The British Conservative Party is possibly the most successful political movement in history. It has produced more national leaders than any other party in Britain, from Benjamin Disraeli to Winston Churchill to Boris Johnson, and thus shaped the world. To be a conservative means to be in an extremely confident and comfortable position, knowing that your political ancestors stand behind you. But there is at least one area where this trust does not exist: racing.
For decades, the Tory brand has been associated with racism – and for a myriad of good reasons. Just a few examples: during a 1964 election, the party uttered a slogan that read, "If you want an (N-word) for a neighbor, choose Labor." In 1968 Conservative MP Enoch Powell delivered a landmark racist speech known as the "Rivers of Blood" speech. In 1992, the local party opposed its own black candidate for the Cheltenham special elections – and unnecessarily lost a secure seat.
In March of this year, a government commission published a report on racial differences in Great Britain which, among other things, freed the country from institutional racism and proposed teaching about "the age of slavery not just profit and suffering". The report has been described by highly respected British historian and documentary filmmaker David Olusoga as "poisonously patronizing" and "historically illiterate". The government is now being asked to reject the report, including condemnation by the United Nations. In the last general election, a landslide in Tory, 64 percent of non-white voters voted for Labor, more than 20 percent for the Conservatives.
The party has tried to shake off this legacy. After three consecutive election defeats to a resurgent Labor Party committed to multiculturalism, 38-year-old David Cameron became party leader in 2005. Describing himself as a "liberal conservative," Cameron set out to modernize the party's image and reinvent the Tory brand. As part of it and with the aim of “making people feel good about being conservative again”, he embarked on a kind of diversity drive. Cameron recruited several black and ethnic minority candidates for safe and winning seats in the 2010 election. One of the prominent names in that election was Kwasi Kwarteng.
The Conservative Party clearly saw a future star in the 6-foot, 5-inch graduate of Cambridge University, the son of immigrants from Ghana, so much so that the party made him its standard bearer for the 93 percent white seat of Spelthorns nearby made London. The murmuring about the party and the press at the time positioned Kwarteng as the "black Boris". At first glance it is easy to see why: Johnson and Kwarteng have a lot in common.
Both received King's scholarships at Superelite Eton College's private school, a long-term breeding ground for conservative leaders. From there Johnson went to the University of Oxford, Kwarteng to Cambridge – then to Harvard University and then back to Cambridge to do his doctorate there. But among the surface similarities, Kwartengs is a much more impressive story.
Johnson has always been a reinforcement of the norm: rich, slippery, and white. Kwarteng was completely new. Johnson is exactly the kind of person you would expect at Eton, Oxbridge, the Publications and Parliament. Kwarteng was (and is) not. As a result, Johnson was given infinite leeway after being reinstated as a journalist after being fired as a journalist for inventing a quote for the wink and nod in his affairs, while Kwarteng had no choice but to be the best at its class – a cross that most non-whites have to wear on a daily basis.
Johnson received an upper second grade degree from Oxford (the British equivalent of a 3.00-3.33 GPA); Kwarteng received a double first class degree from Cambridge (the British equivalent of a 4.0 GPA). Johnson spent a week in his first professional job at management consultancy LEK Consulting ("Try as I could, I couldn't look at an overhead projection of a growth earnings matrix and stay conscious," he recalled); Kwarteng, on the other hand, stuck to the JPMorgan Chase (and other investment banks) program and eventually became a financial analyst. The glamor, discipline and professionalism are as evident in Kwarteng today as it is in Johnson.
Johnson's books and journalism are sloppy and error-prone. Kwarteng was nothing but authoritative and insightful. Kwarteng's seminal work, Ghosts of Empire, is a nuanced and meticulous work of history that has received praise from historians and critics alike.
Kwarteng should have been a rising star when the Tories won in 2010. But he was excluded from the heart of the party, also because he was more loyal to the values of the free market than to the party line. In particular, he publicly criticized the possible inflationary effects of the home-buying policy signed by then Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, although this policy proved popular with voters. Politically, that's the whole old story today. Kwarteng is now a high-ranking member of the cabinet of a man who is immensely smarter, more serious, and more qualified than.
Kwarteng was born in May 1975 in Waltham Forest, east London, to Ghanaian parents who had immigrated to Great Britain a decade earlier. Most African immigrants in the UK spend decades in low-paying, low-status work – cleaning, security, or traffic cop jobs – while their children attend inner-city schools. In contrast, Kwarteng's mother was a lawyer and his father was an economist in the Commonwealth Secretariat. Their drive, determination and luck gave them an opportunity to learn how middle class Britain actually works and how to play and win the middle class game. You taught your son the same lessons. (Full disclosure: my father was a friendly acquaintance of Kwarteng's father, although I don't know Kwarteng myself.)
Tories with ethnic minorities sometimes show extreme social conservatism (especially on racial issues), as Interior Minister Priti Patel and Gender Equality Minister Kemi Badenoch show. Patel comes from a confusing political family – her father ran for local elections under the banner of the British Independence Party, an organization that Cameron described as "pie, weirdos and racists". Badenoch takes up unnecessary clashes with anti-racism writers (calling them segregationists), uses her Black History Month speech and activities to legally threaten the doctrine of white privilege as an undisputed fact, and went on Twitter for a black one Woman berating journalist.
Although Kwarteng is firmly in the party's law based on the results of his vote, he is far from being a racist demagogue. He supported Brexit and Johnson from the start, but his policies focused much more on fiscal and free market issues than social ones. It would have been at home in almost every Tory cabinet of the 20th century – apart from its blackness. And it is clear that he would far prefer to be known for his politics than for his race. For much of his parliamentary career, he avoided the issue of race altogether – an issue that was derided in January 2016 by Black Labor MP Dawn Butler.
"There is one Black Tory MP in particular. I won't mention his name. OK, Kwasi … really doesn't like talking to black people in case someone realizes they are black," Butler was recorded. Kwarteng replied with the words "Butler's remarks are" childish and show their ignorance and their exclusively race-based approach to politics ".
Kwarteng expanded this in an opinion piece for True Africa magazine in September 2016:
“In Westminster the atmosphere is different. The media consistently expects ethnic minority MPs to address “black” issues such as knife crime in London. But they never talk about the incredible appetite for entrepreneurship that prevails in parts of the African community in Britain. It is as if the background of a particular background gives a politician a God-given right to speak on behalf of any person with that background. This is at the heart of the identity politics that has ruled the left for several decades. "
It's hard to argue with. And its overriding principle was clear: "I am not the right person to talk to about race problems." Kwarteng wasn't here to heal anyone's wounds, but unlike characters like Patel, he wasn't about to rub salt into them either.
But he stopped sticking to this principle when his party's credibility was compromised.
In 2017, reports surfaced of hundreds of Commonwealth citizens wrongly arrested or deported from the UK and denied legal rights. The conservatively-led Home Office had systematically abused the revered Windrush generation of black Britons – the first group of immigrants to arrive in Britain after the war to help rebuild (and the descendants of Africans enslaved by Britain in the Caribbean were). As a result, blacks who had lived and worked legally in the UK for decades have been wrongly detained, denied legal rights, denied health care and in at least 83 cases have been falsely deported from the UK. Eleven deportees then died far from their homes. I've lived for decades.
The Conservatives needed someone to do the media rounds and explain things. In no time at all, Kwarteng went from being a conscientious objector to identity politics and a field marshal on the conservative side. He appeared on several newscasts defending his party (and besieging then Interior Secretary Amber Rudd, who happened to be his ex-girlfriend) – each appearance was less believable than the one before.
Kwarteng looked uncomfortable. In a news discussion, he lost his composure a little and accused the rapper, with whom he disagreed, of trying to “play politics”. Professional denial of racism was not a role in which it was taken for granted. Or perhaps, as a historian of the Empire, he clearly understood the connotations of his actions.
The British Black Community originates from two important centers of the British Empire: Africans in the Caribbean (also known as the African Caribbean) and Africans from mainland Africa (mainly the West African coastal states). The people of the African Caribbean emerged from some of the worst atrocities of all time – including the slave trade. The life results of the African Caribbean in Great Britain are still far behind the results of their African brothers like Kwarteng.
Using a black Brit with African heritage as a shield against government-sanctioned racism against Brits from the African Caribbean community may have been good for the Conservative Party, but not for the British black community, for Britain, or even for Kwarteng himself. He became a pariah.
The heavy lifting that Kwarteng did for the party wasn't immediately rewarded with a job that matched his talents. By comparison, Rishi Sunak, who was part of the 2015 parliamentary operation despite being half a decade younger and a full term less experienced than Kwarteng, was quickly promoted through the ranks and is now the second most powerful person in government. After the Windrush scandal, Kwarteng spent another three years in ministerial positions in the junior government before being promoted to cabinet in January 2021.
In 2012, along with four other future Tory parliamentary stars, Kwarteng published the book Britannia Unchained: Global Lessons for Growth and Wealth, which argued that Britain should take a more radical approach to business and economics in order not to slide into mediocrity. The paragraph that got the most attention was:
“(D) The British are among the worst idlers in the world. We work the lowest hours, retire early, and our productivity is poor. While Indian children want to be doctors or business people, the British are more interested in football and pop music. "
As the new UK Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy after Brexit, Kwarteng is perfectly positioned to steer the country towards a more radical approach to business and the economy, realizing its obvious dream of longer working hours, later retirement and higher productivity for and by British workers.
In January it was revealed that Kwarteng was up to just that. According to reports, Kwarteng was planning a full throttle review of workers' rights to destroy the protections previously enshrined in EU law, including the 48-hour week. In response to the leak and the anger it caused, Kwarteng tweeted, "We want to protect and improve workers' rights in the future, not fall back on them." Two weeks later, he scrapped the rating altogether. A dream (and probably a nightmare for the workers) has been postponed.
The feedback from business so far has been positive. Donations for his political operations have mainly come from financial services and oil and gas companies (the latter, very much to the concern of environmentalists). He is liked and respected by the party's top brass players, although he is still somewhat invisible to the public.
Since the Windrush incident, he has worked quietly to improve his relationship and standing in the Black community by advocating greater media diversity, appeared in a video asking the Black Britons to stop the COVID-19 Taking vaccine and teaming up with his party to stand up on racism, but he still occasionally gives the media the red meat they want on racial issues.
Given his potential, patience, and calculating nature, it's hard to believe that the first black Conservative to head the UK government has peaked. He has plenty of room to stand up – if the less qualified people above him allow it.