The Tory Contest

1 September 2022

The Tory Contest

A marker in racial progress.

By John Watson

Photo of John Watson

We all love a bit of sneering and if we happen to be a newspaper there is money in it too. That is why the media likes to focus on the bad rather than the good. If the Treasury managed to invent a magic money tree the press would be full of articles about how it spoiled the view.

The contest for the leadership of the Conservative Party has given plenty of scope for carping. Why should a party membership which does not reflect the public decide who is to be Prime Minister? Why should 16-year-olds be able to vote when they are regarded as too young to participate in General Elections? Shouldn’t dogs and cats have a vote? Isn’t it unfair that Rishi Sunak, the MPs choice, is likely to lose? And all the rest of it.

Actually it is the last of those questions which is the stupidest because it misrepresents the facts. It is true that Sunak harvested 38.3% of the votes from members as against Truss (31.6%) and Mordaunt (29.3%) but by no stretch of the imagination did that make him the MPs’ choice. Mordaunt and Truss were both candidates from the more doctrinaire side of the party and Sunak is far more centrist. Had there been a further round, Mordaunt’s voters would have moved to Truss, making her the MP’s favourite. Polls from Politico[i] show declared MPs’ preferences as 123 for Sunak and 130 for Truss.

But has the press been quick to point out that party preferences and Conservative MPs’ preferences seem to be in line? No, of course it hasn’t. There is nothing to sneer at there. Better far to focus on a non-existent disparity and give readers something to be incensed about over their breakfast tables.

With reporting like this, it is no surprise that the good news has been ignored and good news there surely is. If ever you wanted evidence that we are not an “institutionally racist” country have a look at the racial profile of the last five Tory candidates. Sunak, a Hindu and racially Indian, is in the last two and Badenoch, of Nigerian parentage, was in the final four and nobody seems to have given much thought to that. Who would have believed that things would move so far when Enoch Powell was making his “Rivers of Blood” speech back in the late 1960s? He was wrong. I am glad he was wrong and I imagine that if he was still alive he would be glad of it too.

It does not follow, of course, that racism is “over” in the UK or indeed that there are not Conservative party members who have voted on racial grounds, but the silence on the issue is deafening and the focus has remained on policy and capacity rather than on the genetic background of the candidates.

That isn’t entirely a new phenomenon.  The Victorians voted in Disraeli, although a Christian clearly Jewish and flamboyantly Jewish at that, in 1868 and 1874; but things were rather different then as women had no vote and the male franchise was subject to property qualifications; so the success of minorities in breaking through the glass ceilings of politics is a tangible sign of what has been achieved. And of course it is mirrored by similar success in other areas: business, the arts, the professions.  The tide of multiculturalism is a rising one and as it becomes more and more evident that it represents a more efficient use of the labour pool it will become increasingly self-sustaining and inevitable.  So what are the pressures which drive and oppose it?

In the political arena one of the drivers has clearly been the emergence of highly-educated politicians from immigrant backgrounds.  Badenoch has degrees from Sussex and Birkbeck and Sunak read PPE at Oxford and was a Fulbright scholar at Stanford. Both speak with the received pronunciation which the public is used to hearing from its leaders. The result? That the public feels that it knows and understands them. When you keep in mind that racial prejudice is generally based on fear driven by suspicion and mistrust (why otherwise would it thrive most in areas where there is no immigrant population at all?) it becomes obvious why this breaks down the barriers which might otherwise exist.  First point then, increasing the proportion of immigrants who – whatever the colour of their skin – sound, think and speak like the host population must tend to remove division.

The second point is the other way round. Emphasising difference will leave parts of the community believing that they do not understand each other and that will lead to distrust and dislike. Each time someone publicly pins their failure on the fact of the country being institutionally racist, race relations take a backward step – even where they really have suffered prejudice. That doesn’t mean that we should go all Panglossian and start hiding racism where it occurs.  It does mean, however, that we should call out those who use it as a cheap excuse for their personal failings.

And here we come back to the press. I do not think for a moment that if Mr Sunak loses the leadership contest he will make any attempt to blame racism among Conservative members.  He is simply not that sort of man.  But I would be surprised if the media miss the angle – after all what would please left wing readers more than the suggestion that all Conservative party members were racists?  If that happens I hope the rest of us will be angry enough to contradict them.     

[i] As at 28 August

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