A ‘British Obama’ misses the point

13 November 2008

Barack Obama has gone back to black. Race, the great unmentionable throughout much of the campaign, has made a dramatic reappearance on the political scene. Obama has managed to become the first black president without ever having been ‘the black candidate’.

At first glance, this is yet another example of the skill with which Obama conducted his campaign. The president-elect resisted marginalisation during the battle for the White House but, once elected, enjoyed to the full the historic nature of his position. But in actual fact, this was a strategy performed for, not by, the Illinois senator. McCain and Palin assiduously avoided the topic of race, knowing that any hint of attempting to engender prejudice would only damage their cause. The media, too, tiptoed ambivalently around the issue: race didn’t exist – or it did exist, but wasn’t an issue – or it was an issue, but only for Texan hicks who thought Obama was a Muslim anyway.

All change, however, as Obama becomes the 44th president of the United States. Suddenly race is back, but this time as something joyous to be emphasised and celebrated. David Dimbleby announces not the Obama presidency, but the first African-American presidency. The elephant in the room has become a breaker of boundaries, a victory against history.

In a way, this is how it should be. There are few who would deny Obama’s election as president is a momentous occasion. Americans, who so often thought themselves better than they were, have proved themselves better than the rest of the world dared hope they could be.

And yet such celebration has had its dark side. As America revels in its own unexpected ability to change, British pundits look back towards the motherland with a newly critical eye. All of a sudden it is we, not America, that are narrow-minded and burdened with prejudice. Obama could not have made it in Britain, Trevor Phillips, Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, tells us. Institutional racism here is rife.

The situation on the ground would seem to support this accusation. There are, after all, only fifteen ethnic minority MPs in Parliament – a grand two per cent of the total. There have only ever been three non-white Cabinet members, although David Lammy, minister for Universities and a rising star in the Labour cabinet (as well as friend of Obama), is a notable exception.

Perhaps though we should be taking Barack Obama’s assertion that his story could only ever have happened in America as a personal criticism of the British political system.

And yet comments such as those made by Trevor Phillips are missing the point. Questioning whether or not there could be a ‘British Obama’ merely serves to cram the president-elect’s achievements back down into the box marked ‘race’.

A ‘British Obama’ would not earn this title by grace of being just a black Prime Minister. Rather, he or she would display the same astuteness, the same judgement, the same talent for inspiring rhetoric which characterise the real Obama. The British Obama could therefore be Asian, or white – or a woman. One thing is for certain: no matter how much Brown, Cameron, and Clegg strive to identify themselves with the American president-elect, the British Obama is not here yet.

Of course we should celebrate the election of the first African-American president. It would be ridiculous to deny the importance of this event and a mistake not to appreciate how far America has come in the last half century. But at the same time we should not forget the real reason why Tuesday was a great night.

We welcome Obama’s presidency not because he is black, but because he is brilliant. And also, of course, because he is not George Bush.

Tess Buchanan is a third year historian at Emmanuel.