LONDON — One attended Britain’s most famous private high-school, Eton College, another is a top-drawer lawyer, and the third holds a senior rank as an Army reservist. The résumés of those handed the three top cabinet posts by Britain’s new prime minister, Liz Truss, are typical of generations of high-achievers in her ruling Conservative Party.
What is different is that none of the three are white.
In choosing her top team, Ms. Truss’s has created a strikingly diverse cabinet. The country also has its first female deputy prime minister.
“What is extraordinary is the pace of change, how this is already normal, and this isn’t contentious,” said Sunder Katwala, the director of British Future, a research institute that focuses on immigration, integration, race and identity. “There aren’t people going around saying ‘give us our country back.’”
Still, Ms. Truss’s inner circle, while progressive in its ethnic makeup,also has a hard ideological edge, which critics say makes it unlikely to pursue policy friendlier to Britain’s minority population, or for refugees arriving on the country’s shores.
Indeed, some argue that the diversity among cabinet ministers gives Ms. Truss the cover to pursue even more radical approaches, such as a plan to send some asylum seekers to Rwanda — a policy now the responsibility of Suella Braverman, the new home secretary, whose father came to Britain from Kenya in 1968.
“There’s a difference that makes no difference, and a change that leads to no change,” said Kehinde Andrews, a professor of Black studies at Birmingham City University, citing as one example the Conservatives’ immigration policy and the Rwanda plan.
“The fact is that you should judge it on the policy,” he said, “and the government’s track record is horrendous.”
Ms. Braverman’s legal background — she is a barrister — is relevant to her new position because the government is fighting a battle in court with opponents who have stalled the Rwanda flights. She has already established herself as a hard-liner and has called for Britain to limit the influence of the European convention on human rights, which protects basic human rights and which was written into domestic British law in 1998.
The chancellor of the Exchequer, Kwasi Kwarteng, shares Ms. Truss’s faith in free markets, desire to cut taxes and approach to deregulation. His parents, an economist and a lawyer, came to Britain from Ghana as students in the 1960s. Cerebral and self-confident, Mr. Kwarteng attended Eton College and then won a place at Cambridge University, where he excelled academically.
The new foreign secretary is James Cleverly, whose mother came to the Britain from Sierra Leone, and who rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel as an Army reservist. He is perhaps the least ideological of the three, though like the other two, he was a strong proponent of Brexit.
Critics point out that, unlike the overwhelming majority of Britons, Mr. Kwarteng, Ms. Braverman and Mr. Cleverly were all educated at private schools (albeit sometimes with financial aid, as in Mr. Kwarteng’s case) — proof that social class, rather than race or gender, is perhaps the more telling dividing line in British politics.
For all that, Ms. Truss’s appointments put Britain indisputably ahead of many other European countries in the diversity of its political elite. On Wednesday, Ms. Truss used her first appearance in Parliament to point out that she is the third female Conservative prime minister, while the opposition Labour Party has never elected a woman as leader.
“It is quite extraordinary, is it not” Ms. Truss said, “that there does not seem to be the ability in the Labour party to find a female leader, or indeed a leader who does not come from north London?” — a reference to Keir Starmer, the party leader, and his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, both of whom represent parliamentary constituencies in same part of the capital.
In fact, the diversity of the cabinet can be traced to a former prime minister, David Cameron, who, after becoming party leader in 2005, altered the selection process for potential Conservative lawmakers. That effectively forced local parties to choose parliamentary candidates from lists with a bigger proportion of female, Black and minority ethnic backgrounds.
“Look what’s happened to the Conservative Party,” Mr. Cameron said in an interview with The New York Times in 2019. “It used to be people like me: white, posh, male, rural southerners. It has now got a gender balance. It’s every people from every Black and minority ethnic group in the country.”
Mr. Cameron rejected the contention that the ethnic and racial diversity masked a lack of class diversity. Among those he named to his cabinet, he noted in the interview, was Sajid Javid, whose Pakistani immigrant father drove a bus.
“The fact that the old fusty Conservative Party is managing to produce people like that says a lot,” he said.
Britain’s first Black cabinet minister, Paul Boateng, was appointed in 2002, but until recently there was little change at the highest reaches of government. When in 2010 a member of the House of Lords, Sayeeda Warsi, was appointed to the cabinet she was the first British politician of South Asian heritage to take up such a position. It was another four years before an elected lawmaker of South Asian heritage, Mr. Javid, joined the cabinet.
In part, the gains in government by people of color reflect social change and advances through education. On average, ethnic minority pupils have outperformed white Britons at school in recent years. In every year from 2007 to 2021, white pupils had the lowest entry rate into higher education.
“Cameron’s effective intervention catalyzed and sped up some that was happening in Britain,” said Mr. Katwala of British Future. He added, “In Britain we are a generation ahead of most other western European countries.”
Yet critics note that the greater ethnic and gender diversity has not changed the policies of successive Conservative governments, which have grown increasingly hard-line on immigration and often embraced tax cuts and other economic policies that tend to favor wealthy people.
Ms. Truss has acknowledged that her most notable tax cut proposal — a reversal of last April’s increase in national insurance rates — would disproportionately benefit those with higher incomes, since they pay the most taxes.
“To look at everything through the lens of redistribution, I believe, is wrong,” Ms. Truss said to the BBC last Sunday, in what some noted was a full-throated defense of “trickle-down” economics. “What I’m about is about growing the economy and growing the economy benefits everybody.”
Professor Andrews, from Birmingham City University, said the Conservatives were practicing a particularly cynical form of identity politics by promoting the diversity among its senior leaders, while also advancing retrograde policies.
Mr. Katwala argued that diversity at the top of politics doesn’t do anything automatically, but can shift attitudes by providing role models and “makes a difference in what your expectations are at a societal level.” The example he cited was that of Britain’s first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, who came to power in 1979.
“I don’t think she had a policy agenda that was good for women or any ambition to promote women,” Mr. Katwala said. “Yet when Liz Truss was at school she saw that there was a woman in Downing Street.”