For the first time in history, Britain could soon have a person of color as Prime Minister. What’s more, this person could also be a woman.
What it is the least: a white man.
A historically diverse list of candidates is vying to succeed Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who this month announced his resignation as Prime Minister and as leader of the Conservative Party following a spate of ethics scandals. The competition consists of five contenders, only one of whom is white – a development that may seem all the more surprising given that the Conservatives are exactly where their name suggests: the far right.
But unlike in the US, where Democrats are better known for their diverse politicians and historic firsts in terms of race and gender – among them President Obama and Vice President Kamala Harris – the race in Britain has at least cemented the Conservative Party as a party of diversity at its highest levels, if not its general membership.
Three white people (two of whom are women), a man of Indian descent and a woman of Nigerian descent are still in the running for the post of party leader and therefore prime minister.
“Tories show Labor how diversity is done,” read a recent headline on the website of The Spectator, a right-wing political magazine that compares Conservative leaders to Liberals on racial issues in Britain and mirrors similar differences in America.
“This is a party that is known to have had two female prime ministers,” said Nick Pearce, a professor at the University of Bath, referring to Margaret Thatcher and more recently Theresa May. “But it didn’t have the same ethnic diversity, though the population has become more diverse. It is a significant moment on the world stage.”
The nominees are former finance chief Rishi Sunak – who has won both rounds of Tory lawmakers so far – Trade Secretary Penny Mordaunt, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, former Equality Secretary Kemi Badenoch and backbench Tom Tugendhat. Tugendhat, the only white male candidate, received the fewest votes of the five surviving candidates in Thursday’s elimination round.
An earlier list of 11 candidates included even more black politicians of Iraqi, Pakistani and Indian origin.
It’s a notable difference from 2019, when Johnson easily beat nine other competitors – just two of them women and only one a member of an ethnic minority.
“It’s all very deliberate,” said Rainbow Murray, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. “The Conservatives have had an image problem for a long time. They looked dated, stuck in the past and not known for inclusive values.”
After electoral defeats in the late 1990s and early 2000s, “they decided they had to reinvent themselves,” Murray said. “A lot of credit is given [former Prime Minister] David Cameron for compiling an A-list of various stars he wanted to see rise. But with Theresa May it started before that.”
Twenty years ago, May made a famous speech calling her party “the evil party” because its base was “too narrow,” along with her “sympathies.”
But analysts warn that the diversity among the current candidates for prime minister does not necessarily mean that liberal or progressive political positions on race and gender issues will follow.
Some of the candidates are ardent supporters of Britain’s exit from the European Union, an exit that has been fueled in part by anti-immigrant sentiment. All support a controversial new government policy to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda for processing, a plan campaigners have condemned as shameful.
Badenoch, who is black, and Suella Braverman, a recently eliminated contestant of Indian descent, have eagerly taunted opponents as “too awake”. Mordaunt was forced by her rivals to withdraw her support for transgender people.
“These ministers may be different. But they tend to match their white peers in class and wealth. They tend to vote the same way,” Pearce said. “They tend to represent more rural, conservative areas with fewer ethnic minorities.”
He also noted that those who will choose the prime minister in the final round – members of the Conservative Party – are mostly older and whiter. After the Conservative legislature narrowed the field to two this week when voting from Monday, the approximately 200,000 party members will cast the decisive votes by letter. The result is expected on September 5, when Johnson will leave his post.
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“Obviously, when an ethnic minority is selected, that’s a significant moment,” Pearce said. “It will be important if a woman is also chosen. But we’ve done it twice before, so it’s not the same barrier anymore.”
The Labor Party has also made progress. Their overall membership is more diverse than that of the Conservatives and fares significantly better among voters of color. On her website, she boasts that she is “proud to have more women and BAME (‘Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic’) MPs than all other political parties combined.”
But the party has never had a female leader, and just last year Anas Sarwar was elected leader of the party in Scotland, in what has been hailed as the first time a person of color has been chosen to lead a major British political party or one of its branches in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.
The founder of an organization focused on supporting disadvantaged minority groups in British society described the moment for the Conservatives in the London Evening Standard as one when British leaders could finally “reflect the country they choose to serve”. at least in race.
“None of the various Conservative candidates are running on the platform of being the first prime minister from an ethnic minority; they follow their policies and agenda,” wrote Harris Bokhari of the Patchwork Foundation. “They just happen to be from minorities.”
The British public, he said, looks at leaders for what they do and believe, not where they or their families came from – although many critics would disagree, at least when it comes to social class, which is still a sensitive issue is this country.
Sunder Katwala, director of British Future, a think tank that looks at people’s hopes and fears about immigration, identity and race, described the moment as “striking” because it had come so quickly.
The Conservative Party had elected its first member of Indian descent to Parliament at the end of the 19th century. It was almost a century before it happened again when Nirj Deva was elected in 1992.
There were no women of Asian descent in the House of Commons until 2010 and no people of Asian descent in the highest offices until 2018, when Sajid Javid became Home Secretary.
“The point we’re getting to in Britain is the normality of ethnic diversity at the top,” Katwala said. “You now have normal ethnic diversity in the left and right parties.
“Now, as with the women, we’re not saying, ‘What do the minority candidates think or represent?’ This is really useful for normalizing diversity.”
Kaleem is a Times contributor and Boyle is a special correspondent.
https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2022-07-18/britain-prime-minister-diversity Historically diverse slate vies to be next UK prime minister