The historic election of Senator Obama to the Oval Office last Tuesday overturned 250 years of racial injustice and inequality in the United States. In Britain it has sparked debate across party lines about when Britain will follow suit and elect a black or Asian Prime Minister.
Britain has already had a Jewish Prime Minister in Disraeli. Since the UK also abolished slavery 30 years before the United States, many see it as odd that all three major national parties still underrepresent ethnic minorities. There are only three non-white Cabinet members, and a total of 15 members from ethnic minorities – 2.32 per cent of the House.
In 2001 the former Prime Minister Tony Blair acknowledged that the US was far ahead of the UK in representing ethnic minorities in top political posts, though this is set to change according to the Fabian Society (A New Labour thinktank) and Operation Black Vote (a pressure group hoping to encourage black involvement in British politics).
The debate about the possibility of a black Prime Minister in the near future was sparked not just by the election of the Senator from Illinois or by Lewis Hamilton’s Grand Prix victory, but also by the release of research figures by the Fabian Society.
The thinktank predicts that Westminster might increase the number of its ethnic minority members after the next election from 15 to at least 25, with Labour placing 5 additional ethnic minority candidates in safe seats to the Conservatives' 4 and Liberal Democrats' 1. This would still remain unrepresentative of Britain’s people, because with ethnic minorities accounting for 7.5 per cent of the national population, 25 members out of 646 represents just 3.86 per cent of Britain’s ethnic populace.
Operation Black Vote’s director Simon Woolley emphasised the effect Obama’s election victory across the Atlantic might have on British politics while forwarding his hope to see a black British prime minister, stating: “Obama has single-handedly inspired a new generation to be interested in politics because of what he stands for. He had the 'audacity of hope', which has taken him right to the White House and which has allowed us to believe in and find the courage to pursue the dream that we can achieve the impossible.”
Opinions are staunchly divided, with some ministers predicting that we will see a prime minister from an ethnic minority within a generation. Dawn Butler, Labour member for Brent South and newly appointed government whip, spoke her optimistic belief, saying, “I would hope to see a black prime minister in my working life time.”
Other minority leaders in Westminster are not so confident: Adam Afriyie, the Conservative shadow innovation minister, soberly stated, “I do not believe we’ll see [a black prime minister] in my lifetime.”
Labour MP Sadiq Khan agreed with his Conservative counterpart, also highlighting the differences between the British and American circumstances: “Mass migration—slavery—took place to America 400 years ago... Our mass migration has only happened in the last 40 to 50 years. But our recent progress has been far steeper than in the US. We have been much quicker.”
Increased minority representation in the highest echelons of British politics has not gone unopposed. Rather predictably, BNP leader Nick Griffin has voiced his desire that Westminster should be for “the British” and that black and Asian MPs should be “discouraged.” He restated his party’s policy that all non-white ethnic minorities, should be “forcefully encouraged to return home.”
On a local level, Edinburgh council has stressed its position for increasing ethnic minority participation in local government. On 30 September 2008 the council’s policy and strategy committee unveiled the new Edinburgh partner equalities network, a new overarching body to bring 6 citywide equality forums under one roof. These equality forums each possess individual mandates for age, belief/faith, disability, gender, sexual orientation and race.
According to the 2001 census, Edinburgh only contains 1769 people claiming Caribbean, African or black Scot identities, amounting to only 0.38 per cent of the Edinburgh population. The general register office of Scotland, who carried out Scotland’s part of the 2001 census and are preparing for the next in 2011, estimate that this figure has increased to around two per cent over the intervening seven years.