Growing up, I rarely saw people who looked like me occupying important political positions. Minorities were far more likely to be represented in sport or entertainment than in real positions of power. But in 2019, there are more high-profile politicians from such backgrounds than ever – Sajid Javid, Chuka Umunna, Priti Patel, Sadiq Khan to name just four. So why, to me, doesn’t this actually feel like progress?
When Khan won the London mayoral election as the Labour candidate in 2016, Sajid Javid tweeted: “From one son of a Pakistani bus driver to another, congratulations.” This seemed at the time like a touching message across party lines. Yet today it feels different.
In spring 2018, the Windrush scandal broke, which touched a nerve throughout the country and rocked the Conservative party. In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph at the height of the scandal, Javid said it felt close to home: “I thought that could be my mum … my dad … my uncle … it could be me.” The following morning it was announced that he had been chosen to replace Amber Rudd as home secretary. He may have earned the promotion but, in a period when the Tories were being trashed for carrying out racist policies, it obviously served the party to appoint Britain’s first Asian and first Muslim home secretary.
Within weeks he had rejected a request by the Muslim Council of Britain for an independent inquiry into allegations of Islamophobia within the Tory party. “The Muslim Council of Britain does not represent Muslims in this country,” he said. “We don’t deal with the MCB.” I remember wondering whether Javid thought that he represented Muslims in this country better than the MCB.
While landmark achievements for ethnic minorities can symbolise progress in terms of equality, meaningful representation matters more. Of course, it’s important for people from diverse backgrounds to see reflections of themselves in positions of power, but it’s what these individuals do with their power that really counts.
In October last year, and with little done to change the hostile environment that led to the Windrush scandal, Javid addressed the Tory party conference. “So, what does the Conservative party offer a working-class, son-of-an-immigrant kid from Rochdale?” he asked his audience. “You made him home secretary.” As if one person of colour in office undoes years of racist policymaking that has damaged and traumatised the lives of thousands of British people. On Javid’s watch chartered flights deporting long-term UK residents to Jamaica have restarted in what families describe as a “double punishment”. The hostile environment remains hostile and Javid is its enthusiastic enforcer.
Worse was to come. When Shamima Begum was interviewed at a camp in northern Syria last month I struggled to feel sympathy for her. The fact she was 15 when she left Britain made the story extremely sad but I certainly didn’t think someone who had voluntarily joined a jihadist militant group should be “rescued”. I felt that she should be put on trial in the UK.