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Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative MPs are a wonderfully eclectic and feisty lot.

They give back to Labour as good as they get.

I remember when William Hague was the Conservative Party leader during the Labour years, specifically when Tony Blair was PM. Hague, who was the Conservative leader between 1997 and 2001, never ceased referring to ‘today’s modern Conservative Party’.

Well, today’s modern Conservative Party is no longer the Anglican faithful at prayer, as it was when I first moved to the UK. They are now from several nationalities and backgrounds, going right up to the Prime Minister. The Party is much the better for the variety of influences on it.

On January 30, 2021, The Economist‘s Bagehot — a pseudonym paying homage to Walter Bagehot (pron. BAJ-ut), a businessman and journalist whose father-in-law James Wilson founded and first owned the publication — wrote an article called ‘How the Conservative Party got diverse’.

‘Got diverse’ rubs me the wrong way. I am glad I gave my subscription up 15 or so years ago.

Although The Economist is focused on economics and geopolitics, it has not been a friend of the Conservative Party for a very long time, decades at least.

Bagehot’s article is accompanied by jarring photos of Conservative MPs of colour with parts of their faces cut off, an insulting graphic, as if they are not entirely human for being Conservatives.

The opening sentence also illustrates why The Economist so often gets it wrong about conservatism in today’s Britain:

BORIS JOHNSON is such a vivid embodiment of white privilege that it is easy to forget how diverse his cabinet is.

Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson is, in fact, Turkish on his father’s side.

Why didn’t Bagehot bother to do a bit of simple research on a fact that London commuters know. On Friday, July 26, 2019, Metro, the free newspaper available at every railway and Tube station in greater London — as well as throughout transport networks in England’s biggest cities — reported on Boris’s family history: ‘Turkish town where Boris traces his roots celebrates him becoming PM’ (emphases mine):

A village in central Turkey, where Boris Johnson traces his ancestry to, is buzzing with excitement and pride after a man they see as one of their own became the new Prime Minister of the UK. Residents of the farming village of Kalfat, in Cankiri province, 62 miles north of the Turkish capital Ankara, gathered at its main assembly place on Tuesday to celebrate, after Mr Johnson won the Conservative Party leadership contest triggered by the resignation of Theresa May, according to town administrator, Bayram Tavukcu.

Mr Johnson took office as Prime Minister on Wednesday …

Mr Johnson’s paternal great-great-grandfather, Haci Ahmet Riza Efendi, was born there in 1813 and the house he lived in is still standing.

Family members were known as the ‘Sarioglangiller’ which roughly translate as ‘of the family of the blond boy’, Mr Karaagac said, though it was not known if Mr Johnson inherited his blond hair from his Turkish ancestry

During a Conservative Party leadership debate in June, he defended himself against accusations of Islamophobia.

‘When my Muslim great-grandfather came to this country in fear of his life in 1912, he did so because he knew it was a place that was a beacon of generosity and openness and a willingness to welcome people from around the world,’ Mr Johnson said. ‘I think my Muslim great-grandfather would have been astonished to have found that his great-grandson had become foreign secretary. ‘But he would have been very proud and I think it would be a tribute to this country.’ Mr Johnson explored his Turkish roots in a 2008 episode of the BBC genealogy programme Who Do You Think You Are?

On April 29, 2020, The Algemeiner carried a story on Boris’s great-grandfather, Ali Kemal: ‘Why Was Boris Johnson’s Ottoman Great-Grandfather Murdered?’

An excerpt follows. The details might indicate why Boris pursued a career in journalism before entering politics:

On April 10, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent a letter to Boris Johnson, prime minister of the United Kingdom, informing him that Turkey “would like to welcome you in our country, which is your ancestral land.”

It is true that the Ottoman Empire, Turkey’s predecessor, is where Johnson’s paternal great-grandfather, Ali Kemal, was born. It is also where he was brutally murdered by Turkish nationalists in 1922 for wanting to bring to account the perpetrators of the 1915 Armenian genocide, and for criticizing the nationalist movement that would establish the Turkish Republic in 1923.

However, Turkey is denying the history behind the persecution and lynching of Kemal — just like it still denies the genocide itself.

Ali Kemal was a leading Ottoman journalist, editor, poet, novelist, and politician who served for some three months as the Minister of Education and then as the Minister of the Interior of the Ottoman Empire in 1919.

Because of his dissident writings and political speeches, Kemal had a hard life. He was a severe critic of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), also known as the Young Turks, which was the political party in power in the Ottoman Empire, and which made the decision to exterminate the Armenians in 1915. Kemal also publicly denounced the subsequent Turkish nationalist movement for its massacres against Christians.

As arrests and bans on his writings were an inevitable part of his life in the Ottoman Empire, Kemal lived in exile in Europe, Syria, and Egypt for much of his adult lifeIn 1909, he fled to Britain, where his first wife, a British woman named Winifred Brun, gave birth to their son, Osman Kemal Wilfred Johnson. Boris Johnson, born in 1964, is Wilfred’s grandson.

Kemal then returned to Turkey in 1912 and became a member of the Freedom and Accord Party, also known as the Liberal Union, which advocated for government decentralization, constitutionalism, and the rights of ethnic minorities.

When Ottoman Turkey was defeated in the first World War and the CUP party leaders fled the country, Kemal briefly became a cabinet minister of the Ottoman administration in 1919, and relentlessly demanded prosecution of the CUP leaders responsible for the massacres against Christians.

“He fiercely criticized the ruling party for entering the war, and for committing ‘war crimes and massacres’ against its own Armenian citizens,” according to author Raffi Bedrosyan.

As a staunch liberal and an Anglophile, Kemal regarded Britain as a model for democratic reform and industrial growth. He joined the Anglophile Society and advocated British protectorate status for TurkeyBut Kemal then found himself in danger again, ultimately lynched and “torn apart limb by limb while still alive,” as Bedrosyan explains.

“Ali Kemal was vilified by Turkish nationalists at the time for his condemnations of the Armenian massacres,” said Professor Armen T. Marsoobian, the First Vice President of the International Association of Genocide Scholars. “In some quarters of Turkey, calling someone an Armenian is the equivalent of a curse.”

A 2008 article from the aforementioned BBC genealogy programme Who Do You Think You Are? explains how the Johnson name replaced the family’s Turkish name. Boris was Mayor of London at the time. I remember that episode well. Boris has all sorts of interesting bloodlines, some of them royal:

Boris wanted to find out the truth about what happened to his Turkish paternal great-grandfather, Ali Kemal, who was a journalist and politician in the early 1900s. He knew that Ali Kemal had been lynched by a mob in the 1920s, but didn’t really know anything about the context of his life and death …

At the start of the investigation into Ali’s story, Stanley Johnson showed Boris his grandfather Wilfred’s birth certificate

Wilfred’s birth certificate showed that he was actually born Osman Wilfred Kemal, and that sadly Wilfred’s mother, Winifred, had died giving birth to him.

Through examining the birth certificate we also found out that Winifred’s mother, Margaret Johnson, was present at the birth. Boris’ father, Stanley, was then prompted to describe how, after her daughter’s death, Margaret, known as ‘Granny Johnson’, raised Wilfred and his older sister, Celma. Stanley was also able to provide further evidence of Granny Johnson’s formidable character, and the way in which she went on to change the identity and character of the family forever.

Once we had discovered that Boris’ apparently quintessentially English grandfather had been born with such an exotic name, we wanted to know how, why and when the family name had been changed so dramatically.

A short letter from the Home Office, found amongst papers belonging to Stanley, was the key. Seemingly innocuous business letters can provide a way of working out the events and relationships that have defined a family’s identity or an individual’s life story. Stanley’s Home Office letter responded to a query from Margaret Johnson in 1916. Margaret was told by the Home Office that no permission was needed to change Wilfred Kemal’s surname to Johnson, as he was a British subject (and we had already seen on his birth certificate that Wilfred was born in Britain). Margaret had clearly been trying to work out the appropriate procedure for changing the names of her half-Turkish grandchildren.

We wondered whether Margaret might have wanted to do this because Wilfred was growing up during the First World War, when Britain was fighting Turkey as well as Germany, and at a time when a young boy with a Turkish name might have become a target at school and in society.

Whatever the reason, this is the moment when Boris’s great-great-grandmother, Margaret Johnson, changed the family surname forever. Had she not, the current Mayor of London would be Boris Kemal!

The Economist on how the Conservatives diversified

Bagehot’s editorial gives the credit for the Conservatives’ diversity to David Cameron and Margaret Thatcher:

Two figures deserve much of the credit for the Tories’ transformation. David Cameron’s decision to introduce an A-list of female and ethnic-minority candidates back in 2005 allowed Conservative Central Office to force local parties to consider fast-tracked candidates without removing their prized sovereignty. Though Margaret Thatcher didn’t have much interest in race, she is an icon to the current generation of ethnic-minority MPs because she believed in self-reliance and breaking open closed shops.

When you see the backgrounds of the minority MPs that follow, it is unlikely they needed all-minority candidate lists to win their seats in the House of Commons. All are high achievers.

Therefore, I doubt Bagehot’s editorial, especially when he takes a swipe at Republicans in the United States, who, thanks to President Trump, have become equally diverse with more blacks and Hispanics entering at grass roots level — and winning seats — than ever before (see my post from yesterday):

The Republican Party has only a handful of prominent ethnic-minority politicians, such as Nikki Haley, Donald Trump’s ambassador to the UN, Tim Scott, a senator from South Carolina and Marco Rubio, a senator from Florida. Several ethnic-minority Republican politicians have Americanised themselves. Ms Haley has dropped her first name, Nimrata, and converted from Sikhism to Christianity.

What lazy journalism.

Today’s modern Conservative Party

As a regular viewer of BBC Parliament, the Conservative benches have changed a lot since Margaret Thatcher’s era.

Wikipedia’s entry, ‘List of ethnic minority politicians in the United Kingdom’, makes for fascinating reading.

Early history

The first ethnic Conservative MP, Mancherjee Bhownagree, served Bethnal Green North East (London) for nine years between 1895 and 1906.

Labour and the Liberals followed with two more during the early 20th century, but there were no more MPs of colour until 1987, when Labour candidates Diane Abbott, Keith Vaz, Paul Boateng and Bernie Grant took their seats in the Commons. Of those four, only Diane Abbott is still serving.

Labour years: 1997-2010

Two Conservative MPs of colour, Sebastian Coe (Lord Coe of the 2012 London Olympics) and Nirj Deva were elected in 1992, only to lose re-election in 1997, when Tony Blair’s Labour swept the board. What an election night that was.

After that, more Labour MPs of colour were elected. Some lost their re-elections, others are still sitting MPs.

During the Labour era — 1997-2010 — two Conservative MPs were elected in 2005 and are still in the House of Commons: Adam Afriyie and Shailesh Vara.

Adam Afriyie (Windsor)

Adam Afriyie is the son of an Englishwoman and a Ghanaian. He says that he never knew his father until he was an adult. Therefore, he had a close relationship with his mother Gwen.

He is the first Conservative MP of mixed race, although he describes himself as ‘post racial’. He grew up on a council estate in Peckham (south London).

His accomplishments in the business world are too many to mention. He has worked in IT, media and political consulting. Some of these companies he has owned or had an ownership stake in, such as Axonn Media. He has risen from public housing to being a multi-millionaire, owning not only a large home in Westminster, near Parliament, but also a former 17th century monastery in Old Windsor.

Shailesh Vara (North West Cambridgeshire)

Shailesh Vara, a Hindu, was born in Uganda to Gujarati Indian immigrants. The family moved to England in 1964, when young Shailesh was four years old.

Vara is a qualified solicitor (lawyer) who has worked in the City of London and Hong Kong.

He has held numerous positions in the Conservative Party, including the post of Vice-Chairman, and in government. His government posts began in 2006, when he was appointed as Shadow (Opposition) Deputy Leader in the House of Commons. He has also held the post of Minister of State for Northern Ireland when Theresa May was Prime Minister.

Many more Conservative MPs of colour took their places in Parliament in 2010, when everyone had finally had enough of 13 years of Labour rule.

More on their careers next week.

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