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  • Technorati: graph / links

    Having an ethnic minority prime minister


    by Rumbold
    13th November, 2008 at 10:26 pm    

    Following the election of Barack Obama, there has been much talk about the possibility of Britain having a prime minister from an ethnic minority. Sunder Katwala was upbeat about the possibility, Trevor Phillips less so, while Shariq provided an excellent comparison between Britain and the USA’s respective situations.

    Yet when one is discussing race, a lot hinges on definitions, which can mean different things to different people. Obama isn’t black, but rather mixed-race, yet he was almost universally described as ‘black’. If John McCain had been elected, would he have been billed as the first US president born in Central America? No. Therefore, what we have is a subjective assessment of what constitutes an ethnic minority.

    Using that as a base then, could we in Britain already have had an ethnic minority prime minister? The two best candidates for the title are the 19th century Tories Benjamin Disraeli and Robert Jenkinson (Lord Liverpool). In some ways, Liverpool’s racial identity is similar to that of Obama’s. Despite being mixed-race (he was of Anglo-Indian descent), he was never considered to be a prime minister from an ethnic minority, nor did he look noticeably different from his colleagues in skin tone.

    Disraeli too is a difficult case, coming from a Jewish background but being baptized. Again, it hinges on how you view the racial (as opposed to the religious) identity of Jews. Disraeli himself sometimes self-identified as a Jew, such as when he responded to the anti-Semitic barbs of the Irish independence hero Daniel O’Connell:

    “Yes, I am a Jew and when the ancestors of the right honourable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon.”

    If we play with definitions even further, we can have even more ethnic minority leaders. Some senior Roman figures in Britain came from North Africa, most notably the Libyan-born emperor Septimius Severus, who moved the imperial capital to York for the last years of his life in order to battle the barbarians north of Hadrian’s Wall.

    So who from the above qualifies as an ethnic minority leader? I don’t know, and I am not sure anyone does. Is skin tone the sole criteria to being an ethnic minority, or is it more complicated than that? Who decides who is what? Can people self-identify? What percentage of your genetic structure has to be from an ethnic minority to be one?

    Looking at leading ethnic minority political figures in the UK, with the exception of Sunny, none from the left really stand out. David Lammey is convinced that he is the British Obama, while Keith Vaz is probably convinced that Obama is the American Vaz. As the result of the prevailing Islamaphobia, no Muslim could be prime minister anytime soon. And the Liberal Democrats don’t even seem to have any prominent ethnic minority MPs. I suspect that if a credible ethnic minority candidate emerges, it will be on the right, maybe following in the footsteps of ethnic minority right wingers before them.


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    Filed in: History,Race politics






    45 Comments below   |  

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    1. fugstar — on 13th November, 2008 at 10:32 pm  

      ‘with the exception of sunny’

      lol.

      i think the red herring is becoming larger and larger. we arent american so can we ease of on the ostentatious, hyped, messianic and symbolic deflowering of rascism please.

    2. Refresh — on 13th November, 2008 at 10:45 pm  

      Rumbold

      ‘As the result of the prevailing Islamaphobia, no Muslim could be prime minister anytime soon’

      Interesting point, in terms of achievement to match Obama’s it would indeed need to be a muslim. Anything else is so passe.

    3. Refresh — on 13th November, 2008 at 10:56 pm  

      On the whole the focus on leadership needs to shift beyond UK and Europe. Nothing of consequence is to be expected here or on mainland Europe. What will be important is what happens in the Middle East including Israel, South Asia, Russia and China.

      I say this, because what was important with Obama was the generational shift. And what it could inspire elsewhere.

      I am not for one moment interested in seeking out the next Obama. There is no next Obama.

    4. Sunny — on 13th November, 2008 at 11:25 pm  

      LOL. I’m not sure I stand out that much, yet,.

      I read a funny piece in Slate today about the next minority president in the US - worth checking out.

      I think skin tone is an increasingly less important criteria, though it stands out because people are visual creatures.

      Though, I think cultural difference is likely to be more pronounced in coming years. That all important - ‘is this a guy/gal you can have a pint with’ index is likely to become more important as people look for someone they can connect with rather than someone who looks different.

    5. Amrit — on 13th November, 2008 at 11:46 pm  

      ‘… while Keith Vaz is probably convinced that Obama is the American Vaz’

      Ha ha ha.

      Let’s just hope the Tories don’t use all this ethnic-minority based introspection to start trumpeting Kulveer Ranger or whatever. By that, I mean take this as another opportunity to show how goddamn ‘progressive’ they are (ha!) Remember kids, Tories are all the same gloomy local-library-murdering shade of blue underneath the skin, be it a pink, brown or beige skin… Moments of sense (David Davis on civil liberties) do not a sensible person make.

      *looks around shiftily*

      SUNNY FOR PRIME MINISTER!

      *coughs and scurries off*

    6. douglas clark — on 14th November, 2008 at 12:10 am  

      Does anyone really think that a spectacularily good politician like Barack Obama would be held back in the UK by the colour of their skin?

      I’d be disappointed if that were the case.

    7. Ravi Naik — on 14th November, 2008 at 12:13 am  

      In some ways, Liverpool’s racial identity is similar to that of Obama’s. Despite being mixed-race (he was of Anglo-Indian descent), he was never considered to be a prime minister from an ethnic minority, nor did he look noticeably different from his colleagues in skin tone.

      The reason why he didn’t look different from his colleages is because his grandmother was part-Indian, so he was 1/8th Indian…

    8. Refresh — on 14th November, 2008 at 12:13 am  

      Douglas

      No. Not in the least.

      He or she will come from some unrecognised quarter and will not be seen to be a party animal.

    9. Ravi Naik — on 14th November, 2008 at 12:16 am  

      Does anyone really think that a spectacularily good politician like Barack Obama would be held back in the UK by the colour of their skin?

      No, I don’t. It just happens that minority politicians in this country either engage in identity politics which is really unappealing to whites and other communities, or are just plain mediocre. Keith Vaz is a prime example of both.

    10. sonia — on 14th November, 2008 at 12:36 am  

      good points rumbold. a subjective assessment indeed.

      david lammy does seem to think he is going to be britain’s obama..now that is reducing Obama to his perceived ‘blackness’.

      amrit is right. i suggest we all start pushing for Sunny to be our Obama.

    11. sonia — on 14th November, 2008 at 12:42 am  

      6. douglas i don’t think so. i think if you get a charismatic option for leader of any race colour whatever, people would be well up for it. age is a bigger factor i think - people have had it with old fogeys. and energy would be a big plus too. face it, the current crop of prime ministers (after everyone was disillusioned with our bright tony in about 1998) doesn’t really inspire, people are crying out for some interest, anyone who is different from the same old same old.

      plus get anyone young enough in and that will be more likely to inspire so many people who have never voted - i.e. the young people, and there are also many other untapped electorates let’s not forget. i say if anyone young energetic, youthful ran on a legalisation of cannabis platform, as an independent, they’d probably get in.

    12. Nav From Canada — on 14th November, 2008 at 12:44 am  

      “Obama isn’t black, but rather mixed-race, yet he was almost universally described as ‘black’.”

      By that definition most African-Americans aren’t black.

    13. sonia — on 14th November, 2008 at 12:47 am  

      now of course, who wants the job of prime minister - is another question. its pants, and I don’t want it.

    14. sonia — on 14th November, 2008 at 12:48 am  

      yes well we all know that the americans have their one-drop rule and that explains why they all saw it that way.

    15. Refresh — on 14th November, 2008 at 12:51 am  

      ‘amrit is right. i suggest we all start pushing for Sunny to be our Obama.’

      Not sure about that. Sunny has got 20 years of community service to do yet.

      Shami perhaps. But still not an Obama.

      Having said that there is no reason our Obama couldn’t be white. It will have everything to do with rallying people from the ground up, and I do think it will be someone who will grasp the nettle and challenge today’s economic orthodoxy, whose good name is being rescued by the likes of Brown et al. That will have to be the key differentiator.

    16. Sid — on 14th November, 2008 at 1:10 am  

      while Keith Vaz is probably convinced that Obama is the American Vaz.

      heh good line.

      Good old Keith wrote to the Guardian urging Salman Rushdie not to publish Satanic Verses in paperback because “there is no such thing as absolute freedom of speech”. He’ll do anything for a vote.

    17. Cabalamat — on 14th November, 2008 at 3:04 am  

      One could argue that all the Scottish and Welsh Prime Ministers we’ve had have been members of ethnic minorities — certainly there are enough Scottish and Welsh people who consider themselves ethnically different enough from the English that there are thriving separatist movements in both places.

    18. Cabalamat — on 14th November, 2008 at 3:06 am  

      Sid: Good old Keith wrote to the Guardian urging Salman Rushdie not to publish Satanic Verses in paperback because “there is no such thing as absolute freedom of speech”. He’ll do anything for a vote.

      I think Keith Vaz should be prevented from speaking in public on any issue for that very reason.

    19. ac256 — on 14th November, 2008 at 8:16 am  

      The hardest task would be for a Roman Catholic to get elected PM (a proper one…)

    20. justforfun — on 14th November, 2008 at 9:51 am  

      I beg to differ - I think its not a question of skin colour - it will come down to class and eloquition. The British size people up by these two factors more than colour.

      So at first sight colour might be the prejudice, but this prejudice is either set aside quickly or re-confirmed the moment one speaks. Its the voice ( and hence the class) that is the factor about who ‘belongs’ in the tribe. I would say that about Obama as well but we all know America is classless :-)

      A pronounced or bizzare accent will not be a vote winner. I’m afraid it does not look good for Indians, as the many accents from India do not really sound good when speaking English. Pakistanis however have the edge here. Just hear Pakistani diplomats compared to Indian diplomats. There is no contest - I’m sorry to say :-( - the Indians sound shifty the moment they open their mouths or they are the opposite extreme like Shashi Tharoor who makes me feel like I need a shower after I hear him speak.

      A slight Nigerian accent works well as does a Barbadan , but not a Jamaican.

      So my ‘justforfun’ tip is concentrate on the accent and what sound OK on the radio.

      I’m not taking bets on Sunny , untill he goes for eloquition lessons. Sorry Sunny. - forgive my advice. Get a Brummie accent at the very least :-)

      justforfun

    21. Leon — on 14th November, 2008 at 10:22 am  

      Obama isn’t black, but rather mixed-race, yet he was almost universally described as ‘black’.

      Might have something to do with the fact that he himself is on record saying he considers himself black…

    22. fugstar — on 14th November, 2008 at 10:42 am  

      its all about shami chakrabarty

      not the try hard browns they are hopeless. she actually has mojo.

    23. Jai — on 14th November, 2008 at 10:44 am  

      Very good article, Rumbold. Some points raised a laugh too, re: Sunny and Vaz :)

      As the result of the prevailing Islamaphobia, no Muslim could be prime minister anytime soon.

      Personally I think it rules out the possibility of any Asian person full-stop being PM anytime soon — regardless of whether he/she’s actually a Muslim or not — considering the level of conflation, paranoia and ignorance which has become prevalent amongst many sections of wider British society, especially amongst those who have relatively little experience in mixing socially with Asians of various backgrounds.

      Unless, of course, like Obama it was someone who was intellectually brilliant, exceptionally politically astute, and (most of all) unusually charismatic.

      As things stand, I think that the probability of a black British PM is considerably higher, in the short/mid-term anyway.

      What will be important is what happens in the Middle East including Israel, South Asia, Russia and China.

      Brazil too.

      Incidentally, during the next few decades white people will become an “ethnic minority” in the US due to the increase in the Hispanic population. It will be interesting to see the corresponding cultural and (possibly) linguistic shift that occurs.

    24. Jai — on 14th November, 2008 at 10:44 am  

      Just hear Pakistani diplomats compared to Indian diplomats. There is no contest

      Actually that is true, I’ve noticed that too. Although senior Indian military officers do sound as good as their Pakistani counterparts along with the aforementioned diplomats.

      Anyway, this is a moot point, dude. Educated British-born 2nd-generation Asians usually don’t speak with a desi accent.

      Your point about “class” is correct, though, but I think our hypothetical Asian wannabe PM would have to sound suitably commanding (but not overbearing or arrogant) as well as, er, classy. It’s all about leadership presence, innit.

      The problem, my friend, is that most younger British Asians with the requisite gravitas end up going into the corporate/business world or medicine or whatnot.

      But you never know. Like Obama, our Brit desi equivalent could suddenly turn up out of nowhere. Hell, he might be browsing through Pickled Politics at this very moment, chuckling to himself in what will eventually become an instantly recognisable baritone voice, thinking “Heh heh, if only they knew…..”

      ;)

    25. MaidMarian — on 14th November, 2008 at 10:46 am  

      Ravi Naik (9) - ‘It just happens that minority politicians in this country either engage in identity politics which is really unappealing to whites and other communities, or are just plain mediocre.’

      Now that’s a great thought! I wonder whether there are Americans who think along the same lines but who see Obama as ‘different’ because he does not indulge identity politics and is not mediocre.

      I agree with you strongly. When it comes to minorities there is a real sense of tokenism that has built up - rightly or wrongly. That greater BME numbers in government (as opposed to politics) is an intrinsic good regardless of the quality. Perhaps worse than that some identities seem to be given a priority above others to the extent that identity is stretched a long way. In this sense, the article makes a good point.

      Politicians should stand and fall on the quality of their ideas in opposition and their achievements in office. Stepping back into the real world that idea is distorted by identity and gesture politics and it’s not good.

      Black, muslim, east European, asian - I see no reason why per se someone from these backgrounds could not become PM. We just need a good ‘un. And, as Obama found out, perhaps a helpful electoral climate.

    26. Leon — on 14th November, 2008 at 11:23 am  

      Something I would say, when it happens in this country it’ll probably be long after there is any significance attached to it. Also, I think it’s quite likely to female and maybe even Muslim. I’m not convinced it will be from the right however.

    27. platinum786 — on 14th November, 2008 at 11:37 am  

      Well guys if you need someone of mixed political views swinging radically from left to right wing, depending on my mood and public opinion and you need him to be Brown and Muslim… I’ll do it. :)

      Race is not the issue it was in America. Yes we had racism, but we did not have apartheid, America, pretty much had that in the 60′s, whether they accept it or not.

      Also personality politics matters a lot less here in the UK, Obama had a wow factor we all bought, worldwide he was stunning audiences. People voted for him, because they knew that once in he had real power.

      In the UK, the power of the PM is not as much, we don’t have a PM veto power do we? The individual is much less likely to matter. The party matters, the local MP matters. Muslim people in Derby hated Labour for it’s policy towards Iraq, Afghanistan, but Margret Beckett has been good for Derby, the Tories have had the same policies and are a dead party in Derby, why vote for them? We have a lib Dem council, they’re bigger flops than Labour, and I voted Lib Dem, never making that mistake again.

      Say labour wanted the Obama factor and the Obama style win, assume they had a young Muslim man standing for PM, to get that win, you’d need radical fresh policies supported by facts and figures, you’d need a massive national campaign, you’d need a swathe of fresh faces, a lot of mini Obama’s standing as MP’s, then you could get that kind of win.

      Obama didn’t win “coz e iz black”, he won because of an astounding political campaign, good policies, a good connection to the people, and a huge huge movement by his supporters.

      The challenge in britain would not be the public, but rather getting a Muslim man to be put forward by a political party as their nominee for PM.

    28. Sofia — on 14th November, 2008 at 11:51 am  

      The British Raj was created by an ethnic minority of whites in India. It’s not just about numbers and minorities, it’s about where minorities are positioned in terms of power. Frankly, having a black, muslim, female or transexual, or all of the aforementioned as PM won’t inspire me at all…it’s the quality of their actions that would speak louder.

    29. El Cid — on 14th November, 2008 at 12:05 pm  

      “Using that as a base then, could we in Britain already have had an ethnic minority prime minister.”

      I challenge someone to argue that the two examples you gave don’t prove we have already had an ethnic prime minister.

      Stop treading on egg shells Rumbold. Say what you see, mean what you say.

    30. billy — on 14th November, 2008 at 12:16 pm  

      A pronounced or bizzare accent will not be a vote winner

      A future black or asian PM will arise from the generations born and raised in Britain. Accent will not be an issue. They will be British to the tips of their toes.

    31. douglas clark — on 14th November, 2008 at 12:43 pm  

      Rumbold,

      Oi!

      …Septimius Severus, who moved the imperial capital to York for the last years of his life in order to battle the barbarians north of Hadrian’s Wall.

      You obviously meant the anti-imperialist freedom fighters of North Britain! ;-)

    32. justforfun — on 14th November, 2008 at 12:57 pm  

      Anyway, this is a moot point, dude. Educated British-born 2nd-generation Asians usually don’t speak with a desi accent.

      Point taken. However do I detect some are developing an accent that is unique and is ‘asian’, but perhaps they are not the ‘educated’ ones. Or perhaps its my ears?

      …..in what will eventually become an instantly recognisable baritone voice, thinking “Heh heh, if only they knew…..”

      I didn’t know Sonia had a baritone. She has been quiet for a few weeks - she is plotting something - I just know it. Please tell me its true that Sonia has a husky voice.

      Actually I think the first ‘Asian’ as PM will be a woman, not a man. Just a hunch - based on the large number of female ‘Asian’ newsreaders etc who have conditioned the minds of the general white population to be comfortable with the sound and association. I’m afraid the male ‘asian’ voice is still associated with doctors with accents.

      Although senior Indian military officers do sound as good as their Pakistani counterparts … the Manekshaw generation have already gone on. Have you heard him speak. He was a very very good raconteur. (Jai - If you catch a few of his speeches on the web you might catch the one where he has a joke at the expense of Sikhs - take it in the spirit it was meant - he had a great love of Sikhs. He was Amritsar born and in a Sikh regiment before joining the Gurkhas. His use of the term ‘native’ troops would also jar in these pc times.)

      Billy - no hope for 1st generation ‘asians’? I see you are taking a long view :-) but your point is taken.

      justforfun

    33. billy — on 14th November, 2008 at 1:02 pm  

      To be honest justforfun, I think that only a British born man or woman of Indian, Jamaican, Nigerian mixed-ethnicity (for example) descent will ever be PM. I’m not sure that ‘first-generation’ would have the understanding or feel for Britain that a second, third, fourth, fifth, whatever generation black Brit would have. It’s just not going to happen. America formalises this. Nobody born outside America can ever become President (this is why Arnold Schwarzenneger has been weeping in private over his sauerkraut for the last ten years)

    34. douglas clark — on 14th November, 2008 at 1:18 pm  

      How does this generational thing work exactly? If we assume that folk grow from being babies to having babies in about twenty five years or so there must be huge numbers of third generation candidates in the UK already.

      Anyway, notwithstanding that, if someone of the calibre of Shami Chakrabarti stood in my constituency, I’d vote across party lines to help get her elected.

    35. Rumbold — on 14th November, 2008 at 6:17 pm  

      El Cid:

      Seriously. I really don’t know.

      Douglas:

      I was hoping you would notice that. And I think that it was mostly Picts then.

    36. El Cid — on 14th November, 2008 at 6:29 pm  

      I DO know. Or were they Uncle Toms, to borrow a term from another thread?

    37. Ravi Naik — on 14th November, 2008 at 7:45 pm  

      I challenge someone to argue that the two examples you gave don’t prove we have already had an ethnic prime minister.

      Nobody can argue with that if one takes the definition of ethnic minority literally (and the one-drop rule). But the reality is that there is a difference between what we perceive to be of a different ethnicity and its definition.

      These days, light-skinned southern Europeans and Jews are considered whites and nobody thinks of them as an ethnic minority. Furthermore, if you are mixed race, but you look white, then you are white (e.g. Cliff Richards). But if the same mix results in someone resembling someone of a dark-skinned race (blacks, south Asians), then that becomes an issue. Race after all is truly superficial. While we marvel at Obama’s achievement for getting into the White House despite being different from all other Presidents, it is worth knowing that he shares the same ancestors as Cheney, and his ancestors trace back to Ireland, which is pretty unremarkable for many whites who reached the Presidency. But we focus entirely on the black part, because he is dark-skinned. In Canada, South Asians, blacks and East Asians are called visible minorities. And that’s pretty much what we mean by ethnic minorities these days.

    38. Rumbold — on 14th November, 2008 at 7:47 pm  

      All that I am saying is that we have trouble defining ethnic minorities. Maybe it is pointless. Rather than labels, as you suggested elsewhere, we can just treat them as individuals. I think that would be a good thing. Then we could get Sunny elected.

      I would like to class Liverpool as ‘minority ethnic’, just to see how it is perceived. So then we could get beyond race.

      However, how many people would take notice? Overall, maybe a few, but would it matter? To be honest, I think it is an academic question more than a practical one.

    39. Ravi Naik — on 14th November, 2008 at 7:52 pm  

      Now that’s a great thought! I wonder whether there are Americans who think along the same lines but who see Obama as ‘different’ because he does not indulge identity politics and is not mediocre.

      That was precisely my point.

      When it comes to minorities there is a real sense of tokenism that has built up - rightly or wrongly. That greater BME numbers in government (as opposed to politics) is an intrinsic good regardless of the quality.

      Totally agree.

    40. Ravi Naik — on 14th November, 2008 at 7:59 pm  

      On the subject of tokenism, I consider equally bad taking opportunities from someone more qualified, and giving opportunities for someone less qualfied, just on the grounds of race and gender.

    41. El Cid — on 14th November, 2008 at 8:17 pm  

      “And that’s pretty much what we mean by ethnic minorities these days.”

      Do you think that is right? Helpful? Progressive?

    42. Ravi Naik — on 14th November, 2008 at 8:28 pm  

      Do you think that is right? Helpful? Progressive?

      I certainly do not like it nor do I find it useful to be caged as a “minority”, because there is certainly an implicit “oppression” and self-defeatist feel attached to it. Is it progressive? I get the feeling it was most likely coined by progressives, in order to flag inequality. However, I believe that such terms are temporary, and will become obsolete in a few generations.

    43. El Cid — on 14th November, 2008 at 8:57 pm  

      You’re a wise man Ravi.
      Do you have any political ambitions?

    44. Don — on 14th November, 2008 at 10:08 pm  

      I don’t know about Liverpool, but Dizzy was certainly of a ‘visible minority’, it was remarked upon. Hence his famous riposte, “Yes, I am a Jew, and when the ancestors of the right honorable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon.”

    45. bananabrain — on 17th November, 2008 at 3:26 pm  

      hehe, i’ve often used a version of this, when informed of the “backwardness” and “bigotry” of my “religionism”, to wit:

      “2000 years ago, my culture was discussing maintenance payments in the case of divorce, while western europeans were painting themselves blue and burning people in wicker baskets.”

      i don’t have to use it that often, but it’s usually quite satisfying.

      b’shalom

      bananabrain

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