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Welsh Leader’s Rise Leaves No UK Government Led by a White Man

(Bloomberg) -- Vaughan Gething’s ascension to become first minister of Wales this week will mark a milestone in British history: For the first time, none of the UK’s four main governments will be led by a White man.

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In fact, Zambian-born economy minister’s installation as the leader of the devolved government in Cardiff will represent the first time that any European nation has had a Black leader. Gething’s appointment will be formally ratified Wednesday with a vote in the Senedd, following his victory in an election to lead the governing party, Welsh Labour.

Gething, 50, was raised in England before studying in Wales, where just 0.9% of the population identifies as Black. The trained lawyer and former president of the Wales Trades Union Congress defeated a cabinet colleague, Education Minister Jeremy Miles, by a narrow margin on Saturday, receiving 51.7% of the vote.

Gething joins British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Scottish First Minister Humza Yousaf, and Northern Ireland’s Emma Little-Pengelly and Michelle O’Neill among the leaders of the UK’s “four nations.” The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, comes from an ethnic minority background, too.

“That is a significant symbolic development that will resonate outside Wales and the United Kingdom,” said Sunder Katwala, director of UK-based think tank British Future. “In Britain — though, obviously, it’s seen really as part of a new trend of ethnic diversity right at the top of government — it’s mainly a remarkable coincidence.”

Katwala said the UK is “distinctive” in that ethnic minorities are represented across political parties, whereas they tend to be concentrated on one side of the political spectrum elsewhere. Across England and Wales, which are grouped together in census data, the proportion of people who don’t identify as White has been on the rise, growing to 18.3% of residents in 2021.

Like Sunak and Yousaf, Gething’s route to power came through winning a party contest after the current leader resigned, as opposed to a general election. Sunak was defeated by Liz Truss the first time he competed to lead the party in 2022. Once she stepped down in October that year, Sunak won the position of Conservative party leader and thereby became prime minister.

While Sunak as an elected prime minister is the head of government, King Charles III is the head of state.

Although the top jobs show progress for minorities in the British political hierarchy, Gething’s appointment comes at a time when Sunak’s Conservatives are embroiled in a row over racist comments allegedly made by its largest donor.

The Guardian quoted Frank Hester as saying that MP Diane Abbott made him “want to hate all Black women” and that she “should be shot.” Hester since has said his words “had nothing to do with her gender nor color of skin.”

While Sunak condemned the comments as “racist,” he has rejected calls for the party to return the combined £10.2 million ($13.1 million) donated by Hester and his company The Phoenix Partnership last year. Sunak has repeatedly pointed to the diversity of his government as evidence that race is less of a barrier in Britain than elsewhere.

“One thing that I’m really proud of is that I was the first British-Asian prime minister of our country, but I was even prouder that when it happened it wasn’t a big deal,” he told the BBC last month. “And that’s because we’re the most successful multi-ethnic democracy in the world.”

--With assistance from Stuart Biggs.

(Adds detail about the UK’s leadership in paragraph eight.)

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