This month’s chunk of Birmingham Post-lite (published 13th November 2008).
I celebrated the end of the Dubya era by watching a special screening of Oliver Stone’s, “W”. Stone could have easily pilloried George W., yet he prefers to present an image of the 43rd US President that is both amusing and frightening: someone whose qualities, character and life you’d dismiss were it not something that we had all lived through. Angry, aggressive and overly envious – as equally uncultured, boorish and coarse, natch – “W” presents a driven and extremely patriotic man who not only wanted to exorcise his own demons but those of his father also.
With Dubya’s demise, came the euphoria of Barack Obama’s overwhelming victory. Feeling much the same as I did in 1997 when Labour came to victory with an equally impressive victory, I hoped that the same sense of disappointment I feel now about Labour does not mirror how I’ll feel a decade on. Mr O, please take note.
Some of those feeling the greatest hope at Obama’s win have been African-Americans. Their expectation was most eloquently voiced by the rapper Jay-Z: ‘Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther King could walk. Martin Luther King walked so Obama could run. Obama’s running so we all can fly’. Clearly, Obama’s victory embodies the ‘American Dream’: that sense of any single American citizen can realise anything and be successful if they want it enough and have the necessary drive.
This left me with two questions: first, what is the ‘Great British Dream’; second, are we any closer to having a black British Prime Minister?
The answer to the first is there isn’t one.
Second, and more tragically, I don’t think we are.
Despite Britain being far less racially divided than the US and the British – I think – being more receptive to the idea, it is the largely invisible structural and institutional processes in the political system that deny access to Number 10 for far too many of us: far too many that are deemed too insignificant by those who keep a stranglehold grip on social, economic and political power. Despite institutional barriers having been acknowledged for some years – most poignantly elaborated during the MacPherson inquiry following the death of Stephen Lawrence – there is much more that needs to be done if we are all to have the opportunity to realise – or even recognise – a ‘Great British Dream’.
This is best highlighted by John Major’s 1990 suggestion that he wanted to create a classless society. This is important because underpinning the institutional barriers that restrict on the basis of ‘race’, gender and age amongst others remains the issue of class. Look at those groups that are experiencing the most disadvantage and you will see that they are always in the lowest socio-economic groups. In recognising this, Trevor Philips – the head of the UK’s equalities watchdog – recently noted that in today’s Britain “…the colour of disadvantage isn’t black or brown. It is white”. Not the white middle or upper classes, but the disenfranchised, disadvantaged and marginalised white working classes: the sometimes easy prey for the far-right in certain parts of today’s Birmingham.
Because of Britain’s inherent, accepted and continually unacknowledged class structure, it is therefore as unlikely that we will have a true white, working class Prime Minister as indeed a black or Asian one in the foreseeable future. Despite making great strides in trying to create a fairer society, we still have a long way to go before we finally – if indeed we ever can – destroy the unassailable and deeply embedded class hierarchy that hinders equality of opportunity.
Despite it being two decades since John Major voiced his desire to create a classless British (English?) idyll, the success of Barack Obama has thrown the spotlight on just how distant that dream of hope and change remains here in Britain.
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