Will Britain get its first non-White prime minister?

Mainstreaming of non-white leaders in British politics is a cause for some celebration, but it has taken a long time to reach this situation



By Prasun Sonwalkar

Published: Sun 10 Jul 2022, 10:55 PM

Last updated: Tue 12 Jul 2022, 9:46 AM

The air in Westminster is often described as ‘febrile’, full of nervous excitement. But last week many reached for superlatives, when extraordinary events led to Boris Johnson finally announcing his decision to step down. Pundits scurried to find precedents in British political history of a prime minister refusing to resign, defiantly ignoring long set rules and conventions, or of a prime minister witnessing over 50 cabinet and other ministers resigning and asking him/her to resign. But then no other prime minister stretched the limits of Britain’s unwritten constitution as Johnson did. In less than three years after winning a large majority in the December 2019 election, Johnson went from a charmer who could do no wrong to resigning in some humiliation over persistent questions about his integrity and honesty. The fall could not be more dramatic, but those who knew him from his Oxford days and later as a journalist are not exactly surprised at the denouement.

There are several layers to the unedifying story of Johnson’s prime ministership: successes include sorting the Brexit imbroglio that paralysed the previous Theresa May government (never mind the larger issue of whether leaving the European Union is an act of self-harm or not), mass rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine, multi-billion-pound support to employees and the self-employed during the pandemic, support for Ukraine against Russia, and allowing eligible Hong Kong citizens to migrate to Britain in the face of China curbing some freedoms. But his tenure will mostly be remembered for the litany of rows that raised questions about his integrity and honesty, particularly the parties held in Downing Street during lockdowns, his claims when questioned about them in parliament; and the most recent controversy over appointing a person facing allegations of sexual conduct as the deputy chief whip of the ruling party.

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But another strand of the story that does him some credit, besides marking a new high in the long, difficult context of diversity in British politics, is the sub-text of increasing numbers of non-white MPs being elected to the House of Commons, more being appointed to top ministerial posts, such ministers being lauded or pilloried by the news media like any other politician – to now reaching a point where a non-white person may well be the next prime minister of a country that is still grappling with its long history of slavery and racism.

In many ways, one of the most significant moments of the last week was Sajid Javid, who resigned as the Health secretary, making his resignation statement in the House of Commons: he was heard in silence, as he lectured to Johnson (who stayed through the statement) and others about the “importance of integrity…Institutions and integrity are both central pillars that underpin our great democracy”, about effective governance, loyalty and collective responsibility, and about “the health of our democracy”. It was the resignation of Javid (Pakistan origin) and chancellor Rishi Sunak (Indian origin) that opened the floodgates of resignations that eventually forced Johnson to resign. It was a rare moment of mainstreaming of non-white politicians, of being considered ‘big beasts’, whose resignations Johnson could not ignore. Few noticed, noted or remarked that they belonged to immigrant/minority communities. Then, Sunak was replaced by Nadhim Zahawi (Iraq origin) as chancellor.

It was Johnson who appointed the most number of non-white ministers, including at the cabinet level: Javid, Sunak, Alok Sharma, Priti Patel, Suella Braverman, Zahawi, Kwasi Kwarteng. As the former Conservative party chairman James Cleverly once noted, Johnson had put together “the most desi government” in British history after the 2019 election, which returned the highest number of non-white MPs: 65, or 10 per cent of the strength of the House of Commons. Labour’s shadow cabinet also has more members from the minorities, including Lisa Nandy, Preet Kaur Gill, Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, Valerie Vaz, Thangam Debbonaire, David Lammy, Seema Malhotra and Khalid Mahmood.

It is a reflection of the same mainstreaming that Sunak is now considered one of the leading contenders to be next prime minister. He has many hoops to cross, but if he wins the most votes from Conservative party members – who will ultimately decide in a postal ballot after the final two candidates remain through a process of elimination – it will take Britain’s tryst with multiculturalism to another high. The family origins of leaders such as Sunak and Javid lie outside Britain, which is often highlighted and celebrated in their countries of origin. They are British born and bred, and the fact remains that their world-view is primarily driven by British national interests, which is as it should be. But much to the annoyance of London-based diplomats from their countries of origin, they rarely, if ever, uphold the interests of their homelands. So if Sunak or Javid become the next prime minister, expect gushing headlines and some celebrations back home, but hardly anything that is out of the way beyond.

In any case, their mainstreaming in British politics itself is a cause for some celebration, but it has taken a long time to reach this situation. Progress was slow over most of the 20th century. The first three Indian/Asian MPs elected to the House of Commons were Parsis: Dadabhai Naoroji (elected in 1892, Finsbury Central), Mancherjee Bhownaggree (1895, Bethnal Green North-East) and Shapurji Saklatvala (1922, Battersea North). After Saklatvala lost in 1929, there was a long gap: it was in 1987 that the next ethnic minority MPs entered Parliament: Diane Abbott (Hackney North & Stoke Newington), Paul Boateng (Brent South), Bernie Grant (Tottenham) and Keith Vaz (Leicester East), all representing Labour. Since then, the number of non-white MPs increased at each general election, most notably from 2010 onwards: 1987 (4 MPs), 1992 (6), 1997 (9), 2001 (12), 2005 (15), 2010 (27), 2015 (41), 2017 (52) and 2019 (65).

Since ethnic minorities comprise over 14 per cent of the population, experts believe that if the ethnic make-up of the House of Commons were to reflect that of the population, there would need to be nearly 100 MPs from minority backgrounds. But the current record of 65 represents something of a landmark not only for diversity in politics but also for initiatives of the three main parties to encourage non-white representation. Meanwhile, for all the quirks, quarries and questions about British politics, many from all over the world will closely watch the election of the next prime minister in the coming days and weeks.

The writer is a senior journalist and researcher


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