Opinion

“No, Boris Johnson’s new cabinet is not a step forward for representation”

Priti Patel and Sajid Javid are not examples of what Asian people can achieve. This is not a great moment of representation for Asians, says writer Sarah Shaffi.

“A cabinet for modern Britain.”

What image does that phrase conjure up? Personally, I envision a group of people who are representative of the diverse country that we live in, a team not overtly dominated by one gender, social class, or ethnic background. That, truly, would be a cabinet for modern Britain.

New prime minister Boris Johnson’s cabinet, despite what his allies are reported to have said, is not that cabinet.

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Eight of its 33 members — 24% — are women. Yet women make up 51% of the population of England and Wales.

Around 64% of those who will attend cabinet went to fee-paying schools, compared to 6.5% of the general population. And of Johnson’s cabinet, 48% went to Oxford or Cambridge. In comparison, just 1% of the UK’s general population graduated from Oxbridge.

A cabinet that is wildly majority male, and majority private-school and Oxbridge educated is not, I would say, a cabinet for modern Britain.

boris johnson cabinet
Prime Minister Boris Johnson meets with his new cabinet at 10 Downing Street

There is one area, though, where Johnson’s cabinet is, on the surface at least, representative of modern Britain. The appointment of four full cabinet members (Priti Patel, Sajid Javid, James Cleverly and Alok Sharma) and two ministers who will attend cabinet (Kwasi Kwarteng and Rishi Sunak) mean that around 18% of the group are from an ethnic minority background. This is compared to 14% of the population of England and Wales who are from an ethnic minority background.

It is, if commentators are to be believed, a momentous thing. But should we look at one figure — 18% — and declare that multiculturalism has triumphed, that racism is dead, and that people from ethnic minorities have access to all the same opportunities as white people?

Maybe, but that’s only if you’re going to look at the surface statistics — that it’s the first time in history a cabinet has contained so many black and brown people, the first time we’ve had an Asian chancellor, the first time that the top two positions under the Prime Minister are held by Asian people.

A lot of people have looked at those surface achievements and moved quickly to declare that the appointment of Priti Patel as home secretary and Sajid Javid as chancellor in particular are a significant moment for Asian people. 

BBC 5 Live presenter Nihal Arthanayake tweeted that “politics aside, for Asian kids up and down the country that is a very visible example of representation”. Former Labour advisor and the editor of the Evening Standard’s The Londoner, Ayesha Hazarika, said that “representation matters in all parties & organisations”, adding that “those firsts matter even if you disagree”

Journalist Mehdi Hasan also chimed in, tweeting: “As much as I disagree with their politics, & see Boris as a bigot, I’m also the son of an Indian immigrant who faced massive racism. The symbolism of 2 Asians as Chancellor & Home Sec matters.”

I, respectfully, disagree.

priti patel
Boris Johnson has appointed Priti Patel as home secretary

Patel and Javid are not examples of what Asian people can achieve. This is not a great moment of representation for Asians. The symbolism of Patel and Javid in cabinet means nothing without substance to back it up.

Patel and Javid show the doors that are “now open to POC”, tweeted Arthanayake. I believe this simplistic view ignores the fact that what Patel and Javid’s appointments actually show is that a rejection of your cultural and religious background is key to being accepted by the establishment. Let me explain.

Representation is, as musician Nitin Sawhney said in response to Arthanayake’s tweet, about much more than skin colour. Ethnic background alone cannot inspire; to be an inspiration you also have to have integrity, success, shared values, and a host of other things. It was interesting to note that many of those who labelled Javid and Patel’s appointments as symbolic for Asian people (including Arthanayake, Hazarika and Hasan) also said that they vehemently disagreed with the pair’s politics. 

It’s puzzling to me how on the one hand Javid and Patel can be held up as examples of Asian representation, while on the other hand being condemned for what they have done in their careers and the things they stand for, when it’s those very things that have gotten them to their current positions.

Sure, Javid is happy to wheel out the line about being the son of an immigrant Pakistani bus driver when it suits him, but there’s little evidence in his day-to-day work that he cares much about people who share his ethnic and religious background. When he was home secretary, he rejected calls by the Muslim Council of Britain for an investigation into Islamaphobia in the Tory Party, citing his job as evidence that the party was not Islamaphobic (this is peak “I’m not racist, I have black friends”).

Patel is not much better. She has voted against banning the detention of pregnant women in immigration jails, and she supported Theresa May’s hostile environment policies, which led to the Windrush scandal. Patel and Javid have voted for stronger enforcement of immigration rules and a stricter asylum system (rules that would have meant their parents probably would never have been allowed into the country). What’s more, Patel was sacked as international development secretary in 2017 for breaching the ministerial code over unauthorised meetings with Israeli politicians.

Patel and Javid’s new political positions don’t show that Asian people can rise to power by integrating. Rather, they say that they can rise to positions of power by their proximity to whiteness and by assimilating – by taking on the characteristics and views of the dominant culture, in this case those of the Tory Party and the political right wing. The pair subscribe to racist policies, policies which have hurt and are still hurting Asian people and, more widely, people of colour.

We are starved for representation, but we cannot hold Patel and Javid up to young people as evidence of what Asian people can achieve if we’re not also willing to endorse to young people the paths they took to those achievements.

It’s hypocritical to call this representation, when it’s no more than skin-deep.

Images: Getty

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