Let me tell you a story. It’s of a young person with nothing but a few pennies in their pocket and a dream in their heart. They most likely hail from a country decimated by Britain in the past, and arrive to the shores of Great Britannia to make a better life for themselves and their future families.
They graft, they suffer, they toil. They endure racist abuse on these supposedly gold-paved streets. Swastikas painted on corner shops and racist abuse outside their home. But they eventually make it. They work hard enough to forge a new life here and they have children who become as British as afternoon tea. Children, as it happens, who now want to become our next prime minister.
It’s all very touching, isn’t it? Concrete proof that Britain is such a shining meritocracy that it transcends barriers of race, nationality and class. Your skin colour, accent and parents’ jobs don’t matter. If you simply work hard enough in our great nation, you can make it.
Except this isn’t true. And a prime minister with a brown face or a foreign name will do nothing to change this.
Britain is more harshly and irreparably divided than ever. It is a land of hostility rather than opportunity for the poor, the marginalised and the disenfranchised. And who are the most recent architects of this division? The very politicians who are now throwing their hats in the ring to be the country’s next leader, vowing to do something about the systemic disparity they played a part in entrenching until precisely five minutes ago.
These campaign videos of MPs with accents that could rival the Queen’s talking about their grandparents’ and parents’ struggle to integrate and excel as though it amounts to some kind of achievement on their part do nothing to inspire me – even though their families’ stories mirror my own.
And speeches about rising from being the son of a brown-skinned bus driver to the MP of a white, wealthy home county elicit far more than an eye-roll from me, as a fellow child of a brown-skinned bus driver.
Here’s the thing. Cloaking yourself, your privilege, your private education and Oxbridge degree, your connections and billionaire friends (or spouse) with the language of identity politics isn’t the inspiring story of meritocracy our would-be prime ministers seem to think it is. It is an insidious attempt to coopt the legitimate struggle of immigrants in order to win points for relatability and diversity with potential voters.
No doubt some will point to the almost exclusively brown line-up of potential future prime ministers as a signifier of the party’s diversity and the nation’s cosmopolitanism. In fact, I’ve already seen tweets attesting to the fact. But these people are privileged beyond measure and their policies will (and have) made life hell for other ethnic minorities. Hiding behind their brown skin does nothing to counteract the entrenched and manufactured disadvantage facing marginalised people in the UK today – or their part in orchestrating it.
What does it matter if your grandma migrated from India or your father from Pakistan? If your family fled Iraq or hails from Nigeria? If, under your party’s government, the most vulnerable people with a legal right to claim asylum, who have already risked their children’s lives crossing a deadly ocean to safety, would be deported across the world?
What does the hue of your skin or the passport your great-grandfather carried matter if you push economic policies that plunge millions into poverty, disproportionately impacting communities of colour? What does a black or brown face in No 10 matter if structural inequalities continue to grow, and what is a more sinister notion than a prime minister whose heritage lies in countries once colonised by Britain describing that very atrocity as bringing “good things”?
These are politicians who celebrate the structures that allowed their grandparents to come and make a home here whilst presiding over policies that ensure current migrants and refugees to this country can never do the same. If it didn’t have such serious, devastating real-life consequences, the hypocrisy would be laughable.
What is admirable about the origin stories of those who will lift up the ladder behind them, kicking off people on the rungs below with their expensive designer shoes? What was so different about these politicians’ ancestors – people who wanted nothing more than a good life for their family – from those they condemn to fester in migration centres today?
To keep up to speed with all the latest opinions and comment, sign up to our free weekly Voices Dispatches newsletter by clicking here
It is clear that the swathe of identity politics that has gripped the Conservative Party of late is short-lived and insincere. After all, the line-up of future leaders is more than willing to identify as unashamedly multicultural when it means conveniently sugarcoating their billionaire status or extreme right-wing politics, but are deafeningly silent when it means representing and supporting the communities they claim to be part of.
Where was Rishi Sunak’s concern for ethnic minority communities disproportionately impacted by the fiscal policies he ratified? Or Sajid Javid’s outrage over Tory Islamophobia? And, Etonian mates and multi-million-pound empires aside, if those vying for the leadership are so very concerned about the marginalised communities they claim to be card-holding members of, then why are so many of them more interested in “woke wars” and pronouns than poverty or systemic inequality?
Chances are, in a few months’ time, there may be a brown face in No 10 and some will see it as a victory. But when mothers struggle to feed their children over the summer holidays, or public sector workers fail to make ends meet on their stagnated wages, or when refugees find themselves chartered on a half-a-million pound flight to Rwanda, I doubt any of them will be relieved it’s a brown face rather than another white Etonian behind their state-sanctioned suffering.