The Tory leadership race has settled one argument beyond doubt
In the 1990s and 2000s, the paucity of ethnic minority Members of Parliament was sometimes explained through the theory of “imputed racism”. According to this theory, party selectorates — the anonymous busybodies who sit on constituency associations, in this case — would reject ethnic minority candidates not because they were themselves racist, but because they thought the local voters were racist and therefore would not vote for them. High-profile defeats in supposedly safe seats, such as that of the Conservative candidate John Taylor (who later became an expense-fiddling peer) in Cheltenham in 1992, reinforced the belief among many.
Thirty years on, one of the striking features about the Conservative leadership contest is how race does, and does not, figure. Of the 11 declared candidates, six are ethnic minorities, including Rishi Sunak, the current front-runner. With Tom Tugendhat’s exit from the race, it is now a certainty that whoever becomes the next prime minister will not be a white man, something which has been accepted with great equanimity by the party membership, comprised to a great extent of, well, older white men.
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Nor can there be much talk of Conservative constituency associations imputing racism to their voters. Sunak sits for Richmond (Yorks), Badenoch for Saffron Walden, and Suella Braverman for Fareham, none of which is particularly known for their ‘vibrancy’, as the euphemism once went. All of this is even more striking given the fact that before 2010, the Conservative Party had had exactly four non-white MPs in its entire history.
Imputed racism still exists within the Conservative Party, but is today entirely directed against Labour, as in “Labour is the real racist party!” or variants thereof. Even those on the Right of the party will gleefully point out that Labour has never had an ethnic minority (or indeed a woman) leader. As Charles Moore, the prose poet of the traditional Tory base, recently wrote, “Older white people feel an almost indecent thrill to hear their own views reflected in a younger generation by people of different races.” The temptation to “own the libs” in this manner is simply too great.
But there are unspoken rules among Conservatives about how to approach race. For instance, it is fine for a candidate to talk about their family’s immigrant story, but arguing that they have a special claim to preferment because of their complexion is an automatic disqualifier. Race blindness, once a hallmark of progressive thought, now finds some of its strongest defenders on the political Right. It helps that no one thinks Boris Johnson promoted so many ethnic minority ministers because he wanted to engage in a bit of affirmative action, as opposed to the fact that they were all solid Brexiteers.
At the beginning of the leadership contest, the disgraceful Jo Maugham QC rhetorically asked Rishi Sunak in a now-deleted tweet: “Do you think the members of your Party are ready to select a brown man?” It was a shameful tweet for many reasons, but it also betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of the modern Conservative Party. Not only are they ready to select a brown man (or a black woman, for that matter), but they will take great pleasure in rubbing it in against people like Maugham and the Labour Party. It’s not quite post-racialism, but it is something.