What this leadership race tells us about Britain
Our post-racial politics is leaving the Left behind
British Conservatives are outraged they cannot elect a black woman as their next leader. Kemi Badenoch might have just been knocked out of the race to become leader of the Conservative Party and Britain’s next Prime Minister but she has electrified the Tory grassroots and much of Westminster.
Over the last week, the forty-two year old former Minister for Equalities set out a far more intriguing brand of post-Brexit conservatism than anything Theresa May or Boris Johnson offered. And what is this philosophy that we might call Badenoch-ism?
Cut taxes while prioritising productivity. Lower —not just control— immigration. Restructure a hopelessly inefficient and overloaded state. Break-up the far too powerful Treasury. Transform the National Health Service from a ridiculously overrated national religion into something that actually works. Take on woke politics —including the seemingly bottomless pit of state funding for its activists. Push back against gender theory. Reassert the family. And cultivate a positive national story —one that acknowledges both the good and the bad in our history, challenges the claim Britain is ‘institutionally racist’, and refuses to only define minorities as victims.
Whatever your personal opinion, there is no doubt she has cut through. Badenoch the Brexiteer lost the race but leaves as a leader-in-waiting (“not this time but next time” as more than a few MPs told me this week). She is now a celebrity among Tory members who spent his week berating many of those same MPs for having made the wrong call (“It should have been Kemi!”) And she is clearly adored by her husband who entertained the idea of leaving the following on his e-mail this week: “I am currently out of the office as my wife is standing to become Prime Minister”.
Had Badenoch made it into the final round then it is almost certain that Conservative Party members —who are 97% white— would have put her ahead of Smooth Operator Rishi Sunak. Indeed, only last night I Tweeted out a poll showing how most members now say they wanted her more than any other candidate to replace Boris Johnson.
Instead, she will now have to settle for what will almost certainly be a major role in the next cabinet (Education?) and the knowledge that she is now a firm favourite to takeover the Conservative Party after what looks increasingly likely to be a defeat —possibly a heavy one— at the next general election.
But it would be a mistake to only see Badenoch’s rise through the lens of British conservatism. This is because both she and the race more generally point to a deeper change that is sweeping through the country -the rise of a new, post-racial politics.
This race has simply been the most diverse in the history of British politics -and one that followed the most diverse political cabinet and the most diverse parliament. Of the eleven people who put themselves forward to lead the Conservative Party and the country, more than half -including Badenoch- are ethnic minorities.
Contrary to much of the nonsense that is written about Brexit Britain, until this week the contest to lead one of the most powerful nations on earth was between three women, one man with Kenyan and Tanzanian roots, an Iraqi Kurd who fled Saddam Hussein and could not speak English when he arrived on these islands, a Buddhist of Indian origin, one white guy whose wife is Chinese and whose children are mixed-race, and another who has dual British-French citizenship, is Roman Catholic, and descends from Austrian Jews. If anybody is underrepresented in the race for the keys to Number 10 Downing Street it is white men.
With Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak having made it into the final round, the choice is now between the first ever non-white Prime Minister or our third female Prime Minister. Few, if any, other democracies can say such a thing. And if Liz Truss wins —which the polls suggest is more than likely— then Britain will have had more female leaders than any major power in the world. All hail the patriarchy.
Diversity is not everything and it certainly should not be the only metric in how we elect our leaders. But, at the same time, this race is telling us something important about modern Britain and why many people on the left come unstuck.
Contrary to the Doomers and the Declinists who routinely portray Brexit Britain as institutionally, inherently, and irretrievably racist, this race has thrown light on a very different country —and one that does not support these dreary tropes.
The story that is unfolding around us this summer is not about oppressive power structures that are holding minorities back —it is about an increasingly open, tolerant, welcoming and post-racial politics that is pushing them forward.
Just look at the evidence.
The last general election might be remembered for Getting Brexit Done but it also gave rise to the largest number of minority ethnic and female MPs on record. Boris Johnson might be loathed by an increasingly shrill liberal left as a sort of Trumpian demagogue but in reality he had more people from minority backgrounds around his cabinet table than any other other Prime Minister in history and —as far as I can tell— every political leader in the European Union.
The blunt reality is that nothing like this race would ever take place in France, Germany, or many other European powers. Macron’s first cabinet was entirely white, as was Merkel’s last. Compared to Brexit Britain, the institutions of the EU look remarkably homogeneous, old fashioned, and like Britain used to look twenty years ago. Just 4% of people in the European Parliament are non-white.
While many MEPs in Brussels and Strasbourg are fond of lambasting Britain as some kind of racist hell-hole they would do well to reflect on the fact that one reason why the European Parliament became even less diverse is because Britain left.
Just as striking is the sheer speed at which British politics has been transformed. Until 2010, Britain’s Tories had only ever had four non-white MPs. As recently as 2001 they did not have a single black or Asian MP in parliament. Every single person who put themselves forward to lead the party in 1997, 2001, 2003, and 2005 were white men. As the party’s former leader, David Cameron, pointed out this week:
“It was so homogeneous that my first shadow cabinet comprised more people called David (five) than women (four). My pitch was therefore not for positive discrimination, but positive action. The party of meritocracy needed to accelerate meritocracy".
And this is exactly what happened. While David Cameron will go down in history as the gambler who set the stage for Brexit, more astute historians will also point to his role in pushing the political system into this new, post-racial era.
Much of what we are witnessing this summer is the result of Cameron’s ‘A-List’ which imposed mainly female and minority candidates on Conservative Party associations in winnable seats. Rishi Sunak, Kemi Badenoch, Suella Braverman, and Nadhim Zawahi are all in safe seats and will now remain at the forefront for decades to come.
As a result, over the last twenty years, the share of Tory MPs from minority groups has rocketed more than five-fold while the share of minority MPs in parliament has surged from just 2% to 23%. A decade ago, only one in forty MPs were from a minority background; today, it is one in ten. It is simply no longer plausible to argue that the structures of British politics —of power— are closed off to minorities.
And this raises big and difficult questions for the Left which, on the one hand, has invested heavily in spreading a divisive brand of identity politics but which, on the other, increasingly looks out of touch with the reality of modern Britain.
The Left might have more female and minority MPs than the Right overall but it is the Right that is doing a much better job of propelling them forward. Britain’s first ever female Prime Minister? Tory. The second? Tory. The first minority Chancellor? Tory. The first minority Home Secretary? Tory. The first minority Health Secretary? Tory. The first non-white candidate to have a realistic chance of becoming Prime Minister? Tory. And the third female Prime Minister? Probably Tory.
This does raise questions about whether Labour has unleashed a genuine meritocracy or a crude political tokenism. Remarkably, more people from minority backgrounds have run to be the next Conservative Prime Minister this year than have ever run to lead the Labour Party or sat in a Labour cabinet, represented Labour in the House of Lords, or in the European Parliament. And it looks likely that the next Conservative cabinet will be even more diverse than the last -with key positions most likely going to the likes of Badenoch, Braverman, Zawahi, and Javid. The glass ceilings are certainly being smashed but they are being smashed on the Right not the Left.
And the best thing of all about this is that nobody really cares.
Contrary to what we are told by the preachers of Critical Race Theory, second-rate sociologists, and elite progressives in the institutions, most people have met these changes with a very British shrug of the shoulders. Unlike many on the Left, they no longer view Westminster through the narrow lens of race and ethnicity. It is simply not an issue. British politics has become post-racial.
Ask people how they would feel if Boris Johnson’s successor came from a minority ethnic group and the vast majority of people today say it is not important -they simply do not think it is relevant. Just one in ten would feel unhappy were it to happen.
It is the same story, by the way, when it comes to how people feel about their British identity, which has also become broader and more inclusive in recent years.
Ask them whether somebody needs to be white to be “truly British” and only 3% say they do. Ask them how they might feel if their child married somebody from a different ethnic group and only 4% say they would have a problem with it.
Such statistics, like our politics, point clearly to a country which —especially since Brexit— is increasingly at ease with itself, supportive of immigration (so long as it is controlled and sustainable), and turned off by efforts to reshape itself, its people, and its society around incredibly crude racial and ethnic divisions.
These trends and the rise of our post-racial politics fly in the face of a deeply warped, pessimistic, and utterly gloomy vision of Britain that is peddled by the likes of Afua Hirsch, Kehinde Andrews, Sathnam Sanghera, and Fintan O’Toole.
Seen through their eyes, we live not in a country where minorities have just as good a chance to rise to the top as everybody else but remain locked in a deeply imperialist and racist society where the British secretly yearn to relive the days of Empire and reassert their dominance over minority groups.
But actually, as it turns out, most people today —including Tories— appear perfectly content to be dominated by a black or brown Prime Minister. Nor do they have much time for a nastier and, at times, openly racist outlook that is shared by too many influential voices on the Left to call it a fringe concern.
One of the most remarkable reactions to the race for Prime Minister has come not from disgruntled white Tories bemoaning the lack of white candidates but rather disgruntled white liberal elites bemoaning the number of minority Conservatives.
Most prominent among them is lawyer Jolyon Maugham who, on hearing news of Rishi Sunak’s bid for the leadership, responded: “Do you think the members of your Party are ready to select a Brown man, Rishi?” As the left-leaning New Statesman had to point out, Maugham’s question is not only absurd but reveals a far dark underbelly on the Left which, put simply, smacks of racism.
“In aligning themselves with the party, so the argument goes, they have fundamentally betrayed their identity. The nature of the insults that someone like Badenoch receives reflects this dynamic – she is called a coon, a house negro, and so forth, by many people who strangely also call themselves anti-racist.”
Assuming that people from ethnic minorities hold a particular set of beliefs simply because of their racial or ethnic background is itself a form of bigotry. Thankfully, however, this very ugly brand of identity politics looks fundamentally out of touch with the reality of modern Britain, with how many people see the country today.
Most people simply do not look at Westminster or for that matter British society and see a zero-sum struggle between different racial and ethnic groups. Nor do they see the country as being organized around “power structures” in which minorities are victims and whites are oppressors. And nor do they recognise the utterly bleak and depressing picture of Britain that is painted by radical progressives —as an institutionally racist, imperialist, and deeply oppressive society.
On the contrary, while they might not share Kemi Badenoch’s politics I suspect most people today would instinctively agree with her observation that we need to develop a far more optimistic, positive, and unifying vision of who we are.
Britain certainly does not get everything right. As in every other society around the world we must all remain vigilant against racism -on both the left and right. But, as Badenoch argues, on many measures, including political representation, Britain remains one of the best countries in the world to be black or from a minority group.
In our increasingly post-racial politics and society, it is simply no longer plausible to argue that children from minority ethnic backgrounds do not have a realistic chance of reaching Number 10 Downing Street. They most certainly do -and not just because they happen to belong to a particular racial or ethnic group. And if we need somebody who arrived in Britain from Nigeria when she was just sixteen years old to remind us of that fact then so be it —we are all the more stronger for it.
Thanks to those who sent in thoughts. To be honest, readers, I am wanting to write much more about global politics -including what is going on in the US and Italy- but in recent weeks I have found myself swept up in the contest. Fear not -we will not be looking at the British Conservative Party every week!
In response to my scepticism of Rishi Sunak, John Judis, one of my favourite writers whose work was well ahead of the curve on the rise of Obama’s electorate, writes:
“You might have mentioned Mitt Romney in 2012. In the 2010 midterm, the flight of the white working class party from the Democrats was clear. The Democrats were routed in House elections. The recession lingered. Obama had succumbed to austerity and was unpopular. He was poised for defeat in 2012, but the Republicans ran Romney against him. Romney was not as rich as Sunak, but he was in the .01 percent, and he had worked in his youth before he got into politics selling off and restructuring corporations. Well, you know the rest. Inflation is also deadly for ANY constructive economic program. So I would suspect, given your post, that Labour has a good chance to revive if it can moderate its social programs”.
I agree with much of this. I often wonder what might have happened in 2012 had the Republicans run a more “left on economics, right on culture” candidate. Presumably, this might have choked off space for Donald Trump. Similarly, I often wonder what might have happened in 2015 had the British Tories run somebody other than David Cameron, who was more in tune with the voters who abandoned the Tories for Nigel Farage, then Brexit, and then Boris Johnson. But now we will never know.
Theo also wrote in to share his view that Sunak is “a classic Anywhere”, in reference to David Goodhart’s distinction between the Somewheres, who are more rooted, and the more liberal metropolitan Anywheres, who perhaps like Sunak could just as easily leave Britain to settle in California should they choose. Mick, another reader, writes:
“Your description of the stereotypical new Tory voter is eerily accurate of myself —white, working class, male, with strong views about all the topics you highlight. However, Sunak’s £2,000 bike is pretty normal nowadays. Anyhow, great email”.
Thanks. Many people in our Substack community have gone on a similar political journey as the one you explained in your e-mail —Labour voter, then Tory, then Farage, then Brexit, then Conservative. There is an interesting paper on these voters here -you might find it resonates with your story. However, I’m not sure how many of these voters start their day on a £2,000 Peloton listening to Britney Spears.
In response to my piece on Penny Mordaunt, Gary said:
“Thanks for this, great article. What a disaster it would be if she wins”.
I was certainly sceptical about the extent to which Mordaunt would be able to unify the party and its grassroots. If you follow me on Twitter you will know I forecast she would lose to Liz Truss, which she did. Personally, I found Mordaunt’s refusal to be drawn on her economic policy frustrating. Most Conservative MPs on the Right of the party who I spoke to felt she lacked substance and could not be trusted on culture.
That’s it for this week. I want to end by letting you know —thanks to you— we are growing fast and have had great traction on social media and among MPs. We have got to grips with podcasting and will be launching soon. Thanks to The Telegraph, Christopher Hope’s podcast, the BBC, GB News, and Talk TV for flagging us this week, thanks to my assistant Lino, and thanks to this politician for making some time in a busy week to have such an interesting chat about Britain
Have a good weekend all, Matt
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