity pyramid on its head. In most organisations, minorities are concentrated at the bottom, and get increasingly rarer the further up the organisational ladder we look, until at the very top diversity is almost nonexistent.
Not so with the Tories. The top echelon of the party – the cabinet – contains a far higher proportion of minorities than the lower rungs. Tory voters are disproportionately white – just 20% of minorities voted Conservative in 2019 and 97% of its membership is white, as are 94% of its MPs. Yet until the recent mass resignations, seven out of 32 cabinet posts were held by ethnic minorities.
More than 20 years ago, the political scientist Shamit Saggar told a BBC documentary that the Labour party had “fostered a mentality that black and Asian candidates are only suitable … in such inner city areas containing large numbers of minority voters”. Many, though certainly not all, minority Labour MPs had won their spurs as “community leaders”, and many were beholden to machine politics for their success.
Saggar feared that this would lead to the view that “same-ethnicity candidates are by definition a good thing. That whites will be represented by whites and non-whites by non-white voters.” Where, he asked, “does that then leave the aspiring black or Asian candidate who seeks to represent constituencies that are predominantly white in terms of their social makeup?”
For some, the answer has been in the Tory party. Many Tory minority MPs represent largely white rural constituencies or small towns: Rishi Sunak in Richmond, Yorkshire; Kemi Badenoch in Saffron Walden, Essex; Priti Patel in Witham, Essex; Nadhim Zahawi in Stratford-on-Avon. Racism, especially hostility to Muslims, is still an issue within the Tory party; nevertheless the relationship between black and Asian Tory MPs and party members and Tory voters has been forged as much through class and ideology as through race and ethnicity.
For many on the left, part of the shock at the number of Tory minority candidates derives from a sense of affront that black or Asian people should be drawn to such a party. “The very concept” of “a black or Asian person leading the Conservative party” was for many, the journalist Nadine White suggested, “diametrically opposed to the party’s core values”.
It’s a claim not just about the core values of the Tory party but also about what should be the values of black and Asian people, a sense that for minorities to join the ranks of the Tories, let alone to lead the party, is almost to betray their identity.
Yet, black and Asian communities are as diverse as white communities, and as the nation. Sunak or Badenoch are no more betraying “their” communities than Boris Johnson or Penny Mordaunt are betraying the “white” community. It has been one of the major problems of the left to view values too often through the lens of identity.
If the diversity debate reveals the degree to which Britain has changed (as well as the degree to which some seem blind to those changes), it reveals, too, the problem with too great an obsession with diversity. Too often, diversity has become an end in itself rather than a snapshot that might tell us something about the direction in which a society is going.
It is good that national institutions reflect the diversity of the nation. Yet the focus on ethnic and gender diversity often obscures the fact that there is little diversity when it comes to class. Our understanding of “diversity” is itself not very diverse.
And while a black or Asian prime minister would be a historic first, and symbolic of a more relaxed, liberal society, I would rather have a pale, male prime minister who I knew would jettison austerity policies, create a fairer tax system, defend abortion rights, restore trade union power, abandon the Rwanda deportation scheme, take a robust stance on free speech and have a decent plan for social care than someone who might enlarge the diversity spectrum but would rehash the same policies that have helped create the Britain we have today – stalked by stagnation and inequality.
It is the policies that matter, whoever delivers them.
July 17, 2022 at 11:58AM Kenan Malik