Britain has its first black chancellor

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Britain has its first Black chancellorthe Exchequer (UK's chief financial minister). And in the modern-day Conservative Party, it’s really no big deal.

In one of her first acts as British prime minister, Liz Truss picked her long-time friend and close confidante Kwasi Kwarteng to manage the U.K. public finances. An MP since 2010, Kwarteng is a radical free-marketeer and former government business spokesman, born in north-east London to Ghanaian parents.

The super-smart historian and linguist, who in his Cambridge days appeared on — and won — University Challenge, a legendary British TV game show for student intellectuals, has big plans to boost growth by slashing business regulation and taxes while attempting to tackle the cost of living crisis facing Britain.

His appointment means all four of the most recent Conservative chancellors have been from ethnic minority backgrounds. Kwarteng’s immediate predecessors are Sajid Javid, born to Pakistani parents; Rishi Sunak, who is of Indian descent; and Nadhim Zahawi, who fled Iraq with his parents aged 11.

But Kwarteng is the first Black chancellor since the role was created centuries ago, and so becomes the highest serving Black politician in British history. It seems a significant landmark — though not one Kwarteng himself is expected to put much stock in. 

“He wants to be judged on the content of his character, skills and experience, rather than his race,” said one government official who has worked with Kwarteng. “He doesn’t like the identity politics stuff.”

It’s a trait shared among multiple Conservative colleagues. “What you first notice about Kwasi isn’t the color of his skin, but his great smile and booming voice,” said one Cabinet minister.

“It’s a milestone of sorts,” another minister said. “But Kwasi is a bright guy who has gotten there on merit. I don’t care that Liz is the third female prime minister, that Rishi was the first Indian chancellor, or that Kwasi is the first Black chancellor. These things are irrelevant to political discourse. The left are going to eat themselves on this stuff, and we shouldn’t allow ourselves to do the same.”

Indeed, it’s the opposition Labour Party that likes to think of itself as the party of equalities. Certainly Labour courts more support from people of ethnic minority backgrounds at elections, and has done a better job when it comes to broad representation within parliament. But to this day Labour has yet to elect a female leader of the party, and has never had a non-white leader or finance spokesperson. 

Paul Boateng, a former Labour MP who 20 years ago became the first Black Cabinet minister in Britain, said Kwarteng’s appointment “marks another important and welcome landmark in governance and diversity,” and noted that “no one party has a monopoly of good practice when it comes to issues of race and gender.”

Hero, or disappointment?

Some have high hopes for Kwarteng as a Black role model, both in the U.K. and around the world. Others dispute he would even want to be seen through such a lens, especially surrounded by a number of colleagues who are openly skeptical about the institutional nature of racial inequity in Britain. 

“Sometimes not all Black and brown senior Conservatives have wanted to acknowledge uncomfortable truths — much less wanted to do something about it,” said Simon Woolley, a crossbench peer and equalities activist who chaired a government panel on racial disparities.

“If he is strong enough and wise enough to skillfully acknowledge long-standing racial inequalities whilst not frightening the horses, Kwasi Kwarteng will be a hero,” Woolley added. “The flip side is that failure to acknowledge them could be seen as a disappointment. It’s a high-wire act.”

Kwarteng’s own views are complex and deeply-held. He has been quick to criticize those he believes view multi-layered historical issues through a narrow lens. He set out many of his thoughts in a 2010 book about the British Empire which focused on its chaotic governance.

“A lot of the debate around Black Lives Matter and imperialism or colonialism has a very kind of cartoon-like view of what was happening over centuries across a quarter of the world,” he told the BBC last year.