The British Conservative Party may be 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 shaped the world as a result. To be a Conservative is to have a supremely confident and comfortable position, a certainty that your political forebears stand behind you. But there’s at least one area in which that confidence doesn’t hold: race.
For decades, the Tory brand was associated with racism—and for countless good reasons. Just a few examples: During a 1964 election, the party ran a slogan that read, “If you want a [N-word] for a neighbour, vote Labour.” In 1968, the Conservative member of Parliament Enoch Powell gave a landmark racist address dubbed the “Rivers of Blood” speech. In 1992, the local party turned on its own Black candidate for the special election in Cheltenham—needlessly losing a safe seat in the process.
This March, a government commission published a report into racial disparities in Britain, which, among many other things, absolved the country of institutional racism and suggested teaching about “the slave period not only being about profit and suffering.” The report was described the highly respected British historian and documentary-maker David Olusoga as “poisonously patronising” and “historically illiterate.” There are now demands for the government to reject the report, including condemnation from the United Nations. In the last general election, a Tory landslide, 64 percent of nonwhite voters chose Labour, over just 20 percent for the Conservatives.
The party has tried to shake off this legacy. In 2005, after three successive electoral defeats to a resurgent Labour Party, which had embraced multiculturalism, 38-year-old David Cameron became leader of the party. Cameron described himself as a “liberal Conservative,” and he set about modernizing the image of the party and reinventing the Tory brand. As part of this, and with the aim of making people “feel good about being a Conservative again,” he went on something of a diversity drive. Cameron recruited several Black and minority ethnic candidates to safe and winnable seats in the 2010 elections. One of the standout names to emerge at this election was Kwasi Kwarteng.
The Conservative Party clearly saw a future star in the 6-foot, 5-inch University of Cambridge graduate, the son of immigrants from Ghana, so much so that the party made him its standard-bearer for the 93 percent white seat of Spelthorne near London. The murmurs around the party and the press at the time positioned Kwarteng as the “Black Boris.” On the face of it, it is easy to see why: Johnson and Kwarteng have a lot in common.
They both went on King’s Scholarships to the super-elite Eton College private school, a long-term breeding ground for Conservative leaders. From there, Johnson went to the University of Oxford, Kwarteng to Cambridge—then Harvard University and then back to Cambridge for his Ph.D. But beneath the surface similarities, Kwarteng’s is a much more impressive story.
Johnson has always been a reinforcement of the norm: rich, glib, and white. Kwarteng was entirely new. Johnson is exactly the sort of person you would expect to see at Eton, at Oxbridge, being published, and in Parliament. Kwarteng was (and is) not. As a result, Johnson has been granted infinite leeway, from being rehired as a journalist after he was fired from a trainee journalist role for inventing a quote to the winking and nodding at his affairs, whereas Kwarteng has had no option but to be the best in his class—a cross most nonwhite people are forced to carry daily.
Johnson got an upper-second-class degree (the U.K. equivalent of a 3.00-3.33 GPA) at Oxford; Kwarteng got double first-class degrees (the U.K. equivalent of a 4.0 GPA) from Cambridge. Johnson lasted a single week in his first professional job at the management consultancy LEK Consulting (“Try as I might, I could not look at an overhead projection of a growth profit matrix and stay conscious” was his recollection); Kwarteng, on the other hand, stuck with the program at JPMorgan Chase (and other investment banks), ultimately becoming a financial analyst. The polish, discipline, and professionalism are as evident in Kwarteng today as the lack of them is in Johnson.
Johnson’s books and journalism are sloppy and error-prone. Kwarteng has been nothing but authoritative and insightful. Kwarteng’s seminal work, Ghosts of Empire, is a nuanced and careful work of history praised by historians and critics alike.
Kwarteng should have been a rising star when the Tories won in 2010. But he was locked out of the heart of the party, in part because he was more loyal to free market values than the party line. Notably, he was publicly critical of the potential inflationary impact of then-Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne’s signature house purchase assistance policy, even though the policy proved popular with voters. In political terms, that is today all ancient history. Kwarteng is now a senior member in the cabinet of a man he is immensely smarter, more serious, and more qualified than.
Kwarteng was born in Waltham Forest, East London, in May 1975 to Ghanaian parents who had immigrated to the United Kingdom a decade earlier. Most African immigrants in Britain spend decades in low-paid, low-status work—cleaning, security, or traffic warden jobs—while their children attend inner-city schools. In contrast, Kwarteng’s mother was a barrister and his father an economist in the Commonwealth Secretariat. Their drive, determination, and luck gave them the chance to learn how middle-class Britain actually worked and how to play the middle-class game and win. They taught their son the same lessons. (Full disclosure: My father was a friendly acquaintance of Kwarteng’s father, though I don’t know Kwarteng myself.)
Ethnic minority Tories sometimes display extreme social conservatism (especially on racial issues), as exhibited by Home Secretary Priti Patel and Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch. Patel comes from a bewildering political family—her father ran for a local election under the banner of the UK Independence Party, an organization Cameron described as “fruitcakes, loonies, and closet racists.” Badenoch picks needless clashes with anti-racism writers (labeling them segregationists in the process), used her Black History Month speech and activities to pour legal threats on the teaching of white privilege as an uncontested fact, and took to Twitter to berate a Black female journalist.
Though his voting record places him firmly on the right of the party, Kwarteng is far from a racial demagogue. He supported Brexit and Johnson from the very beginning, but his politics have been much more focused on fiscal and free market issues than social ones. He would have been at home in almost any Tory cabinet of the 20th century—apart from his Blackness. And it is clear that he’d far prefer to be known for his politics than for his race. For much of his parliamentary career, he avoided the subject of race altogether—a matter that drew mockery from Black Labour MP Dawn Butler in January 2016.
“There’s one Black Tory MP in particular. I won’t mention his name. OK, Kwasi … really doesn’t like talking to Black people in case somebody realizes he is Black,” Butler was recorded as saying. Kwarteng responded by saying Butler’s remarks were “infantile and show her ignorance and exclusively race-based approach to politics.”
Kwarteng expanded on this in an opinion piece for True Africa magazine in September 2016:
“In Westminster, the atmosphere is different. There is a consistent expectation in the media that MPs from ethnic minorities will engage with ‘black’ issues, like knife crime in London. But they never talk about the incredible appetite for entrepreneurship found among parts of the African community in Britain. It’s as if being from a particular background gives a politician a God-given right to speak on behalf of every single person from that background. This is the heart of identity politics, which has dominated the left for a couple of decades.”
It’s hard to argue with any of that. And his overarching principle was clear as day: “I am not the go-to guy for racial issues.” Kwarteng wasn’t here to heal anyone’s wounds, but he wasn’t, unlike figures such as Patel, about to rub salt in them either.
But he ceased to stand by this principle when the credibility of his party was at risk.
In 2017, reports began to surface of hundreds of Commonwealth citizens who had been wrongly detained or deported from the U.K. and denied legal rights. The Conservative-run Home Office had systematically mistreated Black Britons from the revered Windrush generation—the first group of immigrants to arrive in postwar Britain to help rebuild it (and who were the descendants of Africans enslaved by Britain in the Caribbean). As a result, Black people who had lived and worked in the U.K. legally for decades were wrongly detained, denied legal rights, denied health care, and in at least 83 cases wrongly deported from the U.K. Eleven deportees subsequently died far from the homes they’d lived in for decades.
The Conservatives needed someone to do the media rounds and explain things away. In the blink of an eye, Kwarteng went from being a conscientious objector to identity politics to becoming a field marshal on the Conservative side. He appeared on several news programs defending his party (and beleaguered then-Home Secretary Amber Rudd, who happened to be his ex-girlfriend)—each appearance less credible than the one before.
Kwarteng looked uncomfortable. In one news discussion, he lost a little composure and accused the rapper he was in discission with of trying to “play politics.” Professional racism denial was not a role he was a natural in. Or perhaps, as a historian of empire, he clearly understood the connotations of his actions.
Britain’s Black community comes from two key hubs of the British Empire: Africans in the Caribbean (otherwise known as African Caribbean people) and Africans from mainland continental Africa (principally the West African coastal nations). African Caribbean people emerged from some of the worst atrocities ever—including the slave trade. The life outcomes of African Caribbean people in the U.K. significantly trail the outcomes of their African brethren like Kwarteng, even today.
Using a Black Briton of African heritage as a shield for state-sanctioned racism against Britons from the African Caribbean community may have been good for the Conservative Party, but it was not for the British Black community, for Britain, or even for Kwarteng himself. He became a pariah.
The heavy lifting Kwarteng did for the party was not immediately rewarded with a job that met his talents. By comparison, despite being half a decade younger and a full parliamentary term less experienced than Kwarteng, Rishi Sunak, part of the 2015 parliamentary intake, was swiftly promoted through the ranks and is today the second-most powerful person in government. After the Windrush scandal, it took Kwarteng another three years of working in junior government ministerial roles before he was promoted to the cabinet in January 2021.
Alongside four other future parliamentary Tory stars, Kwarteng published the book Britannia Unchained: Global Lessons for Growth and Prosperity in 2012, which argued that in order to not slide into mediocrity, Britain should embrace a more radical approach to business and economics. The paragraph that grabbed the most attention was:
“[T]he British are among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor. Whereas Indian children aspire to be doctors or businessmen, the British are more interested in football and pop music.”
As the new secretary of state for business, energy, and industrial strategy in a post-Brexit Britain, Kwarteng is perfectly placed to steer the country in the direction of that more radical approach to business and economics and realize his apparent dream of longer working hours, later retirement, and greater productivity for and from British workers.
In January, news leaked that Kwarteng intended to do just that. Reports suggested that Kwarteng planned a full-throttle workers’ rights review that would rip up the protections previously enshrined in EU law—including the 48-hour week. Responding to the leak and the fury it created, Kwarteng tweeted: “We want to protect and enhance workers’ rights going forward, not row back on them.” Two weeks later, he scrapped the review altogether. A dream (and probably a nightmare for workers) was deferred.
The feedback from business thus far has been positive. Donations to his political operations have trickled in mainly from financial services and oil and gas companies (the latter much to the concern of environmentalists). He is liked and respected by the party’s top brass, although still somewhat invisible to the public.
Since the Windrush incident, he has quietly worked to improve his relationship and standing within the Black community by championing greater diversity in media, appearing in a video urging Black Britons to take the COVID-19 vaccine, and breaking ranks with his party to stand up to racism, but he still occasionally gives the media the red meat it wants on racial issues.
Given his potential, patience, and calculating nature, it is hard to believe that the first Black Conservative to sit at the top table of British government has reached his peak. He has plenty of room to rise—if the less qualified people above him allow it.