Ed West Ed West

Why the Tories are more diverse than Labour


‘The candidates fighting to replace Boris Johnson as Conservative party leader and Britain’s prime minister reflect the country’s rich diversity,’ the England-hating New York Times put it earlier this week, through gritted teeth, ‘with six having recent ancestors hailing from outside Europe.’ 

It might seem initially curious that it’s the Conservatives who are so ethnically diverse. In British politics the realignment over Brexit caused identity to replace economics as the crunch issue, so that the gap between Labour and Tory voters on the issues of immigration and diversity has significantly grown, even if immigration’s salience has declined and remains low.

Yet despite this, the British right has become in some ways more diverse than the left, at least at the top. Among the candidates to be prime minister were the last three chancellors of the exchequer, Sajid Javid, Rishi Sunak and Nadhim Zahawi, all of Asian or Middle Eastern descent. Javid previously ran the Home Office, in 2019 handing over that great office of state to Priti Patel.

Diversity in government is historically less common in democracies than it is in empires, where minorities were often found in the court of Byzantium, Moorish Spain or Ottoman Turkey. In Zahawi’s native Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s foreign secretary was a Christian, but that was precisely because Tariq Aziz could never take his place. Yet Zahawi as a Muslim could have become ruler of Britain; he might still get another bite, judging by the turnover of Tory PMs.

Democracies have historically been far more homogenous in composition, and where they are multicultural, voters tend to align along semi-ethnic lines, although rarely in a clear-cut way. In the United States, polarisation exists on the dimensions of density, marital status, religion and education, but as the US has become more diverse the percentage of whites voting Republican has crept up; in 2016 it became significant enough to elect a populist who appealed to white fears of lost status. Yet it wasn’t that straightforward, and Trump’s vote share among minorities slightly increased in 2020.

That’s partly because alignment over identity doesn’t entail whites vs the rest of the world, in a way that both white nationalists and progressives imagine, but a more complicated overlap that pushes many minorities to the right; or at least, away from the left.

Just as democracy and liberalism are not always ideal bedfellows, neither are multiculturalism and liberalism

A sign of things to come was Labour’s loss of Harrow council in May, the one shining light of hope for the Tories in London, and seen as a symptom of Indian disaffection with the people’s party.

Pinner in Harrow is one of the most pleasant places in Greater London, a lovely English suburb populated by upper-middle-class Asians, a Gujarati Richard Curtis film. And Gujaratis are examples of what Amy Chua described as ‘market-dominant minorities’ in her book World on Fire, with Gujarati names consistently turning up on rich lists and the alumni of top schools and universities.

Market-dominant minorities, in Chua’s analysis, are ethnic groups involved in trade who come to enjoy disproportionate wealth, and often dominance in areas like education and property – and as a result historically suffer persecution.

Members of market-dominant minorities often feel a great deal of loyalty to imperial rule, because when imperial forces withdraw the majority turn on them. Young Farrokh Bulsara’s family had a portrait of the Queen in their Hounslow home because, once the British left Zanzibar, they were soon forced out by the African majority. In Austro-Hungary Jews were extremely loyal to the Habsburg rulers, who for centuries had given them protection; when the Habsburgs were pushed out, their world soon fell apart.

In the former British colonies of east Africa, Asians were recruited to build railways and run the administration, eventually forming a typical market-dominant minority. When the British exited, post-colonial leaders began to beat the nationalist drum, and soon the Asians’ property was stolen and many were expelled (Idi Amin literally had a dream in which God told him to expel the Asians, and decided that dreams can come true).

Of the 15 Asian Tory MPs elected at the last election, five are of Ugandan or Kenyan origin, including Priti Patel, Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman, the latter considered the torchbearer of the right in this week’s contest.

Patel is of Gujarati descent, and some years back it was estimated that a Patel was one hundred times more likely than a Smith to be a millionaire, the modern-day equivalent of a drop of Huguenot blood being worth a thousand pounds.

The Home Secretary’s background has often invited some fairly bizarre and unfair criticism, one being that her own family wouldn’t have been able to arrive here using her criteria (many of my ancestors arrived on longships, and I’m pretty sure they would fail the Home Office interview). Yet looking at the history of the empire, and of post-colonial rule, it doesn’t seem strange that a Patel might not desire demographic anarchy in her home.

Neither is it strange that many non-whites might not be particularly attracted to the mood music of Labour, which is influenced by American ideas of ‘equity’. Equity means equality of outcomes, which underneath the platitudes boils down to the avaricious zero-sum idea that ‘we are poor because they are rich’; it is the undercurrent behind every vicious outbreak of communal violence against minorities, who are seen as unfairly gaining an advantage by profiting from trade. White Britons, who have no family or historical experience of being a minority, might find Fanonism – a belief in violent anti-colonial revolution – romantic and rebellious, but the reality is usually grim.

Just as democracy and liberalism are not always ideal bedfellows, neither are multiculturalism and liberalism, and Labour as the party of multiculturalism has lost a part of its soul to its electoral calculations. It is why British Jews voted Conservative in overwhelming numbers at the last two elections, part of a trend that predates Corbyn, although accelerated by him. The overwhelming push has been Labour’s increasing dependency on Muslim voters in a number of constituencies, which has meant recruiting activists and even candidates with virulently anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic views. They are on the left because they are opposed to imperialism, and they are the sort of ‘anti-imperialists’ every minority dreads.

Elsewhere in the British empire, independence for Nigeria led to an unsuccessful push for independence by the Igbo, a group sometimes called the ‘Jews of west Africa’, an analogy many take pride in. Failed by Britain, Biafra lost the war and large numbers of Igbo emigrated to the United States, while Nigeria’s other main market-dominant minority, the Yoruba, were much more likely to head to the former colonial power. Yoruba-speakers today have among the highest average GSCE results of any ethnic group in England.

So although African-Caribbean voters heavily lean towards Labour, and the Windrush tradition forms a core part of modern Labour identity, it is not surprisingly that the first British black prime minister may be a Yoruba woman in the form of Kemi Badenoch, as the Conservatives increasingly become the party of market-dominant minorities.

Contrary to the Fanonist view held by progressives, Badenoch has in the past said:

I don’t care about colonialism because [I] know what we were doing before colonialism got there. They came in and just made a different bunch of winners and losers. There was never any concept of ‘rights’, so [the] people who lost out were old elites not everyday people.

That is something a white Conservative MP might struggle to articulate, and it is noticeable that today the black and Asian Tory candidates are very much on the right of the party, with Braverman pledging to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights so that immigration can be better controlled. In contrast, Penny Mordaunt supported gender self-identification and wrote a book which condemned white privilege.

As the Roman empire collapsed, it was often the sons and grandsons of Germanic kings who cared most about its ideals and its survival, perhaps better understanding what the alternative was. Those of old Roman stock had just stopped believing in Rome. So it is today, with the strongest torchbearers of Toryism now of immigrant-descent, the ones who truly care about its ideals and survival.

This article first appeared on the Wrong Side of History Substack.