New British Prime Minister Liz Truss has assembled the most ethnically diverse Cabinet in the United Kingdom’s history, with several top jobs given to Black and other minority ethnic lawmakers.
Kwasi Kwarteng, who will take charge of the UK’s dire economic situation as chancellor, was born in London after his parents migrated from Ghana in the 1960s; the mother of James Cleverly, the new foreign minister, came to the UK from Sierra Leone, while incoming Home Secretary Suella Braverman has Kenyan and Mauritian parents.
No other G7 country can claim such diversity at the heart of government and it reflects a rapid rise in the number of minority ethnic politicians at the top tables of British politics in the past decade.
But experts say this fact can obscure other prevalent inequalities in the UK’s political system.
Critics fear the continuation of a series of divisive Conservative government policies towards refugees, asylum seekers and disadvantaged communities, and some have pointed to the class and educational backgrounds of the country’s new Cabinet as a symbol of Britain’s most defining political gulf.
“It’s extremely significant and an extraordinary rate of change,” Sunder Katwala, the director of the British Future think tank that focuses on issues of immigration, integration and national identity, said of the make-up of Truss’s new Cabinet.
But “these are more diverse political elites,” he told CNN. “It’s a meritocratic advance for people who have done well in education, law and business. It’s not an advance on social class terms.”
“It’s absolutely fantastic that we have a more diverse House of Commons, set of parties and government, in terms of gender and in terms of ethnicity,” said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University and the author of books on the Conservative Party.
“But it does hide the fact that we have an ongoing disappearance of working-class people from politics, and that has knock-on effects on policy and turnout.”
Britain saw its first Black Cabinet minister as recently as 2002; a decade ago, none of the most illustrious offices of state had been held by non-White politicians.
So the diversity in Truss’s top team reflects a sea change in British politics.
“There were no Black or Asian Cabinet ministers until we got into this century … it’s a remarkably rapid change in the last 10 years,” Katwala told CNN. “And even though it’s very recent, it’s already established as a new norm.”
Prime Minister Liz Truss (left, centre) holds the first meeting of her new Cabinet on Wednesday.
Braverman is the third consecutive home secretary from an ethnic minority, while Kwarteng is the fourth such chancellor.
Much credit for that shift is attributed to David Cameron, the Conservative prime minister from 2010 until 2016, who prioritized modernizing a Tory party that had developed a reputation for being out of touch with a multicultural country. Cameron insisted that women and ethnic minorities be included in shortlists when the party selected local candidates.
“Cameron had a crucial impact,” Katwala said. “He decided to make it happen — it was his political project to show that his Conservative Party wanted to be part of modern Britain.”
But while the Conservative Party has dramatically diversified during its 12 years in power, its voters have not.
The Labour Party has comfortably maintained its historic advantage among non-White voters. Pollster Ipsos MORI estimated that Labour won the votes of 64% of all Black and minority ethnic voters in a 2019 election that was otherwise dire for the opposition party, while just one in five voted for the Conservatives.
Experts and commentators say that is because the diversity among senior Tories masks other inequalities, and has not equated to a realignment of the party’s political priorities.
“A lot is being made of the (government’s) diverse cabinet. The test of that should be, how many members of Britain’s vulnerable, diverse black, Muslim and women minority groups now feel they will be heard?” Adil Ray, an actor and TV presenter who created the BBC sitcom “Citizen Khan” which portrayed the lives of a British Pakistani family in Birmingham, wrote on Twitter Wednesday.
Wounds left unhealed
The new Cabinet also takes the mantle from a previous government that was frequently criticized by anti-racism campaigners for its approach to racial inequality and to migration.
Most Black people in Britain believed the Conservative Party is institutionally racist, a CNN/Savanta ComRes poll found in 2020, while 55% of Black people said they did not trust the government to prevent events similar to the Windrush scandal, which saw Caribbean migrants and their descendants wrongly deported from the UK as part of a “hostile environment” policy.
“The Conservatives were generating new baggage with Black voters through the Windrush scandal,” and have also suffered in appealing to Muslim Brits in the wake of allegations of Islamophobia in the party and a bitter campaign for the London mayoralty in 2016, Katwala said.
Other episodes further exposed a divide between ex-leader Boris Johnson’s government and Black Britons. A group of United Nations human rights experts last year strongly condemned a British government-backed report into institutional racism, which concluded that the UK is not institutionally racist.
Suella Braverman follows Priti Patel as the UK’s home secretary.
But studies show the prevalence of racism in the country remains evident; more than two in five Black, brown and minority ethnic workers in the UK say they have faced racism on the job, according to one such study released last week.
In terms of future policy, Truss, Braverman and most of the Cabinet have pledged their support to a controversial program — brought in by the hardline previous Home Secretary Priti Patel — that would see some asylum seekers deported to Rwanda.
The government insisted the program was aimed at disrupting people-smuggling networks and deterring migrants from making the dangerous sea journey across the Channel to England from France. But advocacy and human rights groups have initiated multiple legal challenges and flights have so far been stopped.
The early signals suggest those clashes will continue rather than abate in Truss’s government. But observers say that if the government were to soften its approach toward migration, it would receive support from the public.
“There is a softening of attitudes to immigration generally, so there is an opportunity for the government to do something different,” Katwala said.
Nonetheless, even the most ethnically diverse Cabinet in UK history is strikingly similar in its educational and class backgrounds.
More than two-thirds of the new Cabinet went to fee-paying private schools, including Braverman, Cleverly and Kwarteng, compared to just 7% of the British population. “If you look at the Conservative brand, it still is seen for good or for ill as the party of the rich,” Bale said.
The past four Conservative prime ministers all attended the University of Oxford; of the last five chancellors, only Sajid Javid did not study at Oxford or Cambridge, the UK’s two most elite universities.
“Politics has become a graduate profession; some of the skills required for politicians tend to be associated with people who’ve been to university,” Bale said.
That runs the risk of dissuading a generation of people from engaging in elections, he warned.
“What we’ve seen over the past couple of decades is the almost complete disappearance of working-class MPs in Parliament … around a third of the population don’t really see anybody that sounds and looks like them in Parliament.”