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Britain becomes non-white

The new Wales First Minister, Vaughan Gething

Nobody planned it, hardly anybody realised it was happening, and suddenly there it was — done. In the space of less than two years, the entire senior leadership of Great Britain has become non-white.

I’m choosing my words carefully here, because the country as a whole is called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It contains four nations, and one of them, Northern Ireland, still has a white person running the government. She is a Catholic woman, which is a double first, but Michelle O’Neill is indisputably white.

However, on the island of Great Britain (England, Wales and Scotland), it has been a clean sweep.

Humza Yousaf, a Muslim born in Scotland of Punjabi descent, succeeded Nicola Sturgeon as the leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) just a year ago. Since the SNP is the governing party in Scotland, that automatically made him first minister too. (“First minister” is the title of heads of government in the “devolved” nations.)

Six months before that Rishi Sunak, a Hindu of Indian heritage born in Southampton, became the prime minister of the whole country. (England contains more than four-fifths of the entire UK population, but it does not have an exclusive national government of its own, so Sunak is all England has by way of a national leader.)

Finally, on March 20, Vaughan Gething — born in Zambia 50 years ago to a Zambian mother and a Welsh father and brought to Wales at the age of two — became the First Minister of Wales. Game set, and match.

The cherry atop that cake is the fact that the mayor of London ever since 2016 has been Sadiq Khan, a Muslim Londoner of Pakistani heritage. London contains about a fifth of the British population, and Khan is about to be re-elected to a third term by a large majority.

Obviously, there is an element of coincidence in all this. Non-white people make up only 18% of the UK population, so there may never again be four non-white people in these four posts at the same time. But it is striking that hardly anybody noticed until the process was nearly complete — and when it did happen, almost nobody was upset.

It’s hard to explain why this has happened in the UK, because in most respects, it is a political disaster area. The Conservative government led by Rishi Sunak knows in its heart that it is going to lose the forthcoming national election by a landslide. Thrashing around in despair, some of the party’s leading members have turned nasty indeed.

The party’s former deputy chair, Lee Anderson, gave a splendid example of that last month: “I don’t actually believe that the Islamists have got control of our country,” he said, “but what I do believe is they have got control of Khan, and they have got control of London. Khan has given our capital city away to his mates.”

Some of Anderson’s fellow Conservatives defend him by saying that he is not racist, just Islamophobic, as if that excused his behaviour. In the end, he was expelled from the party, but the question remains: how can a party with people like that in it preside over a country that is undergoing such a radical transformation? For Anderson is certainly not alone.

Early last week, it was revealed that the Conservative Party’s biggest donor, Frank Hester, had declared his undying hatred of Diane Abbott, who 37 years ago was the first black woman elected to the UK parliament.

She is still in parliament, and Hester can’t stand her: “You just see Diane Abbott on the TV and you are just like, I hate, you just want to hate all black women because she is there ... I think she should be shot.” This caused much outrage and uproar, of course.

Rishi Sunak eventually said that Hester was “racist and wrong” — but refused to reject Hester’s money (about US$12 million last year and already another US$6 million this year) because it amounts to about one-quarter of all donations to the Conservative Party and there is a national election coming this autumn.

And by the way, Diane Abbott herself is currently suspended by the Labour Party for saying that Jewish, Irish and Traveller people are not subject to racism “all their lives”, whereas Black people are. (No, I don’t want to enter that minefield either.)

The United Kingdom has not turned into a colour-blind paradise where everybody lives happily ever after. Far from it. The claim that it is the best (or rather, the least bad) place to be a black person in Europe may be correct, but that is hollow praise.

Nevertheless, this really is a remarkable moment, and all the more so for the fact that it was not some officially ordained goal or programme. It just sort of happened.

  • Dyer is a London-based independent journalist. His new book is titled The Shortest History of War.

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