Not long ago, black Conservatives would invoke the name Windrush in a positive context, as evidence of how far the Tories had come since the bad old days of overt racism. “When Empire Windrush arrived at the docks of Tilbury … there was a clear split. Labour embraced migrants … the Tories, not so much … Things are changing,” said one young black Tory in safer times, in 2015.
Most of the black Tories I know are of African heritage and were raised with values that emphasise enterprise, faith, family and social conservatism. (For me, the conundrum has never been why there are black Conservatives at all, but why there aren’t more.) They have adopted a worldview in which racism – both within British society and the Tory party in particular – is largely a thing of the past. This has enabled them to create a mental divide between the party’s social and economic values, which they like, and its dodgy history on race. Their emphasis has been on personal responsibility and enterprise, rather than structural barriers to advancement.
The last two Conservative prime ministers both made bold statements about their commitments toward eradicating these barriers. David Cameron, branding it “disgraceful” that a young black girl had to change her name to Elizabeth before she was invited to job interviews, for example; and Theresa May, in her stance on stop and search, and the launch of her race audit.
But the struggle to reconcile those warm words with the Windrush scandal has, perhaps not surprisingly, sent my black Tory acquaintances into a bout of soul-searching. “Better inside the tent looking out than outside the tent looking in,” one – a successful banker – told me. He then, somewhat mournfully, sent me the Guardian article that Margaret Thatcher’s former speechwriter Derek Laud wrote on why the treatment of the Windrush generation made him glad he had left the party. Another black Tory told me, as if trying to convince herself: “Imagine how much worse it would be if there were no black people in the party.”
I can’t imagine that, actually. How much worse could it be? We have a foreign secretary who has a long and distinguished track record of the crudest racist remarks – and the comments he published as editor of the Spectator about Caribbean people “multiplying like flies” are particularly painful to read in the light of current events. We have a litany of racist comments by activists, councillors and MPs. The last Conservative London mayoral campaign was so toxic that other Tories sought to distance themselves from it. And even when alerted to the Windrush injustices, May’s instinct was not to meet Caribbean leaders.
Yes, there has been racism in the Labour party too, and it is currently – as has been widely reported – battling antisemitism in its ranks. The left has had a lazy tendency to caricature black Tories as sellouts, while enjoying a historical sense of entitlement towards the black vote – an attitude that has its own imperialist connotations.Yet on the right there is a tendency to manipulate black conservatism to paper over a history of appalling racism and discrimination. Even the most conservative Conservatives have shocking stories of treatment within their own party, both at national and local level. Most do not speak about them publicly, although the former party chair Sayeeda Warsi’s rare account of the prejudice she experienced as a Muslim in the party is sobering. When a young black man close to me went to enquire about local party membership not long ago, they assumed he was there to deliver their pizza.
But politics should be about policy, not the behaviour of rogue bigots, who can be found on all sides of the political spectrum. And that’s why the Conservative track record on immigration is so hard to reconcile. The new home secretary, Sajid Javid, for example, has a well-known backstory, beloved by Conservatives, of hard-earned success after his father’s arrival in the UK with just £1 to his name. Yet this story could not happen today, because Javid’s own party would not let his father into the country.
The families of the MPs Kwasi Kwarteng, Sam Gyimah and Adam Afriyie, one or both of whose parents came, as my mother did, from Ghana having been British subjects under the empire, would – had they achieved the unlikely feat of making it into the country under today’s immigration policies – have found themselves in the nightmare of the Tories’ own hostile environment.
It’s this hypocrisy that black Conservatives, on both sides of the Atlantic, struggle to shake off. The conviction of Bill Cosby for aggravated indecent assault against one woman – though he has more than 50 accusers – is bitter justice for a man whose message was, “Do as I say, not as I do”. Cosby, like black British Tories, blamed absent black fathers, shameless single mothers, black culture and rap music – not structural racism and injustice – for America’s creation of a black underclass. Substitute Cosby’s critique of “rap” for British Tories’ critique of “grime” and it all sounds very familiar.
In the House of Commons on his first day in his new role, Javid told his shadow, Diane Abbott, that she did not have a “monopoly” on either being the descendant of migrants, or feeling anger and pain at the way some have been treated. And he’s right. But his party is fast earning itself a reputation for having a monopoly over treating British people of colour as less than British, indeed as less than human. And that will reverberate not just among people like me, who already fundamentally distrust the Tories, but many black and brown Brits who once did.