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LONDON — Britain has its first Black chancellor. 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.
But Kwarteng is not in denial about many of the evils of empire. “All round the world today we have direct consequences of British imperial malfeasance — miscalculation, if you like,” he told an audience in 2011. “And it’s a consequence of those miscalculations that colonies should, I think, continue to blame some of their ills at least on the legacy of British imperialism.”
In 2016 he wrote that it was “exciting” to have more MPs from diverse ethnic and cultural heritages in parliament, “but we must not expect them all to be mouthpieces for their ethnic communities.”
Yet those who know Kwarteng well insist he speaks up where needed. Samuel Kasamu, a former Downing Street race adviser to Boris Johnson who quit the role over concern the government was actually fueling racial divisions, said Kwarteng was eager to help on projects like boosting COVID vaccine uptake among ethnic groups.
“There was no time when I asked Kwasi to help me to do something that would inspire people from diverse backgrounds that he ever said no — not once,” Kasamu said. “There were other secretaries of state, there were other ministers, other MPs, who were nowhere near as busy as him, who regularly found ways to wriggle their way out.”
Others say there is little evidence his background affects his actual policy choices, however. One senior figure who has held regular meetings with Kwarteng over the past two years said they “have never seen even the slightest hint that he takes his racial background into account, in anything.”
Eton production line
Indeed, Kwarteng’s background is largely one of privilege.
His parents, a barrister and an international economist who arrived in the U.K. as students in the 1960s, sent him to an expensive private prep school that produced numerous Cabinet-level politicians. He then attended he famous Eton college — a production line for British leaders including Boris Johnson and David Cameron. He went on to Cambridge and then Harvard, winning numerous awards — as well as the TV game show University Challenge — along the way.
“Often when we talk about minorities breaking through, we mean people from unorthodox backgrounds,” said the Cabinet minister quoted at the top of this article. “But if you’ve been an Eton scholar you’re not short of self-confidence.”
Colleagues argue he doesn’t agonize over ministerial decisions and sometimes lacks attention to detail. “People would say he’s a bit horizontal,” said the Cabinet minister.
“He’ll have to be careful about that as chancellor,” added one government official, who noted that Kwarteng is far from the earliest starter at work or the latest finisher. “It’s a bigger job and he’ll have to apply himself.”
Some believed Kwarteng was actually at risk of demotion from the business department under Johnson, after failing to spot the looming fuel crisis as Russia prepared to invade Ukraine, and the crisis that engulfed a vital British CO2 firm in 2021.
Nevertheless, Kwarteng is full of big ideas and likes to boast about “getting shit done” — an expression scrawled across the top of a whiteboard in his office. The checklist of completed tasks is numbered in Greek, a nod to his extensive language skills.
He is known for swearing a lot, and is happy to let people know his displeasure. “It’s true that he says it like he sees it,” said one junior minister who has worked in a department with Kwarteng. “Discussion around the table with him can be robust — some people will struggle with that.”
Colleagues say Kwarteng can occasionally fixate on elements of his routine, and become frustrated about timekeeping and the management of his ministerial correspondence. He was highly particular about an expensive new set of leather-bound chairs ordered for his office in the business department, having decided the existing furniture was too unimpressive to host VIP guests.
The large oak table ordered to accompany them had yet to arrive by the time Truss offered him promotion Tuesday afternoon.
It’s the economy, stupid
His views on economics, closely aligned with those of Truss, are what ultimately won him his place as her right-hand man.
Kwarteng is undoubtedly a free marketeer, but some who have worked with him become surprised to discover he is not a dogmatic Thatcherite — meaning to hold the ideological zeal that the market is right at all costs, championed by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Rather, he is thought of as something of a contrarian who likes to kick back against orthodoxies, but is not averse to big state intervention. He has impressed onlookers with his embrace of the green agenda.
His fans have high hopes that as chancellor he will be able to think big, and implement sweeping right-wing economic reforms that will boost growth and help Britain rise out of its cost of living crisis.
A Tory MP close to Kwarteng said clues on how he sees his mission could be found in his most recent history book, Thatcher’s Trial, which charts her triumph in the seemingly impossible situation she faced in 1981, grappling with an economic crisis and not yet dominant over the party.
He is unlikely to be tempted by the tools used by Thatcher’s chancellor, Geoffrey Howe, in the 1981 budget — tax rises and a windfall tax — but Kwarteng will hope he can replicate the feat of winning against the odds by sticking to an unorthodox position.
The same minister quoted above noted: “He’d much rather be remembered as a reforming chancellor than the first Black chancellor.”
With a bulging in-tray unlike that of any incoming chancellor of recent times, his immediate task will be simply to hit the ground running.
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