My life is bizarre in many ways. My parents were born in Ghana in the early 1940s; I was born in London. I am 41, single and a Conservative MP. I am also a published historian, a Cambridge graduate, a former scholarship boy at Eton.
I am not writing this as an idle boast. I am just saying that modern life is complicated. When I started thinking about being a Conservative MP, about 15 years ago, the idea of a black conservative was much more strange than it is now.
I remember people saying, ‘How can you be a Conservative? You’re black!’ But I got in. My constituency, Spelthorne, is just outside London. It’s a wonderful area to represent in parliament. A vibrant, dynamic and economically successful place. The funny thing about it, from the point of view of a British Conservative of Ghanaian origin, is that 90 per cent of the population is white British.
Some people think this strange, but the fact that Spelthorne is represented by me should be celebrated in British democracy.
There aren’t many countries where representatives are elected from a different faith or background to the vast majority of constituents. This is what an advanced democracy looks like.
In the borough itself, people are generally courteous and friendly. The constituency is imbued with an old world charm, a sense of decorum and a degree of politeness. One lady at a summer fair, speaking to me, recently said that running a second EU referendum would be something ‘an African tyrant’ might do. She then said sorry. This made any offence I might have taken worse!
There is a consistent expectation in the media that MPs from ethnic minorities will engage with ‘black’ issues.
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.
Of course, linking ethnic background to a political party is a fairly crazy thing to do. There are certain patterns but it’s not as if mere skin colour or ethnicity should proscribe the political choices an individual makes. It seems to me the very definition of racism to believe all members of an ethnic group will think the same thing, politically. To expect all Chinese people to have the same views on political economy, ethics, religion would rightly be thought of as racist.
Taken at its most extreme, this way of thinking assumes that only women can represent women, only men can represent men, only gay men can represent gay men. The only representative a black female lesbian can have is, you’ve guessed it, a black female lesbian. I would only be able to represent privately educated, single, 40-something black men.
Of course, this is the road to madness and this kind of thinking contradicts a very basic premise of representative democracy. The MP should not be expected to be an identikit replica of some mythical ‘average voter’ in the constituency. If this is what we want, why not ask the voters directly themselves? We could have referendums, like the one we had on Europe, on every issue under the sun: gay marriage, climate change bills and so forth. Death penalty, anyone?
As immigrants settle in Britain, I expect more members of parliament will be drawn from the diverse ethnic and cultural heritages.
I make a point of attending diaspora events – when the organisers give me enough notice. It’s mostly because I remember that when I applied to be on the Conservative Candidates’ list in 2003, there were no ethnic-minority Conservative MPs. There were none. There were no ‘role models’, or mentors, or anything of that kind. It was only with the election of Shailesh Vara in North West Cambridgeshire and Adam Afriyie in Windsor, both in 2005, that the modern era of MPs from ethnic minorities in the Conservative party really began.
Last year in 2015, Alan Mak, an MP from a Chinese background was elected to the British parliament for the first time. He is quite active in debates and questions in the Chamber of the House of Commons.
As immigrants settle in Britain, I expect more members of parliament will be drawn from the diverse ethnic and cultural heritages found in the UK. This is an exciting development, but we must not expect them all to be mouthpieces for their ethnic communities. The first job, and by far the most important, for an MP is to represent his or her constituents, from whatever race, creed or social background they come. It’s that simple.