Liz Truss has appointed the most ethnically diverse Cabinet in British history, with black and Asian politicians holding all of the Great Offices of State for the first time.
To have half a dozen black and Asian members of the Cabinet is a remarkable acceleration of progress, certainly in my adult lifetime, and particularly in the last decade. When I voted in a General Election eight days after my 18th birthday in 1992, there were six ethnic minority MPs out of 650. It would be another decade before the first Black Cabinet minister took office, and no British Asian served in the British Cabinet until as late as 2010.
Yet the pace of change over the last decade means this Cabinet already feels like a new norm in British politics.
Kwasi Kwarteng is Britain’s first Black Chancellor, Yet ethnic minority Chancellors – four in four years – have become like London buses these days. People will be less interested in Kwarteng’s Eton and Cambridge education, or his ethnicity, than what he can do about energy bills and rising inflation.
That James Cleverly is our first Black Foreign Secretary feels a bit more significant to me. This might feel like a new story about Britain to international audiences.
Cleverly is the mixed race son of a nurse from Sierra Leone and a white British father. He first went to Sierra Leone at around nine years old, telling the BBC Descendants podcast that, having only known the diaspora in London, he was taken aback to see the poverty of the country. That Sierra Leone and Freetown – ‘it felt to me almost like Britishness out of place’ – were both ‘the products of slavery, and the attempts of the British to make some good from that evil’ made him sceptical of accounts which attempt to unravel outside impositions from authentic local culture.
As a mixed race Briton, Cleverly may have a distinct opportunity to help find a less binary way to think about the journey that we have all been on. Since it is Labour’s David Lammy who will scrutinise Cleverly’s efforts to set out how Britain finds its new place in a post-Brexit world, it is clear that ethnic diversity in British politics is a cross-party reality. Both can help shift the arguments for this next generation.
My own father came to this country a week after Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, which was about why he should not come, or should be persuaded to go home if he did. For a generation, the riposte to Powellism was the novelist Ambalavaner Sivanandan’s pithy aphorism: ‘we are here because you were there’. Post-war immigration was the product of colonialism, so this was a necessary response to the amnesia of empire that underpinned the ‘send them back’ slogans.
But if ‘we are here because you were there’ answered the question ‘who let you in anyway’, that should have been an argument by, for and about the first generation of British migrants. For the second generation – the Cleverlys, the Lammys and the Katwalas – the children of migrants now staking a birthright claim to a shared British identity, it should be decisively settled.
After all, next year marks the 75th anniversary of the Windrush docking at Tilbury. We are now in the third and fourth generation of post-war modern multi-ethnic Britain. Yet the ‘we are here because you were there’ mindset still persists in some corners of society. That would seem to leave us stuck with ‘them and us’ foundations – majority versus minority – with our modern diversity cast as a post-imperial form of retribution or reparation. Those are shaky foundations on which to build a common citizenship, a shared identity and a sense of the ‘new us’ that we have become.
Whether it is useful for a Foreign Secretary to give an account of Britain’s contemporary values and vision, and how that relates to the many legacies of our past, is not a substantively different question for James Cleverly than it was for Liz Truss, Boris Johnson, David Miliband or Robin Cook.
So I wonder if Cleverly’s role as Britain’s lead ambassador to the world, and Lammy’s efforts to set out Labour’s agenda, can give them distinct opportunities to help us understand this story about how we, the British, became the people that we are today.
We are all products of the history of empire and decolonisation – even if it is more visibly obvious for some of us than others. None of us were directly responsible for the actions of our ancestors, whatever their roles, nor can any of us change the past.
Yet to be a nation is to have a responsibility for what we inherit. So what we do share is a responsibility for how we choose to live with our past today. At home, this includes what we try to remember and forget about it – and whether the stories that we teach to new generations can include all of the aspects of how we got here.
That includes, abroad, the question of what our past means for our future relationships with others we have been involved with, especially in the Commonwealth and beyond, and what mutual partnerships we may now want to forge, on more equal terms, today.
We are here because we were there.
What could our new Foreign Secretary sharing that insight mean for modern Britain’s place in the world?
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