Yousaf and Sunak … politics is making progress but society must catch up

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

As Rishi Sunak called Humza Yousaf to congratulate the new SNP leader, dozens of South Asian family WhatsApp groups shared memes asking whether the British Indian prime minister and the Scottish Pakistani first minister would be negotiating the partition of Britain.

Yousaf, as first minister of Scotland, is the first Muslim national leader in any western democracy of predominantly Christian heritage. The image of Yousaf leading prayers as he and his family broke their Ramadan fast, on his first night at the official Bute House residence, was warmly received, except by a surly fringe. Some noted that his Presbyterian rival, Kate Forbes, may have had a very different response to praying publicly.

This Scottish leadership election was unusual in the attention paid to religion, contrasting with a remarkable lack of attention to Sunak’s Hindu faith. Given how close the final result was – 52% to 48% – Forbes’s mishandling of fierce scrutiny over how she would handle clashes of conscience and equality law probably cost her this election. But that she came so close surely proves that she has not been excommunicated from public life. The census also showed that all faiths, including Christianity, are minority faiths now. We should strive to treat the followers of all faiths and none equitably.

King Charles, as an instinctive multiculturalist, will find it serendipitous to have acquired, in six short months, both a Hindu prime minister of the UK and a Muslim first minister of Scotland to invite to witness his being crowned by an Anglican archbishop in Westminster Abbey next month.

So why has Britain become such a pace-setter for ethnic and faith diversity at the top, in a way that cuts across our political tribes? The reasons are rooted in our long history – but each advance has depended on action to unlock that potential.

Being British was the civic identity of a multinational state for three centuries. Ethnic minorities from Commonwealth backgrounds have felt a strong stake in British identity. When that has been challenged, the response was often to double down, deploying the argument that the racists and rejectionists need to learn some of this country’s history.

This coronation year coincides with the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the Windrush in 1948, the “origins moment” for how postwar migration forged a multi-ethnic Britain. Yet there were four decades of absence: ethnic minorities had next to no public voice as debates raged about their very presence in Britain. Pioneering race relations acts were passed by all-white parliaments.

To have ethnic minority MPs in a parliamentary democracy, it is not enough for political parties to want to be fair to hopeful candidates. They need to believe that voters will be too. Exaggerated pessimism about public prejudice was a brake on change well into this century. To have ethnic minority national leadership sets a higher bar. These are macro-symbolic roles, so it depends on minorities being seen as fully part of the national “us”, equally capable of representing everyone. This is unlikely to happen if social relationships between those from majority and minority groups run along “them and us” lines of mutual mistrust. And if progressives see ethnic minority politicians as representatives of minority communities first and foremost, that too could prove a barrier to national leadership.

The pace of recent change shows that a politics of fairer chances requires active leadership. When Barack Obama was elected US president, there had yet to be a single British Asian cabinet minister. Different groups have different experiences. Muslim political integration in Britain is undoubtedly a response to the pressure and scrutiny of the two decades after 11 September. Yousaf has spoken about how his own experience of prejudice after 9/11, when he was 16 and one of the few Muslim students at his independent school, sparked his interest in politics.

There were just two Muslim MPs in 2001, yet 19 were elected in 2019, a majority of whom are women. This surge of British Asian leadership comes before Britain has seen a black party leader. It partly reflects demographics – Asians make up a tenth of the population, black Britons 4% – but it may reflect contrasting group reputations and stereotypes too.

No FTSE 100 firm has yet promoted a British-born ethnic minority employee to the top job

We should be clear about what more diversity at the top will not automatically achieve. We have more open elites – by ethnicity and faith, gender and sexuality – primarily for those with the educational and professional credentials of the existing establishment.

More diversity in politics might see more polarisation on race, with the right finding greater confidence to contest the left’s previous dominance. Asian and black politicians can choose to be bridgers or culture warriors in the media and politics, just as their white colleagues can. So whether diversity leads to policy change depends on the choices made by governments. Sunak’s bulging in-tray makes him unlikely to give race as much priority as Theresa May or David Cameron did.

While national politics has set the pace, there should be pressure to emulate that elsewhere. How can newsrooms and lobby journalists keep pace with the ethnic diversity of the Commons? Despite a succession of ethnic minority chancellors, no FTSE 100 firm has yet promoted a British-born ethnic minority employee to the top job. Progress in politics sits in stark contrast to what Louise Casey’s review of the Met police shows about how badly policing has got stuck. The charity sector, too, lags behind, struggling to turn anxious conversations about diversity deficits into action to address them.

Every institution of economic and cultural power must find more confidence about how to make the increasing diversity of Britain an everyday norm at all levels. It should not just be politics leading this race to the top.

• Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society

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