The writer is chair of Green Park Executive Recruitment and former head of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission
That cunning old bird Norman Tebbit, a former Conservative party chair, must be chuckling in his Suffolk retreat. Three decades ago, Margaret Thatcher’s notorious hard man caused outrage by telling reporters — me among them — that immigrants needed to show their loyalty to Britain by cheering for the England cricket team.
The provocation was both deliberate and wholly misleading. Tebbit later told me something far more important: that Britain’s immigrants — entrepreneurial, socially conservative, religiously inclined — were natural Tories and to some degree, the party’s future. On the evidence of the early stage of the contest to elect a new leader, Tebbit had it right. British Conservatism is being prised from the grip of white men: the next prime minister is almost certain to be a woman, a person of colour, or both.
Half of the eight contenders in the first round of voting for the leadership were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Rishi Sunak is an Indian heritage Hindu. Suella Braverman is a Buddhist whose parents emigrated from Kenya and Mauritius, Kemi Badenoch is the daughter of Nigerian parents, and Nadhim Zahawi is a Baghdad-born Kurd. Of these, Badenoch and Sunak are through to the next round. While 20 per cent of Labour MPs are from ethnic minorities, compared to 6 per cent for the Tories, only one of the five nominated candidates in the 2020 Labour leadership contest was from a minority background.
For many, this current Conservative diversity is puzzling. The Tories have struggled to shed the legacy of Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech. People of colour have until recently voted in numbers — often two-to-one — for centre-left parties. However, things are changing. In May’s local elections, while the Tories were crushed overall in London’s Labour stronghold, one borough bucked the trend: Harrow, home to the largest concentration of Indian-heritage voters in the capital.
The real revelation here is less about change in minority communities and more about the Conservative party itself. Boris Johnson’s cabinets have included more non-white members than any previous administration. One reason is that the Conservatives have worked on this for the past two decades, starting with David Cameron’s leadership deliberately fast-tracking able women and minority candidates into safe seats. Yet perhaps more important is that they have provided a friendly home for ambitious minority politicians reluctant to present themselves as perpetual victims.
The result is that many of these Tories, including Sunak and Badenoch, represent seats where fewer than 3 per cent of the electors are non-white. What Sunak, Badenoch, Zahawi and Braverman have in common, (along with Priti Patel and Sajid Javid, who didn’t make the cut) is a version of the “by-your-bootstraps” back-story beloved of the political right. Zahawi arrived as a refugee, speaking no English; Badenoch stresses that she worked her way through school and college. Several had parents who made sacrifices to buy the golden ticket into the middle classes: a public school education.
Not all took the traditional Oxford or Cambridge routes (PPE, Classics and debating) into politics: Zahawi and Badenoch studied engineering. Their Conservatism rests heavily on the virtues of Victorian reformer Samuel Smiles — hard work, self-help and above all the power of education. Every second-generation immigrant child knows the script by heart: “Get a proper qualification that will ensure steady work, and remember that in order to get half as far as everybody else you’ll have to work twice as hard and be four times as good”.
Far from being sheltered from prejudice, they will have felt its full force every day. Most of this group will have been the first of their kind to rise to prominence in largely white workplaces. Yet they don’t see white people as being inherently racist.
More positively, they evidently love their country. They are confident that Britain is the best place in Europe to live if you happen not to be white — and my own research confirms this. For the Tory grassroots, this assertion by people whose families chose to settle in the UK is the ultimate refutation of the leftwing narrative of a class-ridden, racist, backwards polity retreating into post-Brexit nostalgia.
The biggest worry for the party’s opponents is that these children of immigrants could turn out to be the future of Conservatism. Almost all population growth over the next half century will come from immigration. In time, perhaps a third of the population will be people of colour. Many new leaders are likely to emerge from minority communities. Tebbit’s assertion that values and beliefs would triumph over prejudice appears, paradoxically, close to being realised — and by the party that has always seemed least at ease with diversity.