The paradox of Priti Patel

From managing the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic to negotiating the best possible Brexit deal with the EU, Conservatives are currently shaping how the country will conduct business and manage one of our country’s most prized assets, the NHS. In the heart of all this, we have a plethora of problematic Conservative personas– notably our Home Secretary, Priti Patel.

Patel was born in London to a Ugandan-Indian family. She was educated at Keele University and the University of Essex. Inspired by Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, she was initially involved with the Referendum Party before switching allegiance to the Conservatives.

Under Boris Johnson‘s leadership, Patel became Home Secretary, the very first woman of colour to hold the office. Should we be hopeful or concerned?

Patel has served as the Member of Parliament (MP) for Witham since 2010, and as Secretary of State for International Development from 2016 to 2017. As International Development Secretary, Patel was marred with controversy when she held unauthorised meetings with the Government of Israel, ending her tenure.

Under Boris Johnson‘s leadership, Patel became Home Secretary, the very first woman of colour to hold the office.

Should we be hopeful or concerned?

Patel was always going to be held to a different standard to the average Conservative Home Secretary. The British media have developed a reputation for racist and sexist abuse, battering women of colour to pieces (e.g. Diane Abbott, Meghan Markle) and encouraging the public to do the same. No matter what her policies entailed or how she navigated herself throughout the British political landscape, Patel was always going to be subject to some sort of scrutiny: criticism from the left stating she isn’t inclusive enough; scrutiny from the Conservatives given her background and ethnic identity. An example of this was a Labour election candidate who described Patel as a “sexy Bond villain”. Being a woman of colour in politics undoubtedly leaves her open to a barrage of sexist and racist abuse not faced by her male white colleagues.

Though unable to avoid the prejudice inherent in press scrutiny, Patel has made the choice to advocate for a particular strand of conservatism. She could have instead chosen to prescribe to compassionate conservatism, the type (supposedly) pioneered by David Cameron and the coalition government, which aimed to use conservative techniques and concepts in order to improve the general welfare of society.

Instead, Patel has ideologically positioned herself as a Thatcherite. This position enthrones businesses and shifts the focus away from housing, welfare policies and other issues affecting the working class. The Conservative Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, became her political heroine as a young woman. According to Patel, she “had a unique ability to understand what made people tick, households tick and businesses tick. Managing the economy, balancing the books and making decisions – not purchasing things the country couldn’t afford“.

Patel’s comments on Thatcher aren’t shocking in the least. Hers is a commonly held opinion about Thatcher amongst Conservatives, but in the midst of a pandemic where press conferences are designed to reassure the British public that all is under control, no one could possibly be reassured by Patel’s embarrassing attempt at a modern-day Thatcher approach.

It’s a never-ending series of political faux pas and misconduct

Patel has faced bullying allegations during her time as a Minister (which she is currently being cleared of– a procedure which has been suspiciously swift and quiet). Taken with her unauthorised meetings with the Government of Israel and a public disdain growing against her for her patronising smirks on national television (to the point where Andrew Marr felt compelled to say “I can’t see why you’re laughing”, a remark for which the BBC later apologised), these characteristics all point to a self-serving politician rather than the reassuring Home Secretary that the position arguably needs in the midst of an international pandemic.

It’s a never-ending series of political faux pas and misconduct. Her press conference briefings are a mishmash of confusing, disconnected words that never quite answer the question.

The public are looking for reassurance in a Home Secretary, a figure who is meant to provide concise and comforting answers that don’t regress into endless waffling.

This isn’t the first time her comments have sparked backlash. Appearing on BBC’s Question Time in 2011, Patel said the following:

“I do actually think when we have a criminal justice system that continuously fails in this country and where we have seen murderers, rapists and people who have committed the most abhorrent crimes in society go into prison and then are released from prison to go out into the community to then re-offend and do the types of crime they have committed again and againI think that’s appalling. And actually on that basis alone, I would actually support the reintroduction of capital punishment to serve as a deterrent.”

In exploring Patel’s statements surrounding capital punishment (which she claims were taken out of context), an unsettling truth about the Home Secretary comes to light. These outlandish and irrational comments on wanting to introduce capital punishment as a deterrent sound vaguely similar to the human rights violations we hear about from across other parts of the world. Patel is attempting to emulate the same ‘death penalty/torture as a deterrent/punishment to scare the masses’ approach similar to those countries that have an evidenced reputation for human rights violations(Saudi Arabia, China etc.). It’s not something we want to emulate. She fixates on a problem and, instead of addressing the root of that problem, suggests ridiculous solutions that provide little to no comfort.

A responsible, competent politician, no matter what ideology they subscribe to, would home in on the need to address appropriate sentencing for those convicted of the most serious crimes. An engaging and thoughtful politician would think of the wider picture around prison capacities, efforts to rehabilitate offenders and perhaps mention the need to deal with petty crimes in other ways that do not include sentencing in order to create space for criminals that re-offend and/or committed heinous crimes. But no, not our current Home Secretary.

There is a blatant disregard here for a country with a history of oppression and struggle at the hands of the British, or ignorance of how her comment would be received in this context. This feels even more uncomfortable given those words come from a woman of colour.

Similar, inconsiderate comments were made in 2018, when Patel was criticised by political opponents for advocating threatening the Republic of Ireland with food shortages during Brexit negotiations. Again, Patel said her comments were “taken out of context” and that she did not refer specifically to the risk of food shortages. Other MPs remarked that using food shortages as a bargaining chip was especially inappropriate given Ireland’s history of famine. There is a blatant disregard here for a country with a history of oppression and struggle at the hands of the British, or ignorance of how her comment would be received in this context. This feels even more uncomfortable given those words come from a woman of colour.

We really should not have been so surprised by Patel’s flippant, dismissive remarks. She asked not to be labelled as BME as it was “patronising and insulting”. Admittedly, there is a very strong argument in support of her stance; sometimes the acronym becomes restrictive and institutions, with some employers only seeing the person as a minority rather than a skilled/talented individual. The phrase is also sometimes used in an insensitive and derogatory way of talking about all ‘non-white’ people, which Patel would also be right to object to. However, Patel went on to say the following:

“It would be a regressive step for any political party or government to put people in posts just because they are women or because they represent a minority group. I don’t like the labelling of people. I don’t like the term BME. I’m British first and foremost, because I was born in Britain.”

She’s completely bypassed the function behind the term BME. Patel is indirectly suggesting that BAME individuals only get their positions because of their identity. The term was created in order to target industries where we are underrepresented (such as politics!) and promote our political astuteness or commercial viability. It exists to serve a purpose: to anchor Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) talent. Like Patel, the term is goal-oriented. It serves with the vision of propelling ethnic minorities into roles and positions of change–a role that Patel currently occupies.

Patel makes the problematic assumption that you must choose nationality over ethnicity in order to prove your sense of Britishness – it’s archaic and ridiculous

She states that she is “British first and foremost” by way of explanation as to why she does not like the term. If modern-day politics has taught us anything, it is that identity is not linear. Patel is both British and Ugandan-Indian, a politician and a woman, a wife and a mother. Being of Asian heritage does not make her any less British. By saying this, Patel makes the problematic assumption that you must choose nationality over ethnicity in order to prove your sense of Britishness – it’s archaic and deeply racist.

A politically astute, ethnic politician (think Tan Dhesi,Diane Abbott and Canada’s leader of the New Democratic Party, Jagmeet Singh) would eloquently make the statement that while they are a proud member of their ethnic community and the way in which culture has rooted their life, they are also a proud Brit, eager to grapple with the country’s most concerning issues and would like to encourage others to judge them for their individual merits. Patel had a valuable opportunity to express herself this way. She could have been well-balanced, firm and acknowledging the dichotomy that has undoubtedly shaped her life. She could have.

As an ardent Brexiteer, Patel was a leading figure in the Vote Leave campaign. This was the same campaign that gave a sophisticated way to express xenophobia. The entire campaign morphed into a ‘project hate’ and produced appallinglyracist propaganda, including an advert that called Angela Merkel a “Kraut” (showing her hand raised aloft in a pose similar to a Nazi salute). The idea of ‘getting our country back’, once considered a crass empirical throwback, is now legitimised and validated.

Patel was at the forefront of it all, pitching empty promises across the country and convincing the public to vote to leave the EU. Patel approached institutions such as the Bangladesh Caterers Association, saying if they were to support the Leave campaign the government would ensure restaurant owners would be able to recruit more chefs from South Asia by relaxing immigration rules with lower salary thresholds to hire staff from outside the EU.

In defiance of this promise, Patel is pushing forward with the Immigration Bill that ends free movement and introduces an Australian-style, points-based immigration system, claiming it will attract “the best and the brightest”.

No, no it won’t. What it will do, however, is shamelessly shun migrant key workers (cleaners, porters, care workers) who have helped the UK manage the impact of COVID19. They are the very same workers we stood outside of our homes on a Thursday evening to clap for.

It is mean-spirited and a display of wilful ignorance that she needs to be held accountable for

The nerve to call countless key workers ‘low-skilled’, is a serious insult to those who have helped the UK to fight the pandemic. It’s the equivalent of sending soldiers out to war and refusing their return home. Patel is gleefully waving this bill in the air like it’s the Union Jack. It is mean-spirited and a display of wilful ignorance that she needs to be held accountable for. The Conservatives rushing this bill through are a threat to our NHS, and Patel, in all her Thatcherite theatrics, has boiled this down to her desire for “making solid decisions”.

The immigration bill is an ugly, flawed piece of legislation and it’s being orchestrated and championed by a deeply hypocritical Home Secretary.

A single woman of colour in politics is not enough. While many other women of colour are in politics, Patel is the only one in Johnson’s cabinet. We simply cannot accept just any one person of colour to represent us, solely based on our shared background and heritage.

Representation isn’t a prop. Patel needs to do more than just stand on a podium facing a largely pale, stale and male audience declaring that she’s a “daughter of immigrants” whilst peddling xenophobic and classist policies. A statement like that, is empty and shallow when your policies and bills are not immigrant friendly. Unfortunately, Patel is a key part of a vested establishment that cares only for power and money. It’s a role she has willingly and clearly chosen to take on, with full awareness of what it entails.

Diversity in politics needs to come hand-in-hand with fair and just politics from a Home Secretary that we can trust. Priti Patel is not it. The truth is, Patel owes nothing topeople of colour and she knows it. She is wedged within the complicated dichotomy of being both one of us and not at all. The sooner we come to terms with this, the sooner we hold her accountable for her mistakes.


The feature image shows Patel, delivering a speech. She is wearing a black jacket over a white top and is stood behind a white background, with ‘Policy Exchange’ repeated over it, in dark black lettering.
Photograph by the Policy Exchange
Used under the Creative Commons License

The first image shows Patel sat down at a desk, writing something. She smiles at the camera and wears black square glasses and a pink scarf, over a suit.
Photograph by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation, Michael Dean
Used under the Creative Commons License

The next image shows Patel delivering a government TV briefing. She wears a red dress and stands behind a podium in Downing Street, with the slogan: ‘Stay Alert, Control the Virus, Save Lives’ on top of it.
Photograph by Number 10
Used under the Creative Commons License

The photograph shows Patel and former Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard smiling for a photograph. Patel wears a blue dress, whilst Gillard wears a black trouser suit. They stand in front of a backdrop with a Union Jack on it.
Photograph by the Global Partnership for Education
Used under the Creative Commons License

The next photograph is a headshot of Patel. She wears a pink jacket and smiles directly at the camera.
Photograph by Number 10
Used under the Creative Commons License

The final photograph is of Patel visiting a school in Lebanon. She smiles for the camera and is surrounded by a group of children, who are also smiling and waving.
Photograph by the UK Department for International Development
Used under the Creative Commons License