The new SNP leader is an example of the UK's strength
Welcome to racist, Terf Island Britain, where a practising Hindu is Prime Minister and a practising Muslim is now on his way to becoming First Minister of Scotland. For all Britain’s problems today — and there are many, no doubt still including racism in parts of our national life — it is hard not to marvel at the country’s emergence as perhaps the most successful multiethnic democracy on earth. Even more marvellous than this, however, is how little anybody seems to care.
When Rishi Sunak was elected Prime Minister last year, his elevation seemed to throw some commentators off guard, particularly those in the US. For those like Trevor Noah, for example, who had spent so long likening Brexit to Donald Trump, it seemed the only way to make sense of Sunak’s election was to claim it had sparked a non-existent “backlash”. Today, however, the election of 37-year-old Humza Yousaf as the first person of colour to lead the Scottish National Party has caused a similar level of indifference, just as Sadiq Khan’s did in London. When it comes to Yousaf, what people really care about is not his ethnicity but whether he will be successful in his bid to break up the UK.
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Herein lies one of the great challenges of covering modern Britain today. In many respects, the country is in a terrible state. As the polling expert John Curtice has observed, Britain is now a place where taxes are high and public services terrible. In large part this is because the country’s economic performance has been so poor for so long that the effects are starting to be felt across the board. On top of this, a little under half of the Scottish population currently wants to secede, Northern Ireland exists in a state of near-permanent political crisis, and the Brexit revolution has yet to settle on an obvious political and economic strategy backed by a settled majority in Westminster. There is a feeling of national stasis sapping the kind of energy a country needs to drive itself forward.
And yet, despite it all, there are also plenty of other indicators that suggest Britain is doing, well, okay. Economic growth is not disastrous, just disappointingly average; the years of turmoil and division that gripped the country from 2016 seem to be coming to an end; and relations with neighbouring countries are improving once again.
Perhaps most importantly of all there remains a heavy liberal consensus which anchors the country throughout all its various storms. No one, for example, thinks the election of Rishi Sunak or Humza Yousaf risks the kind of angry white backlash that Barack Obama blames for Donald Trump’s election. Britain today is just not in a state of violent upheaval like France, near-revolutionary torment like Israel, or angry national division like the US. Whisper it, but it may be on the road to becoming boring again.
If there is a backlash to Sunak or Yousaf it will not be directed at their race, but at their politics: to Sunak’s Toryism and Yousaf’s constitutional radicalism (or social liberalism). And if anyone is to benefit from the fierce reaction to their politics, it will be Sir Keir Starmer — the most centrist of politicians. One great irony of Humza Yousaf’s election, then, is that while his stated political goal is the disintegration of the UK, he might well be an example of its strength.