What does Barack Obama’s election mean to other white nations? Will Europe be inspired to do an Obama?
Is it all done and dusted then? Are we all now happily post-racial? No more worries about the colour of our skin, race or religion? Euphoria can’t get better than what followed Barack Obama’s election as America’s first African-American President. The eruption of joy, hope and optimism that it triggered befits a truly historic event. But what next?
Now that America has finally broken through the race barrier, the question being asked is: What does Mr. Obama’s election mean for identity politics in other white nations? Will Europe, for instance, be inspired to “do an Obama?” Can we hope to see a non-white European head of state or Prime Minister anytime soon? Is there a possibility of a British Asian or African taking up residence in Downing Street in our lifetime?
Once this might have seemed an academic question. After all, even in America, until it actually happened, few Americans seriously believed they would ever see a non-white President and, indeed, the Obama team itself had kept its fingers crossed until the last moment.
But the Obama win has changed all that. Now that the door has been kicked open, there is suddenly a sense that if it can happen in America it can happen anywhere. It was dubbed America’s “Rubicon moment” when, in a remarkable show of unity, the nation came together to bury the ghost of its bitter racist past and embark on a new beginning.
For Europe, however, the “Rubicon moment” still looks some generations away. Even optimists are not prepared to speculate when — if at all — the “Obama-isation” of Europe may happen. Europe has always had a slightly patronising view of America as a culturally insular country blighted by racial prejudice and small-mindedness. By choosing an African-American President, the Americans have dealt a blow to the Europeans’ smug sense of cultural superiority. In a letter to The Guardian, a New York-based European reader described Mr. Obama’s victory as a “direct challenge to liberal Europe” that should force it to “take a good look in the mirror and ask itself: ‘Could Obama really have won in Europe’?” “Europeans have had their laughs at Americans … but now the joke is on us. Perhaps this week’s historic election shows that Americans are a generation more progressive than their European cousins,” Oistein M. Thorsen wrote.
In Britain, for the first time, old assumptions about white dominance of mainstream politics are being questioned. And it is happening not just on the Left or among African and Asian communities. The triumph of the “American story,” as George W. Bush put it, has got even the curmudgeon Right excited — and talking. In the Commons, Tory leader David Cameron vied with Prime Minister Gordon Brown to hail Mr. Obama’s election as a symbol of the new face of modern politics; and on a BBC programme, the sharpest comment on the gross under-representation of ethnic minorities in Parliament and the government came from Michael Portillo, a former Tory Defence Secretary. He pointed out that while America had had two non-white Secretaries of State in recent years (Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice), no African or Asian had ever occupied a comparable post in the British government.
Of course, Mr. Portillo is no longer a card-carrying Tory and on most cultural issues he is seen as a liberal these days. But there is a growing view even among flag-waving Tories that the question of political empowerment of the ethnic minorities cannot be ignored for much longer.
At the moment, Africans and Asians are embarrassingly under-represented in Parliament with only 15 non-white MPs (13 Labour and two Tory) in a 645-strong House of Commons; and only one non-white Cabinet Minister, Lady Patricia Scotland. Research by the Fabian Society, a leading left-wing think tank, suggests that in the next general election the number of African and Asian MPs could rise to 25 “representing as much progress in one election as has been made in the previous four,” according to its general secretary Sunder Katwala. Still, the Commons would remain disproportionately white. With ethnic minorities accounting for 7.5 per cent of the British population, there should be 60 non-white MPs if the House of Commons is to reflect proportionately the ethnic mix of the country.
As I write this, a row has erupted over the statement by the Head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Trevor Phillips, that had Mr. Obama lived in Britain he would have struggled because of “institutional racism” in the British political system. Alleging that there was a “systemic bias” against the people from ethnic background that would prevent even someone as brilliant as Mr. Obama from achieving his full potential, he said: “My point is that it’s very difficult for people who don’t fit a certain mould — and that is to do with gender, it’s to do with race and it’s to do with class — to find their way into the outer reaches of politics.”
Ironically, for someone who has close links with the Labour Party and was the party’s chairman in the London Assembly, Mr. Phillips claimed that the Tories had done better in increasing the number of African and Asian MPs than Labour which, he said, was too much in hock to its affiliated pressure groups to act independently when selecting candidates. In a left-handed compliment to the Tories, he said: “They are less democratic. They are happier to impose candidates on the local parties.”
Mr. Phillips’ outspoken comments, made in interviews to The Times and the BBC, angered the Labour Party which retorted that it was Labour that “produced the first black woman MP, the first black Minister, the first black woman Minister, the first black Cabinet Minister, the first black woman Cabinet Minister and the first black woman mayor.” Sadiq Khan, a junior Minister, said he “fundamentally disagreed” with Mr. Phillips and predicted that there “will be a black or Asian Prime Minister in my lifetime.”
But as a Minister, he would say that, wouldn’t he? Mostly, though, there was a quiet acknowledgement across the political spectrum that what Mr. Phillips said was broadly correct. Adam Afriyie, a non-white Tory MP and rising star of the party, was candid: “I do not believe we will see a black Prime Minister in my lifetime.” His argument was that a British politician had to go through many more hoops before he or she reached the top than was the case in America. “In the U.S., a fresh face like Obama can make it in one electoral cycle. In Britain, it’s generally a more gradual process of service and promotion over many years, and often decades, before leading a political party,” he argued.
Nevertheless, the Obama win has clearly generated a great deal of optimism, especially in the African community, and the dominant view is that an “Obama moment” is more likely to happen in Britain first than in any other European country. According to a poll, a whopping 90 per cent of Britons have no problem voting for a non-white Prime Minister though some 23 per cent say they would not support a Muslim candidate. Still, it is a significant number and confirms Mr. Phillips’ argument that “the problem is not the electorate” but it is the political system that is resistant to change.
For all this, however, Britain remains “streets ahead” of its European neighbours in empowering ethnic minorities, claims Mr. Katwala pointing out that of the nine non-white members of European Parliament, five are from Britain. He is optimistic that at some point, Britain will have its “own Barack Obama.” The possibility, according to him, was always there and post-Obama the prospects look more real. “Twenty years ago, who would have thought that we would see a black American President in our lifetime but it has happened and I’m sure it will happen here too,” he said.
There is a view that comparisons with America are slightly misplaced because the American experience on race has been very different — both the nature of racism and the resistance to it. “In America, historically race has shaped politics but it has never been so in Europe,” said Scott Blinder, an Oxford academic. Given the wholly different nature of America’s racial experience, the idea that because America has elected an African-American President it has somehow stolen a march on Europe is not correct, he says, but now that it has happened there it will certainly put pressure on other white nations.
6 months ago