What does the rise of Conservative Asian politicians reveal about the party’s approach to race and diversity?

As Britain reels from a pandemic that has triggered an economic and health crisis, it’s now gripped by social unrest. Following the murder of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has forced Britons to reckon with racism and their colonial past, putting social justice firmly on the agenda.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the self-styled populist, ignores any popular discontent at his party’s own peril. 

The Conservatives, not wanting to be seen as on the wrong side of a growing movement for social change – its handling of the pandemic aside – have found a new enemy to convince voters of their relevance: “wokeness”.

And Downing Street found an ideal candidate to wage a “war on woke” in their strategy to neutralise calls for racial justice.

In the wake of the protests, the recent appointment of No. 10 policy chief, Munira Mirza, to set up an inequality commission to tackle racial injustice, appeared head scratching given her scepticism about structural prejudice and denial that Britain has a “serious problem” with race.

Someone like Mirza is well suited for the party during this volatile moment, revealing how the right reduces racism to a component of a culture war being pursued by the left.

Born in Oldham to Pakistani parents, Mirza – one of a handful of former Revolutionary Communist Party members that swung to the right – gained notoriety for arguing against a number of progressive positions, most notably for Spiked, an online magazine known for its right-libertarian views and combative style.

Amongst her contrarian declarations are that institutional racism is a “myth”, that “race is no longer the significant disadvantage it was portrayed to be”, and that even talking about racial bias is analogous to “stoking grievance”.

“Having Mirza lead the inquiry is not only disingenuous and pretentious; it also sends a very clear message that this government simply does not care and will not care about issues impacting racialised communities,” Dr Fatima Rajina, an academic who specializes on the British Bangladeshi Muslim community, told TRT World.

As No. 10’s warrior against the woke, the irony is that while Mirza and other rightwing party ideologues despise what they call “identity politics”, it’s the very approach that underpins an expedient strategy: to weaponise ethnic minorities who denounce the politics of anti-racism.

Is it cynical to assume then, that Mirza is a tokenist hire by the Tories – whereby diversity is used as a smokescreen to peddle policies that ultimately exacerbate economic and social inequities?

Diversity of skin, not thought

That isn’t to say progress hasn’t been made. Britain’s parliament today is the most diverse in its history: there are 65 ethnic minority MPs, or 10 percent of the House of Commons.

In a bid to modernise the party, former Conservative PM David Cameron made an open commitment to tackling racial discrimination. The 2010 general election was a watershed moment for representation of minorities in the party, which saw an increase from two to 11 MPs. The party now has 22 minority ethnic MPs.

Despite that, ethnic minorities still make up only 6 percent of the Conservative’s 365 MPs – while making up 13 percent of the British population.

However, one group in particular has enjoyed a lot of attention in the party’s bid to renovate an otherwise stubbornly monolithic image of being white and male dominated.

As BLM protests raged, UK health secretary Matt Hancock was grilled about the lack of diversity in the prime minister’s government. When pressed about the absence of any black cabinet ministers, Hancock pivoted by pointing out that British Asians occupy two of the four highest offices of state: Home Secretary Priti Patel and Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak.  

When pushed further, Hancock stressed that it was more important to have “diversity of thought”. But for those minorities who hold important positions in government, does diversity of skin correspond with diversity of thought?

After Johnson’s victory in December’s general election, there was much fanfare surrounding the most diverse – specifically Asian – cabinet in British history. A cohort of British Asians now held top roles, from Patel, Sunak, (former) chancellor Sajid Javid, alongside Indian-born Alok Sharma as business minister and Goan-origin Suella Braverman as attorney general.

Their appointments appeared to fulfill a narrative of British progress on racism and diversity.

But what if the opposite was true: that these figures were elevated to prominence because of their willingness to reinforce the ideological platform of the Conservative Party, rather than any commitment to “diversity of thought” as Hancock put it.

Dr Rajina argues this is precisely the problem with indulging in representational politics. 

“This is flawed because you can’t assume someone’s political allegiances or alliances solely based on skin colour, tone, hair, or whatever other variable people use to ascertain representation.”

She noted that having individuals like Patel and Mirza in “high places gives a false impression that incremental change will happen”; as window dressing sold to minorities to neuter real concerns within their communities.

There are many examples that illustrate to how this voguish ‘browning’ of Conservative orthodoxy is being marketed – and what it accomplishes politically.

‘Brown faces in high places’

In his maiden parliamentary speech, the Southampton-born Sunak recalled an amusing exchange when he was first on the campaign trail in his consistency of Richmond in Yorkshire, when he was referred to as a more “tanned William Hague”.

He said he owed a “great debt to our country for what it has done for my family: showing tolerance, providing opportunities and rewarding their hard work” and is “extremely proud to be British.”

Sunak’s story is supposed to be an embodiment of Conservative values. But just how representative is the pro-Brexit Sunak of British ethnic minorities?

Does the rise of an Oxford-educated son-in-law of billionaire Infosys co-founder Narayana Murthy, who worked for Goldman Sachs, mean that other minorities will be able to follow along his privileged trajectory? 

The London-born daughter of Indian parents from Uganda, Sunak’s colleague Priti Patel is the face of the government’s “law and order” agenda, known for her uncompromising and quasi-authoritarian tendencies.

Speaking triumphantly at the 2019 Conservative Party Conference, Patel claimed that she wanted the “brightest and best” to come to the UK and advocated for a government-controlled points-based immigration system – which has now come to pass.

While doing so, Patel mocked the free movement of people.

“Because, let me tell you something,” she added with a smirk, “this daughter of immigrants needs no lectures from the North London metropolitan liberal elite.”

Patel was laying out in the clearest of terms that because she was an ethnic minority, she was exempt from being “lectured” – and hence, could operationalise it as a defence mechanism to thwart any critique of her policies.

Musa Okwonga referred to Patel’s function as one of a “racial gatekeeper”: essentially someone propped up by white people who can mask their racially regressive views by appealing to a non-white person who agrees with policies that legitimise those views.

While stepping down from his post as chancellor to make way for Sunak, Sajid Javid has been one of the more prominent Asians in government. The Rochdale-born son of Pakistani immigrants, he too has been accused of using racial dog whistles – most infamously vowing to crackdown on “Asian paedophiles”. 

Former Conservative Party co-chair Baroness Sayeeda Warsi chastised him by saying that “however much he panders to the right of our party, sadly the right of our party still believe he’s far too Muslim to be leader.”

Despite being a Remainer, Javid was happy to align himself with Johnson – someone who has compared Muslim women wearing the hijab or niqab to “bank robbers” and “letter boxes”. 

Instead, it took Labour’s Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, a British Sikh, to stand up for Muslim women to expose Johnson’s dog whistle politics.

So on one hand you have Javid touted as a successful Conservative Muslim man in a party that in the same breath has consistently been charged with harboring and defending Islamophobia within its ranks.

What diversity conceals

Dr Rajina criticises the elevation of these diverse faces, and how they can ultimately make it harder to fight structural violence against BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) people.

“When the status quo is being entrenched, especially with such individuals, it, of course, makes the fight for holding the state accountable for its racism and Islamophobia an almost impossible task,” she said.

The fact that Johnson was still not held accountable for his derogatory remarks about Muslims, as well as black and gay people, further illustrates how little the government cares, she added.

For Dr Rajina, the Conservative Party has chosen subjects it believes won’t challenge or disrupt things as they are, and that the government’s approach was “straight out of the old colonial book of divide and conquer”.

Sharan Dhaliwal, editor of Burnt Roti magazine, highlighted a connective tissue between British Asians and the Tory party.

“There’s a conservative mindset that is rooted in colonialism, being the ‘good immigrant’,” Dhaliwal told TRT World.

The tenets of individualism – the idea that anyone can be successful as long as they apply themselves – is deeply embedded within Conservatism and has been deliberately tied to the Asian diasporic experience – albeit not uniformly.

In the 1980s onwards, the Tories began to court an “Indian community” to encourage a model minority narrative – where successful British Indians were held up as evidence of what could be achieved under a free-market Conservative government.

After thirty years of Thatcherism, British Indians are now the most staunchly pro-Conservative minority after British Jews.

By 2017, the party got over 40 percent of the British Indian vote, and by 2019 they managed to extend appeal beyond their traditional so-called “twice migrants” base (Indians who arrived from east Africa in the 1960s and 70s, such as Sunak and Patel’s families), by exploiting common cause with a growing pro-Hindu nationalist bloc united around Islamophobia.

Dhaliwal contended that this was a correlated phenomenon.

“While we wonder why these Asian people are part of the Conservative Party, we just need to look at the politics in India, with a nationalist government currently undergoing ethnic cleansing of Muslims,” she said.

“Standing Asians as the medal of diversity is in fact not as forward thinking as they think – with our history of anti-blackness, casteism, wealth inequality, political unrest,” some of which, she added, is attributable to British colonial rule.

Diversity and political representation does not mean treating everyone from BAME backgrounds as a monolith, either. Perhaps the categories themselves are problematic – such as BAME – which could be used to obfuscate real disparities between minority groups.

Dhaliwal agreed, pointing out how there is a demand to show ‘diversity’ through statistics, to the detriment of certain minorities.

For example, when categories like BAME are used to refer to non-white people being affected by white supremacy, “there is no reality behind that because a lot of Asians and other ethnic minorities have a proximity to white supremacy that lets them co-opt that privilege,” while Black people have no access to it, she added.

If that distinction isn’t made, then certain groups may well be given license to weaponise their more privileged or much less racialised experiences to dismiss others out of political expediency. Which is precisely what Patel did when she gaslit a black Labour MP who called for stronger action to tackle racism.

Despite the presence of Sunak and Patel in key posts, the government has continued its hostile environment policy that created the Windrush scandal in the first place – perhaps the most flagrant example of the state’s disregard for black lives.

Whether politicians such as Patel, Sunak, Mirza and Javid are genuinely representative of other minorities is up for debate. Having used their status as minorities to secure political capital – the idea of them representing “diversity” and “progress” is a fair question.