Any Hope for a Black British Prime Minister?

by Sheyi Oriade

Of the many natural laws to which man is subject and under whose sway ‘he lives and moves and has his being’ but of which he is largely oblivious, there are few more intriguing in their reach and application than the law of unintended consequences. This law, in essence and purport, suggests that whenever individuals embark upon a course of action with a specific outcome in mind, very often, through the agency of some intervening force a number of supervening consequences occur beyond the compass of the intended original outcome, thereby resulting in the occurrence of beneficial or detrimental effects for others.

A demonstration of this law was to be seen in effect recently with the election of Barack Obama as America’s first black president. The action of the American people in this regard – a wholly intended one – was to set off a ripple effect of concentric circles in the seemingly placid waters of British politics, in the guise of a debate about the prospects for the emergence of a black British prime minister; this debate being a wholly unintended consequence.

Now anyone reasonably acquainted with Britain and its politics will be aware that it is a nation not often given to introspection. If anything at all, it has a predilection, if not a predisposition, towards avoiding subject-matters it considers uncomfortable. Subjects such as race, racism, and the marginalisation of ethnic minorities in British society hardly feature as a topic for national debate; rather they are carefully and skilfully avoided.

Much better it is thought to evade and avoid these issues and maintain an unspoken code of silence, upon which a façade of plausible deniability can be erected behind which it can safely be claimed that no such problems exist in Britain. This approach does away with the need to address or resolve the issues. And so the nation is able to proceed about its business in a state of pretended silence and harmony.

So against the above background, it is easy to imagine the discomfort suffered by many in Britain following Barack Obama’s historic victory who had to endure a debate in the national media, about the prospects of such a replication in Britain. One particular contribution to this debate which, I suspect, left many in a state of consternation and ‘foaming at the mouth’ was made by someone of consequence in the public eye. This person chose to ‘fly a kite’ by raising the idea of the emergence of a black prime minister, but simultaneously deciding to imperil the same ‘kite’s flight’ by dismissing such chances because of institutional racism prevalent in the internal systems of British political parties.

The agent provocateur turned out to be the temperate and mild mannered chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, Mr. Trevor Philips. For whatever reason, he decided to raise his head above the parapet and break ranks and a national taboo of pretended silence, to speak out on a supposedly ‘forbidden’ subject. His intervention was as interesting the body he leads; the very existence of which, in 2008, indicates the lopsided state of racial parity in Britain.

It is perhaps worthwhile pointing out, if only for contextual purposes, that Mr. Philips is black and of Guyanese origin. But he is widely regarded as an establishment figure. Seeing as he is a member of the Labour Party with strong connections in government circles. He also connected to the upper reaches of British society, being as he is, a friend of the Prince of Wales.

Given his pedigree and the depth of his roots in the Labour Party, I wonder, yet applaud, his decision to take special aim at the Labour Party, by placing a ‘cat amongst the pigeons’ in order to ruffle feathers and provoke debate within the Labour Party. The nub of his views was that the British electorate was welcoming of change in the form of a black or Asian prime minister, but the political parties were not.

One can only imagine the level of embarrassment felt by the main political parties, at the airing of these views, coming as they did, against the backdrop of the spectacle in which the leaders of the main political parties were falling over themselves in a bid to outdo each other in their efforts to ingratiate themselves with the newly elected American president.

The embarrassment felt, perhaps explains the swiftness with which the Labour Party sought to defuse the situation. It tried to conceal its ‘nakedness’ in this area, by seeking protective cover under the foliage of ‘fig leaves’ in the form of its small posse of ethnic minority MPs. Some of whom it deployed to TV studios to make obligatory noises about progress achieved to date and of progress still to come. The lone black Conservative Party MP was less sanguine in his prognosis. He felt that a black prime minister would not emerge in his lifetime. And considering the fact that he is just 43, it shows how bleak things must be in his party.

It is debatable whether the intervention of some the minority MPs was successful in its objective or not. But what it was certainly successful at was drawing attention to the fact that of the over 600 MPs in Parliament, only 15 of them are of black or Asian origin. And 13 of them belong to the Labour Party, while the other two are in the Conservative Party. The Liberal Democrat Party does not have a single non-white MP; so much their liberal and democratic outlook.

Perhaps the proper debate to be had is one whose focus is centred upon questions which deal with: when will it be, and what it will take, for indigenous Britons to become comfortable with, and accepting of, the idea of the common humanity of non-indigenous Britons. Once this gulf is bridged, then and perhaps only then, will a recognition and acceptance of the rights of non-indigenous Britons to a level playing field in broader British society, as a natural consequence of their humanity, occur. But for the moment there is no such recognition or acceptance of this notion as is illustrated by the following account.

Dawn Butler, a black Labour MP, and one of those who took to the airwaves in defence of her party’s record in promoting equality of opportunity, was herself subjected to some undignified behaviour by a fellow MP on the grounds of the House of Commons some time ago. The London and Manchester Guardian Newspaper reported that her presence on the premises of the House of Commons was challenged by a white male Conservative MP who felt that she had no business being there. When informed that she was an MP, he apparently retorted, that these days, they let anyone into parliament; so much for progress.

One must mention, however, in mitigation of the Labour Party, that since its return to power in 1997, it has been instrumental in the appointment of Britain’s first black cabinet minister, never mind the fact he held the lowest portfolio in government at that level, and never managed to rise above and beyond it, for whatever reason. The present Attorney-General for England and Wales is a black lady; as indeed was the former leader of the House of Lords. So the Labour government has taken meaningful steps towards promoting equality of opportunity for black people and others in Britain.

The truth of the matter is that although the progress of black people in professional politics has been slow, in comparison to other areas of endeavour in British society, it is supersonic. In areas like Commerce and Industry, the Police, the Judiciary, and the Civil Service, black progress is either negligible in comparison to their white peers or altogether non-existent. The justification for this lack of progress is often ascribed to a general lack of competence amongst black people, rather than to a racial bias against them.

Once again America has led the way in this regard. And fairly soon Barack Obama and his family will sit down and dine at the White House banquet table; and I say to them, bon appétit; for it’s been a long time coming. In Britain, at least, for the foreseeable future, there will remain no place at the top banquet table for its citizens of colour. They will have to make do with the crumbs that fall from the banquet table.

In the event of a black prime minister emerging in Britain in the next half-century, I imagine that such an emergence, in all probability, will be due to the workings of the law of unintended consequences, rather than as a result of a deliberate act of will on the part of the political system and its controlling elite.

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1 comment

Mphe June 10, 2009 - 1:37 pm

Perhaps you should ask yourself as to whether Nigeria will ever have a white Governor let alone a President.

Or to soften things up imagine South Africa (which has millions of whites) ever having a white president. Trevor Manuel (from black and whites ancestral background) a key senior member of the ruling African National Congress can not even considered to a higher post even though he is popular within the ANC. He can only circulate as a Minister and he knows it and everybody knows it that it is all because he is not 100%


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