The list of candidates to be the next prime minister of the United Kingdom is remarkably diverse: the result of years of work to promote the talent of ethnic minorities within the Conservative party. But would a black or Asian prime minister be a step forward for racial equality in the UK?
When UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced his resignation on July 7, it kicked off the Conservative leadership competition in which party members will choose their next leader and, by default, the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. United Kingdom.
Among the eight candidates who have received enough nominations to enter the race to replace Johnson, the list is remarkably diverse. Four are women, four did not attend the elite universities of Oxford or Cambridge, normally a prerequisite for prime ministers. And four have ethnic minority backgrounds.
One of them, former chancellor Rishi Sunak, is currently a leading candidate, raising the possibility that a party traditionally seen as masculine, white and elitist could produce the UK’s first black prime minister. Sunak was born in Southampton to Indian parents who immigrated to the UK from East Africa.
“We are entering an era where the immigrant story is an absolutely central part of political history in every country in Western Europe,” says Rob Ford, professor of political science at the University of Manchester and author of Brexitland. In the UK, the appointment of the first black or brown prime minister “would be a symbolically powerful and highly significant moment in terms of how the nation views itself and is viewed by others.”
Changing the face of the party
The diversity of leadership candidates is the result of a concerted effort. In 2005, party leader and future Prime Minister David Cameron announced his intention to “change the face of the Conservative Party” by increasing the number of women, disabled and minority ethnic MPs.
“They were seen as a bigoted and divisive party,” says Ford. “The goal was to renew the Conservatives’ appeal with ethnic minority voters, but also with liberal white voters for whom the party’s reputation for bigotry was a significant barrier to voting.”
Cameron went on to create an A-list of various candidates who ran for and won seats in parliament. Since then, many of those parliamentarians have gone on to work at the top of government. The Conservative party went from having its first cabinet member from an ethnic minority in 2014 to the most ethnically diverse cabinet in British history in 2021.
While two-thirds of the ethnic minority members of parliament belong to the Labor Party, the prominence of the ethnic minority Conservatives has been instrumental in demonstrating diversity and changing the name of the party.
“It really is an example of a leader’s policy choice 16 years ago, which took a long time to come to fruition,” says Ford. “But when the effect happens, it’s quite dramatic. Essentially, one in three ethnic minority MPs in Conservative seats is currently running for leader.”
A ‘disservice to equality’
Beyond a party rebrand, having such a diverse slate of leadership candidates brings real benefits. “A diverse shortlist is fundamentally important to retaining the best talent for any role,” says Halima Begum, chief executive of the Runnymede Trust, a UK think tank on racial and minority issues. “But you have to separate the issue of a diverse shortlist from whether those candidates are doing the best they can on diversity issues.”
The Conservative Party has a history of breaking down such diversity barriers, producing Britain’s only ethnic minority prime minister to date in Benjamin Disraeli, who had Jewish heritage, and the first female prime minister in Margaret Thatcher.
However, during her 11 years in power, Thatcher was often scathing in her assessments of other women; she appointed only one woman to her cabinet on the grounds that no other was good enough.
A similar scenario, where a leader of an ethnic minority does not guarantee further advancement of diversity, is foreseeable in 2022.
Leader candidate and Attorney General Suella Braverman was born in the UK to Mauritian and Kenyan parents and has described herself as a “child of the British Empire”. The former lawyer has already pledged, if elected leader, to wage a “war against awakening” and safeguard the government’s controversial plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, even if it means the UK is kicked out of the European Court of Justice. Human rights.
In 2021, leadership candidate and former Equality Minister Kemi Badenoch oversaw a controversial report by the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparities which stated that “very few” inequalities in British society were “directly related to racism”. a pushback against identity politics if she comes to power.
“You’re not doing equality a favor by saying that once our prime minister is diverse, we’re post-racial,” says Begum. “Our hope is to see a set of policies that actually promote more inclusion and diversity. And what would be incredibly disappointing is if any of those leadership candidates end up promoting policies that are actively harmful to minorities.”
A ‘significant breakthrough’
The new UK Prime Minister will be announced on September 5. If Sunak wins the race for leadership, he will become the second black or brown leader in a Western European country, after former Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar, whose parents are white Irish. and Indian.
This would be remarkable, symbolically speaking. It would also be significant for Britain’s own ethnic minority communities. “It’s not a panacea for the structural disadvantages those groups face, but it does say something about acceptance,” says Ford. “Being absent from those top tables is something that is bitterly felt, so the removal of that absence is a significant step forward.”
However, the Conservative leadership contest comes against an exceptionally challenging backdrop. There is a need to rebuild trust in the government after the extravagant controversies and growing unpopularity that dogged the final months of Johnson’s leadership. And there are no simple solutions to the cost of living crisis, the ongoing divisions over Brexit or the complex trade negotiations in Northern Ireland.
>> ‘A job to run from’: dilemmas await the successor of the British Johnson
“The ethnicity of our next prime minister is of secondary importance in many ways; what matters most is that the next leader of the nation does the best he can for the country,” says Begum.
“Historically the Conservatives have been good at creating opportunities for top talent and in this case the job of the future Prime Minister is to keep the Conservatives in power. It doesn’t matter what ethnic profile they have.”
There are signs that the majority of the UK population agrees. A 2022 survey by think tank British Future found that 84% of the British public would be comfortable with a prime minister from an ethnic minority. Some three-quarters said they saw ethnic diversity as part of British culture, a change from 2011, when more than half saw ethnic diversity as a threat.
Regardless of who becomes prime minister in September, one of the most notable aspects of the Conservative leadership race may be that race is no longer a defining or differentiating factor for political leaders from ethnic minorities vying for office. higher.
“I doubt there will be much mention of their heritage or ethnicity unless they decide to mention it in the campaign,” says Ford. “It is no longer a significant factor in how their fellow citizens view them, although some people still have negative stereotypes about it.”
“And it’s very significant that we may be getting to a point where, for a lot of people, ethnicity just doesn’t enter their heads as a factor.”
The full list of candidates are: former Finance Minister Rishi Sunak, his successor Nadhim Zahawi, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, former Defense Minister Penny Mordaunt, former Health Minister Jeremy Hunt, Kemi Badenoch, Suella Braverman and Tom Tugendhat.