Vaughan Gething is announced as the fifth First Minister of Wales at the Cardiff University Spark building on March 16, 2024 in Cardiff, Wales (Matthew Horwood/Getty Images).

This month, Vaughan Gething became first minister of Wales, making him the first Black leader of a national government anywhere in Europe.

Gething was born in Zambia to a Zambian mother and Welsch father. His ascent comes at an interesting time in British politics, during which ethnic minority leadership suddenly seems to have become more the norm than the exception.

For the third time in three years – in Downing Street, in Scotland and now in Wales – a vacancy for a new leader has seen a Black or Asian contender selected.

Taking into account the two women leading Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government, that creates the remarkable coincidence that there are, for now, no white men leading the four governments across the United Kingdom nations.

These new faces of British political leadership symbolise an increasingly diverse democracy, in which ethnic minority politicians have more profile and presence in public life than ever before.

However, this is happening in a post-Brexit Britain where the politics of identity and race have been sharply contested and polarising. Three parties with different political traditions happened to elect ethnic minority leaders because they seemed to be the best answer to the particular circumstances.

In 2022, Rishi Sunak became the UK's first Asian prime minister. He is a former chancellor who had been the runner-up in the Conservative leadership contest after Boris Johnson stepped down. Sunak seemed to be the obvious candidate to try to restore stability when Johnson's successor, Liz Truss, saw her premiership implode so spectacularly

In 2023, Humza Yousaf became First Minister of Scotland and the first Muslim national leader in a major Western democracy. Faith and politics were a contentious issue in the Scottish National Party leadership contest.

The surprising twist was that scrutiny of the Presbyterian Christian candidate’s socially conservative views boosted Yousaf's prospects, as a Muslim Scot whose liberal views on policy were closer to those of his party members.

Now in 2024, we had a closely fought contest between Wales' economy and finance ministers. The winner would have broken ground as a First Minister who was either Black or gay, a sign of greater inclusion in politics across the generations. Both factors turned out to be incidental in a closely fought election.

Yet to be in the running to lead demonstrates a remarkable change in the lifetime of these political leaders. They were all born in the 1970s and 1980s, in an era where every single member of the House of Commons was white.

There had been a handful of Asian MPs back in the 1890s and 1920s. But it took four more decades after large-scale commonwealth migration to Britain began, symbolised by the arrival of the Windrush from Jamaica in 1948, for Black and Asian people to have a voice in parliament – with three Black and one Asian MP elected in 1987.

There had never been a Black or Asian Cabinet minister when Sunak and Gething graduated from university until Paul Boateng reached the top table in 2002.

It took another generation after the 1987 breakthrough to challenge arguments which saw minority representation as only viable in the most highly diverse inner city constituencies, but a risk beyond them.

After 2010, the argument that less diverse regions and constituencies would not be "ready" for an ethnic minority representative was disproven, particularly once David Cameron became leader of the Conservatives, and made a proactive effort to diversify his party.

That included running Black and Asian candidates in Conservative seats across England, often in districts with low ethnic diversity. Ethnic minority leadership in Scotland and Wales is thriving, even though the countries that are 95 percent white.

This only became possible after party members and voters accepted that ethnic minority politicians can represent everybody, rather than seeing their primary role being to represent only minority constituencies and communities in Parliament.

Ethnic minority leadership is now a norm in Britain – but that is not yet the case in most Western European democracies.

This could be because British ethnic minorities have historically responded to discrimination by doubling down on their stake in British identity, arguing that the country's diversity reflects its history of Empire and Commonwealth.

Indeed, Britain has more work to do on race and discrimination, as evidenced by reports of rising antisemitism and anti-Muslim prejudice in recent months.

But it does have stronger anti-racism laws and policies than many of its European counterparts, where officials often object in principle to the collection of ethnic data.

This means that one of the key tools for effective scrutiny of racial inequalities and disparities is lost in countries like France. The UK tends to have better outcomes in education and the increasing presence of ethnic minorities in business, the law and other professions as well as politics.

Different minority politicians have different instincts about how to talk about race and representation. Sunak believes the best way to boast about Britain’s multi-ethnic democracy is to draw little attention to his Indian ethnicity or Hindu faith.

Yousaf and Gething prefer to say more about how past barriers to progress were overcome – and comment on the challenges which remain. Gething paid tribute to the contribution of the Windrush generation – the first generation of Commonwealth migrants – in Cardiff last summer, saying "I'm not here because I am the first person to want to do this or the first person who is capable of doing this."

Even fair chances to reach the top of politics may not prevent ethnic minority politicians from having an unequal experience of public life. Any confidence about the retreat of racism in society is shaken by the experience of social media.

Even if those with the most toxic views are shrinking in number, the bigots are often only one click away. Women and ethnic minorities receive a dramatically disproportionate share of online hatred.

The longest-serving black MP, Diane Abbott, had been the most prominent target. Hateful comments towards her by the largest donor to the governing party have shown that racism does not only come from online trolls. Social media companies have persistently failed to uphold the standards we expect everywhere else in the public square.

Britain’s ethnic minority leaders will be judged on their performance in office. The next general election is likely to see Labour leader Keir Starmer prove that there is no new "glass ceiling" for white men.

This has some people doubting if ethnic faces in high places make much of a difference or if they can even be actively regressive, if used by others to claim that discrimination in society is over.

Yet diversity at the top is a positive symbolic and substantive change, as long as we understand that the effort to establish inclusion and fairness continues.

The author, Sunder Katwala, is director of British Future, a non-partisan think-tank which works on issues of identity, immigration and race.

Disclaimer: The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT Afrika.

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