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The Africans who could be kings in Britain!

The Africans who could be kings in Britain!
  • PublishedApril 4, 2013

A “British Obama” – is that idea viable? Probably not, in the foreseeable future. But hold on…Adam Afriyie of Ghanaian/English descent is supposed to be planning to challenge Prime Minister David Cameron’s leadership of the Conservative Party. It could be the start of the “silly season”, nonetheless there is a good African line-up in the House of Commons! Clayton Goodwin reports.

There is a West African stalking-horse parading around the corridors of British politics and, even more so, the offices of the national media, and it is unlikely to go away for a while yet. The story that Adam Afriyie, the ultra-rich Conservative MP for the ultra-affluent Windsor constituency, whose father was Ghanaian and mother English, was considering challenging Prime Minister David Cameron for the Tory leadership was so unlikely that it was regarded as being the start of the “silly season” (when real news is scarce and newspapers make stories out of anything). Whatever its status, this story has exposed a flaw in the current Conservative political landscape.

These days every black politician with a high national profile can count on being called the “British Obama”. Commentators are as keen to discover their own equivalent of the American leader as their ancestors were to discover El Dorado, the fabled city of gold.

Yet President Obama does hold the key to understanding the Conservatives’ near obsession with finding the “ethnic answer” to their predicament. They want to win the next election – outright – so that they will not have to depend any further on coalition partners.

It is received wisdom that Obama beat his rival Mitt Romney in a comparatively tight presidential contest because of his overwhelming support from the African heritage sector of the electorate. That is the very sector, now key to British politics, in which the Conservatives are adrift.

The party has made previous half-hearted attempts to advance a black candidate with whom, they supposed, the African/ Caribbean heritage voters could identify. The figures on whom they have alighted so far – Derek Laud and (Lord) John Taylor, and I am not sure of the seriousness of the candidacy of Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones (“the black farmer”) – have made that proposition somewhat risible.

Now without apparently really trying, the Conservatives have found themselves an “African” factor which certainly appeals to the Tories even if the voters at large may be less convinced.

Three high-profile MPs with a West African background have come to the fore since the last general election three years ago – and they have much in common – to challenge Labour’s Chuka Umunna for the title of the “British Obama”. They are rich, having made their fortunes in business, handsome (well, telegenic), mix in “good company”, and represent constituencies in the Conservative heartland – running from the west to south-west of London. In short, they belong already to the established “political class”.

Yet these very assets could be regarded more aptly as drawbacks by the general electorate. David Cameron’s coterie of nouveau riche “toffs” is being challenged by those who are even more “nouveau” and “riche”, and “toffish”.

Adam Afriyie

Forty-seven years old, Afriyie was born in middle-class Wimbledon, southwest London, but grew up on a council estate in Peckham, a socially and economically depressed part of southeast London.

There he was educated at the local Oliver Goldsmith Primary School before going on to Addey & Stanhope grammar school in nearby New Cross, and obtaining a BSc in Agricultural Economics from Imperial College (Wye), London University.

Adam cites an interest in several sports, including basketball, in which he was his university’s team captain, and charity running. Running is an interest he would share with former athlete, and present novelist and disgraced politician, Jeffrey Archer, in whose unsuccessful campaign to be the first directly-elected Mayor of London he participated. hitherto neglected sectors of society – such as the first prime minister from a cultural minority, Benjamin Disraeli; the first to be born overseas in a Commonwealth country, Andrew Bonar Law; and the first woman to become prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.

The purpose of a stalking-horse is to launch a suicidal bid for the leadership to expose the weaknesses of a seemingly impregnable incumbent with the view to encouraging a more realistic contender to make a serious challenge later. The bestknown example in contemporary British politics was Sir Anthony Meyer, a 69-yearold known until then more for his affair with the black former model and blues singer Simone Washington than for any of his politics. He stood against Mrs Thatcher in 1989. The “Iron Lady” routed him by a massive 314-33 votes, but the number of abstentions and unexpected weaknesses in her performance induced the charismatic former cabinet minister, Michael Heseltine, to make a more successful challenge a year later, which brought about her resignation.

Adam’s wealth, bearing, and rightwing stance, would endear him to Conservatives. And Labour and the Liberal Democrats would not challenge his ethnicity. As a newcomer from a new community, he would not carry any of the baggage of past (and present) disputes which have split the Tory party. Anonymity is Adam Afriyie’s chief asset. Now, of course, because of the recent publicity, he is not unknown. And if he should be considered to be no longer suitable for the purpose, there are a couple of other West African heritage MPs in the House of Commons who might fit the bill.

Samuel Gyimah

At 36 years old, Gyimah is unlikely to challenge David Cameron for the party leadership – well, not yet anyway – because he is the prime minister’s parliamentary private secretary. He was born at Beaconsfield in affluent Buckinghamshire but accompanied his mother when she returned to Ghana. Gyimah stayed in Ghana for 10 years, being educated at Achimota School in the capital Accra, before moving to Freeman College in Hertfordshire, UK.

He read Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Somerville College where he was elected to the prestigious post of President of the Oxford Union. After graduating, Gyimah joined the investment bankers, Goldman Sachs, and later left to set up his own business in the recruitment and internet sectors. Chairman of the Bow Group 2006-2007, Gyimah edited an anthology of essays on the future of the Conservative Party.

Although he had previously lost out on selection as candidate for another parliamentary seat, Gyimah won the stereotypical conservative East Surrey constituency in 2010. Since entering Parliament, he has been active in debates on education and employment as well as fighting local campaigns for the “green belt” (areas bordering cities in which building development is not permitted) in Surrey.

He is a supporter of various charities and ran in the London Marathon in 2008 to raise funds for the Downs Syndrome Association. He is also the vice president of the National Centre for Young People with Epilepsy.

Chuka Umunna

On the other side of the House, the 34-yearold Chuka Umunna has established himself already as a high profile and senior representative of the Labour Party for whom he is the shadow business secretary. His ubiquity – especially on TV and in the radio studio – has tended to obscure the fact that Africans are under-represented at the higher echelons of the Labour Party compared to their Conservative counterparts.

Labour has been associated more directly with the Caribbean heritage community. Yet the policy of supporting candidates who have come up through service in local government in urban boroughs, which reached initial fruition with the election of Bernie Grant, Diane Abbott, and Paul Boateng in 1987, has not made the expected progress. Since then Labour’s leading African/ Caribbean supporters have advanced in Parliament through appointment to the House of Lords – such as the Baronesses Amos, Scotland, and Howells, from families from the Eastern Caribbean – or as with Trevor Phillips in community/race relations, they have made their own way in non-party public administration/services.

Chuka Umunna comes from a mixed Nigerian and Anglo/Irish background. His father, Bennett Umunna, an Igbo from Awka, had been a businessman and director of Crystal Palace Football Club in southwest London, but he was killed in a road accident in Nigeria in 1992 while running for the governorship of Anambra State. Chuka’s mother, Patricia, is the daughter of the High Court judge, Sir Helenus Milmo. Umunna’s early education was at Hitherfield Primary School in Streatham, and Christ Church Primary School in Brixton Hill, both in inner-city southwest London, and then at St Dunstan’s College in Catford, southeast London. Subsequently, he qualified in law through the University of Manchester, the University of Burgundy at Dijon (France), and Nottingham Law School.

After four years with the City of London law firm, Herbert Smith, which acts mostly for large companies, he moved to Rochman Landau to specialise as an employment lawyer acting mainly for individuals and small companies.

Chuka was already closely involved with the Labour Party, with a particular interest in social and economic issues. He was a member of the management committee of the centre-left think-tank pressure-group Compass, and achieved public recognition by his writing for a wide range of publications and his regular radio and television appearances.

Umunna was elected MP for Streatham in 2010. Very quickly he became a member of the Treasury Select Committee and then parliamentary private secretary to Ed Miliband, the new Labour leader. Exactly one year after entering the House of Commons, he was appointed shadow minister for small business and enterprise, and acquired his present position in October 2011.

Among a wide range of activities, he is a board member of Generation Next, a not-for-profit social enterprise providing activities for young people in London; the Fabian Society; Unite and GMB; a patron of Latimer Creative Media, and a supporter of Cassandra Learning Centre.

Chuka cuts a suave, sartorial image and is said to model suits on the website for Alexandra Wood of Savile Row, a centre of high quality (and expensive) tailoring. He has been quoted as admiring such high-flying, media-conscious politicians as former Prime Minister Tony Blair, (Lord) Peter Mandelson and Conservative grandee (Lord) Michael Heseltine.

While he would seem to have a more credible claim on the epithet “British Obama”, Chuka is more “Blair than Barack”.

And that could be the problem. He might just be too smooth for his own good. The British public, if not the party political establishment, do not take kindly to somebody they see – rightly or wrongly – as being too “smart” (in intelligence and/ or style).

Over the last decade or so, there has been a “rush to youth” with the three main UK parties opting for young, photogenic, media-friendly leaders at the expense of more experienced hands. Across the floor of the House of Commons, Chuka Umunna is faced by his opposite number in the Coalition Government, Vince Cable, who is 69 years old – and looks older.

When the leadership of Cable’s party, the Liberal Democrats, last became vacant, he was not even considered as a candidate, even though he was well-known nationally, had a good political and business record and was interim leader while a new leader was chosen. Cable, it was reckoned, was just too old and craggy for the modern age. Instead the Liberal Democrats swooned after the rising generation of rich, handsome, young men such as Nick Clegg, Chris Huhne and David Laws.

And look where it has got them – two have already had to resign on account of scandal and misdemeanours. After rising to their highest position for several generations, under the leadership of Charles Kennedy who articulated the opposition of a large part of the electorate to the military intervention in Iraq, the Liberal Democrats have plunged in the public opinion polls, such that they have slipped to a par, or even below, the quixotic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP).

Many Liberal Democrats are looking wistfully for guidance to none other than Vince Cable (described now as being “the leader in waiting”).

Helen Grant

The 50-year-old was a high flyer when she was elected on the retirement of the flamboyant and controversial Ann Widdecombe to the Maidstone and The Weald of Kent constituency in 2010. She was selected as an A-List fast-track candidate. Grant became the Tory’s first black female MP, and two years later she was appointed under-secretary of state for justice, and under-secretary of state for women and equalities.

Helen was born in London to a Nigerian father and English mother. After her parents separated, she was raised on the Raffles council estate at Carlisle, in the northwestern extremity of the country. Helen represented Cumbria at hockey, tennis, athletics and cross-country running. She studied law at the University of Hull and was helped by her local MP, Willie Whitelaw, deputy leader of the Conservative Party, to win a place at the College of Law in Guildford, Surrey. After several years of working for other firms, she now has her own practice, Grants Solicitors, specialising in family law.

Disillusioned by the response to her initial approaches to the Labour Party, she found the Conservatives more welcoming. Helen resigned as non-executive director of the Croydon National Health Service Primary Care Trust from 2005 to 2007 to concentrate on her political career.

She worked with the former leader Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice in the formation of the party’s policy to deal with family breakdown. Towards the end of 2012, Helen got caught up in the controversy over MPs’ expenses and her progress may have stalled.

Chinyelu “Chi” Onwurah

The 47-year-old is unusual in representing Labour in Newcastle-upon-Tyne Central in the northeastern England industrial heartland, instead of a rural constituency in the more affluent South.

Her Nigerian father worked as a dentist while studying at Newcastle Medical School and married her mother, the daughter of a sheet metal worker, in the 1950s. The family moved to Awka in Nigeria in 1965, but when civil war broke out two years later Chi and her mother returned to England while her father stayed on to fight in the Biafran army.

Chi achieved a degree in Electrical Engineering from Imperial College, London, and while studying for an MBNA at Manchester Business School worked in hardware and software development, product management, market development, and strategy for a variety of companies operating in several countries. She was head of telecoms technology at OFCOM. Chi spent many years on the national executive of the Anti-Apartheid Movement (and its successor organization, ACTSA). She was appointed junior shadow minister for business, innovation and skills shortly after winning her seat in 2010.

Any chance?

The “British Obama” – is that proposition viable? Probably not – in the foreseeable future.

It is certain that if there is any chance of a challenger being able to land a solid blow on David Cameron’s leadership before the next general election in 2015, one of the more senior members of the Conservative Party will step in to appropriate the honour.

Nevertheless, as long as all parties are struggling to achieve an outright majority, they will acknowledge the necessity of the “Obama effect” in winning the support of the ethnic majority. Even so I believe the present generation of African politicians are likely to stay around longer and make a bigger parliamentary impact than their predecessors a generation ago.

Wealth, business, a “glamorous” profile, the “right” schools and universities, the “right” constituencies … they have taken the sensible decision to join the political class before engaging in the parliamentary process, and, in politics as in so much of British life, it is still “class” that really matters.

That is unless they themselves get fed up with any lack of progress and go off into something else … which so many “bright young men” who have started off in politics have already done.

Written By
New African

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