Britain’s mid-Atlantic road to the race

I get a tweet from the Economist’s Brussels bureau chief. Here, he notes, are the first names of the last four finance ministers in France: Bruno, Michel, Pierre, François. In Germany: Christian, Olaf, Peter, Wolfgang. In Italy: Daniele, Roberto, Giovanni, Pier Carlo. In Britain; Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. Sorry. I meant: Kwasi, Nadhim, Rishi, Sajid.

This means nothing to Kemi and Ranil, to Alok and Shwela. And this is a (very) conservative cabinet we’re talking about. Nor should you assume that Britain’s racial transparency is a London affair. As a committed European, a bitter Remainer, I say this: I’d rather grow up as a visible minority in Manchester or Birmingham than some continental capital.

But then I’d choose most of Britain over most of America, too. There, the problem is not a lack of diversity (it might be quicker, at some point, to list the US CEOs who is not Indian). It is a very penetrating reflection on the subject. After four years in the US, on both coasts, the sharpest relief since returning home has been the opportunity to have ongoing conversations that somehow don’t come back to identity. This is the difference between diversity and cosmopolitanism. The first is a natural event. The second is an attitude towards it: a kind of greed. New York is different. London, where people a generation removed from Ireland or Italy wouldn’t think to mention it, is cosmopolitan.

The UK’s psychological mid-Atlanticism is so often heavy handed. The nation wants American taxes and a European state. And so he has neither. It is more affected by laws enacted in Brussels, but more involved in the Iowa caucuses. And so her politics are terrible.

In one respect, however, splitting the difference paid off. We are better at diversity than much of Europe. But we are not as firm on the issue as the US. “Effortlessly different,” was Malcolm Gladwell’s phrase for London on one of his periodic visits, and I’m not sure I can do better.

British progressives belittle their own nation over Europe in terms of race. But conservatives make a worse mistake in their atlantism. The strangest feature of the British right is a hatred of the woke, mixed with a adoration for the country that is most exciting to it. If you want a Western fortress, a culture too old and anchored to fall for every passing undergraduate fad, it’s not the US. Embrace Italy and France. Embrace Europe. Being anti-awakening and pro-Brexit is not an impossible position. But it requires the washing away of the contradictions of which the right seems barely aware.

To refer to Britain as a mid-Atlantic compromise is not to idealize it. The place is American in its identity politics. And tolerance was slow to come. I’m old enough to remember the National Front graffiti on parts of south London that would now make you a great cortado. The artist always held the spray for too long on the ends of the ‘F’, leaving a weak drop where there should have been a terribly sharp swastika-like tip. It was scary though. Looking back, I realize I was drawn to Arsenal because the games there felt safe to watch. There were clubs for whom this was less true. This is one of those things you have to convince the gullible youth about, like the far-right scene that clung to Venice Beach as recently as the 1990s.

I’m not romanticizing Britain, then. I simply invite you to wear the Rawlsian veil of ignorance. Imagine that you are going to be born, not knowing your race. Where would you choose to make your life? Where will he give you a fair crack, without boxing you into the 24-hour consciousness of blood and soil issues? I can see the case for urban Canada. The Netherlands is understated. So if you’re a well-paid graduate, they’re the expat Edens of Dubai and Singapore. But there is no long list of countries above Britain. It’s hard to know what’s more impressive: the diversity of the cabinet or the fact that it’s only fleetingly celebrated. I feel un-British, in fact downright vulgar, for bringing this up.

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