I am away for a couple of weeks, so am posting little new material on Pandaemonium. I am taking the opportunity to publish some of those shorter pieces from my Observer column that I don’t normally post on Pandaemonium. Having said that, this short comment on the diversity of the Boris Johnson cabinet was published in the Observer on 28 July not as part of my weekly column but as part of a feature on the new Johnson government.
‘People seem to be disappointed that the ethnic minority/BAME politicians Boris has selected for his cabinet are Tories,’ observed the comedian Shappi Khorsandi.
It summed up well the debate about the make-up of Boris Johnson’s new cabinet. For some, the presence of Sajid Javid as chancellor and Priti Patel as home secretary, together with four other non-white ministers – Alok Sharma, Rishi Sunak, James Cleverly and Kwasi Karteng – makes it a cabinet to represent modern Britain. For others, these are simply a set of token figures to legitimise Johnson’s agenda.
Since Paul Boateng became the first non-white cabinet minister in 2002, there have been, before last week, just five others. There is today, Sunder Katwala of the thinktank British Future observed, ‘as much ethnic diversity around the cabinet table … as there has been in the rest of British political history put together’. Partly this is the product of a conscious attempt on Johnson’s part to appear inclusive against the background of a divisive Brexit. It is also a reflection of how British society has changed in recent decades, and of how ethnic minorities have increasingly found their political voice. In 2010 there were just 15 minority MPs. Today, there are 52.
And yet this cabinet is no reflection of modern Britain. Two-thirds were privately educated, compared with just 7% of the general population. Almost half attended Oxbridge. The fact that one of four Old Etonians in the cabinet, Kwasi Kwarteng, is black might make it more ‘diverse’ but not more ‘modern’.
One argument we should reject, though, is the claim that because minority members of the cabinet are rightwing – well, of course they are, they’re Tories – they are in some sense less ‘authentic’. ‘Someone from a minority group who chooses to serve in a far-right government is no longer a person of colour. They’re a turncoat of colour,’ tweeted Kerry-Anne Mendoza, editor-in-chief of the Canary website. There is something disturbing and reactionary in the claim that all minorities must think the same way, and that those who don’t are traitors. Minority groups are as politically divided as the white population. The policies of Javid and Patel are unlikely to be any less obnoxious than those of white Tory ministers.
Perhaps the greatest merit of the Johnson cabinet is to make clear that diversity exists not just within British society but within minority communities, too. And that, in the end, it’s the politics that counts.