BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 12:10 GMT, Friday, 7 November 2008

Could Britain have a black PM?

Black family at Downing Street

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

Now the US has elected its first black president, how long until the UK has a black or Asian prime minister?

When Barack Obama claimed that his story could only have happened in America, he might have been looking across the Atlantic for evidence.

The odds of a black or Asian person taking the keys to 10 Downing Street any time soon are slim.

Tony Blair acknowledged as much in 2001, when he suggested the US was ahead of the UK in having people from ethnic minorities occupying some of the top political posts.

Mr Blair was mindful of Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice at the heart of the White House, but probably hadn't even heard of Obama.

Baroness Amos
In the US they dare to dream the American dream, talking about hope, using that kind of language is something that Americans do naturally
Baroness Amos

The president-elect, who has a white mother and black father, was careful not to invoke race in his campaign, which he won by appealing to many parts of American society. But his success has been seen as a major step forward in a country scarred by slavery and segregation.

So why not a similar story in the UK, which had a Jewish prime minister in the 19th Century and this week celebrated a British black man becoming Formula One world champion?

There have only ever been three non-white Cabinet members in Britain and there are only 15 MPs (2% of the total). And while the US has black mayors and state governors, in Britain there are few black and Asian leaders in local government.

Partly the transatlantic difference is about numbers. In the US, black people make up 13% of the population while in the UK all ethnic minorities make up about 8%. They have also been living in the US far longer, although it is only in the last 40 years that they have been doing so on an equal footing.

Batman films

But figures only tell part of a wider story, which touches on class, ideology and political power.

Actor Colin McFarlane, who played a black prime minister in a primetime BBC drama four years ago, says don't hold your breath.

Colin McFarlane as prime minister
Britain's only black prime minister, in TV land at least - Colin McFarlane

Researching the part and speaking to politicians about it, McFarlane realised how far away fiction was from reality, with the House of Commons dominated by public school-educated, white males.

"We realised that if there was to be a black prime minister, education would be the key. We identified a route not dissimilar to my own - public school in Cambridge then university."

Having spent a lot of time in the US - he appeared in two Batman films - he thinks the UK can learn from the way Americans responded to their racist history.

"Since the civil rights movement of the Sixties they have had to put in laws and rules in place because racism was more overt. It's more subtle in this country but there is a sense there's a glass ceiling across most industries.

"In America it's more acknowledged and they've put in positive discrimination. There was much resistance at the beginning but they have the fruits of that, which is people being forced into certain positions."

Consequently the US has a large and powerful black middle class, he says. While the UK is arguably more integrated, he says, a black prime minister will only be closer when there are more black business leaders and commissioning editors, operating the levers of power and educating society about black and Asian experiences.

Aram Afriyie
In the US a fresh face like Obama can make it in one electoral cycle. In Britain it's generally a gradual process of service and promotion over many years, and often decades
Adam Afriyie

The British political system counts against a newcomer like Mr Obama bursting on to the scene, says black Conservative MP Adam Afriyie. He doesn't expect to see a black leader of the country in his lifetime.

"You need enough MPs from a variety of backgrounds and political parties that promote on merit.

"In the US a fresh face like Obama can make it in one electoral cycle. In Britain it's generally a gradual process of service and promotion over many years, and often decades, before leading a political party.

"An MP needs to get within electable distance of the leadership of their party and that usually means a successful stint in cabinet or shadow cabinet."

For Baroness Amos, one of only three black people to have sat in cabinet, much is down to the difference in attitudes to aspiration between the US and UK.

"In the US they dare to dream the American dream, talking about hope. Using that kind of language is something Americans do naturally. Here, we are I think culturally much more understated. We tend to be more cynical generally.

"And while I don't think we are anti-aspirational, the aspiration of what we are and who we are comes without the language of America. Americans are proud that they have brought about change no-one thought possible in the time they have.

"The language of Barack Obama and Martin Luther King is very singular to America but we're not able to use that kind of language. So we need to find a way to get out of that cynicism."


There are also systemic problems in political parties and more needs to be done to train, support and mentor emerging talent from ethnic minorities, she says.

"You need to be plugged into networks. Political parties are a bit like families and communities, so you need to know the right people and the right people need to be speaking up on your behalf."

Helen Grant, Shaun Bailey and Chuka Umunna
Rising stars: Prospective parliamentary candidates Helen Grant, Shaun Bailey (both Tory) and Chuka Umunna (Lab)

David Lammy, arguably Britain's most powerful black MP of the moment and a personal friend of Mr Obama, knows all about the label of "Britain's next black prime minister" - it was one pinned on him when he was elected to the Commons at 27.

"Of course a black prime minister is possible," he says. "After all, we elected our first female prime minister nearly 30 years ago, and we have made clear strides since then in showing how diverse Britain is.

"I think that in 10 years the representation will be much healthier but putting pressure on individuals is unhelpful and we need to do much more work within political parties to bring people on, because it's a long route to the top."

But there are grounds for optimism. A report by the Fabian Society estimates there will be 10 new black and Asian MPs at the next election.

Sadiq Khan
Sadiq Khan MP has no doubt it is
"The myth that ethnic minority candidates are vote-losers, or that black voters only vote for black candidates, has once and for all been dispelled."
"The electorate in the UK is very sophisticated and looks beyond skin colour at what candidates stand for."
"I've met and seen so many incredibly talented black and Asian politicians I think it could happen within 10 or 20 years"

And Simon Woolley, director of Operation Black Vote, says the US election marks a watershed that could mean a black prime minister in 10 or 20 years.

"The greatest problem has been the lack of self-belief that you see aspiring to the highest office and in one fell swoop the shackles have been broken. There's a deluge of talent but they may well be eclipsed by a new talent that could suddenly emerge with great dynamism and oratory skills."

The obstacles in the UK are still immense, he says, and all-black shortlists for candidates would help, but the "Barack Obama generation" has been a theme for the past year, driving people to serve in their community.

"We're asking them to come out of the shadows, to become leaders, school governors, magistrates and elected councillors, and they've responded fantastically.

"Obama's candidacy has energised a great number of people and many individuals are now standing for office."

The British Obama could already be among us.

A selection of your comments appears below.

President-elect Obama was able to succeed because he appealed to ALL Americans, and embodied an American vision, not a minority vision. Just as Benjamin Disraeli was elected British Conservative Prime Minister because, although of Sephardi Jewish descent, he created the idea of "one nation" Conservatism. That, in its day was revolutionary - it could not have occurred anywhere else in the world. (I am not a Tory by the way.) As so often, Britain was first: we cut the head off our king 150 years before the French thought of it too - and without a reign of terror.
Sasha Clarkson (Mr), Pembrokeshire

I am annoyed at the focus put on Obama's race. Although, like myself, he is mixed race, the world perceives him as black as the colour of his skin is his most defining physical characteristic. Although a moving and historical moment, it is a moment non the less, and what is to follow is what really matters. America has not elected a man this liberal since 1960, and to me that is what is really exciting. As for Britain, I believe that when the time comes to elect a minority leader, it should be, like Obama, because of merit, not for the novelty. Obama had to earn that respect, and that is why he is truly groundbreaking.
Antony, UK

I lived in the UK for several years and it always amazes me how Brits are so quick to call us Americans racists when in fact, I hardly see any prominent black leaders either in politics or in the business world. I was born in New Jersey and have seen black mayors, senators and governors and black CEOs of major companies. In the UK, I send my children to school and teachers expect by default, that my kids are dumb (being American and all!) and disruptive. How can black youth ever aspire to greatness when even their teachers expect so little from them?
Kimberly St John, Birmingham, UK

If 8% of the population is non-white, then it would be a good thing for 8% of our parliamentary representatives to be non-white. However, once those persons (male or female) were elected by the electorate, it would be up to them as individuals to succeed in reaching the apex of their party, and then garner sufficient votes at the next election to be the prime minister. With roughly one election every 5 years, I'd hope to see it happen in my lifetime i.e the next 50 years.
Arthur, London

I think that there is far too much emphasis on a black person for this and a black person for that. Why can't we just talk about people in terms of who they are and not the colour of their skin? I do not believe that our governmental institutions are in any way racist, nor the fact that there is no black or otherwise people in the top jobs are a form of under-representation. I think most people would agree that if the talent is there then that person should be in the job regardless of the colour of their skin. We should not go down the route of passing up the right person for the job simply because there are not enough people of a certain ethnic group working in certain positions. Of course Britain can and will have a black PM one day, but to insinuate that in some way we are behind America simply because we do not, is in my opinion, a bit too black and white (if you pardon the pun).
Douglas, Glasgow

Has to be 4th generation onwards. Blacks in USA are there for ages. Here they have arrived mostly 40-50 years ago. Same applies to Asians as well. Integration is the key step. Other things like becoming a prime minister will come eventually. Otherwise they will have mostly divided loyalty between Britain and their country of origin. I am a proud British citizen of Indian origin.
Subha, Feltham, Middlesex

As much as the British enjoy chastising the US over being racist, we are eons ahead of them in being colour blind to skin colour and class status. I recently had an older British "gentleman" tell me how he couldn't understand why anyone would vote for Obama because his relatives live in a lower income area in London. He then went on, in an attempt to try to make me see how I was wrong to vote for a black man, "You want a bunch of blacks in the Lincoln bedroom?". I thought to myself, "Lincoln would be proud." We are a country of many nationalities and many skin colours. We don't put a value on lineage.
Maureen, Florida,USA

The electoral system in this country makes the main difference between us and the USA, they vote for their leader we only get to choose the party they come from and have no control over who sits at the top. That decision is made by the elected party with no input from the public eg. Gordon Brown. If the public had more say and MP's held accountable to their constituents I believe we may have already had a non-white PM, but as they are pretty much free to do what they want even when the majority of the public objects it could be a very long time until we see a black or Asian leader.
Chris Jacobs, Kinver UK

Positive discrimination is still discrimination, and an 'all black' short list is an affront to democracy. I vote for people and parties based on their policies, and would never vote for someone just so they could be the first black, Asian, disabled, gay, whatever Prime Minister.
Rob, Zurich

The notion that you have to be from an upper class Cambridge public school to get into the commons is nonsense - maybe in the Tory party, but how do you explain the vast majority of people from working and lower middle class backgrounds such as John Prescott?
Richard, Bingley

I'm starting to get fed up with the "First Black President" thing already. Believe me I understand the monumental significance of anyone of MIXED RACE being elected to the highest position of authority in the USA, the World, even...but the fact remains that President-Elect Obama is as white as he is black, with a white mother and a black father. It is that he represents multiple races that speaks more about how civil rights and the USA have moved on in recent years. He should be claimed by neither black people nor white people as "their own", rather he represents a cultural mix that is representative of 21st Century life. That alone should be applauded. Now stop emphasising his blackness, and understand he is the best man for the job, irrespective of colour. I very much doubt Mr Obama would approve of this constant emphasis on his racial origins.
Martin, Bristol, UK

First, it would be better to ask if Britain could have a Roman Catholic PM.
Ken Parkes, Kyoto, Japan

This election was not about race, it was about a chap who was not owned by big business, or oil or technology or any other industry sector, it was about a guy who is intelligent, articulate and knows right from wrong. Qualities that all normal, decent human beings have.
Peter Jackson, Basingstoke

I'm 31 and I can't imagine I'll ever see a black or Asian leader in my lifetime. I feel the UK is quite a racist country and this is something which is perpetuated by the media. I was shocked by BBC reports earlier this year on immigrant babies putting pressure on the NHS. Everyone deserves hospital treatment, including vulnerable people from minority groups.
Helen , Chester, Cheshire, UK

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