Paul Yaw Boateng twice made political history in Britain: in 1987, he became one of the first black Britons elected to the House of Commons. Fifteen years later, Prime Minister Tony Blair appointed Boateng an undersecretary at the Treasury, making him the first black ever to hold a cabinet position in Britain. He resigned from the job in 2005 and became the United Kingdom's special envoy to South Africa.
Boateng was born in 1951 in England, to a British mother and Ghanaian father who was an attorney. The family returned to his father's homeland when Boateng was a small child, and the senior Boateng, Kwaku, became active in Ghana's movement toward independence. Kwaku Boateng went on to serve as a cabinet minister in first black government after independence was achieved in 1957, but nine years after that, Boateng's mother was forced to take her son and his sister back to England with her when a coup attempt resulted in their father's arrest and imprisonment.
Earned Law Degree
Fifteen years old when his family returned to England, Boateng finished his schooling in the Hertfordshire area north of London, and went on to earn a law degree in 1976 from the University of Bristol. He specialized in civil-rights law during stints at private-practice firms in London, and was eventually made partner at B.M. Birnberg & Co., one of the leading civil-rights law groups in the United Kingdom.
Boateng's work on civil-rights issues led him into politics. He became active in the Labour Party of Britain, and the London arm to which he belonged was known as one of the party's more radical factions. In the early 1980s, those leftist Labour Party members came to control the Greater London Council (GLC), the municipal government for the city at the time. Boateng was named chair of the GLC's Police Committee in 1981, which worked to reduce tensions in London between the Metropolitan Police force and residents. The city had grown increasingly diverse since the 1960s, and London bobbies, as its police officers were called, were regularly accused of harassing blacks and Asians. Young black men, in particular, were the target of the Sus Law, as it was known, which allowed law enforcement to stop and search anyone on the street whom they deemed suspicious. Boateng led a successful campaign to abolish the Sus Law in the wake of violent clashes between the police and residents in Brixton, a largely West Indian-immigrant section of south London, in 1981.
Boateng served on the Police Committee until the GLC was dismantled and replaced by a different form of local government in 1985. In October of that year, a Sunday Times article about him predicted he might someday be elected to Parliament. "The important thing about Boateng is that he is one of nature's activists," it noted. "He has been blessed with the fluency, opportunism, and charm essential for the career activists." Two years prior to that, he had run for a seat representing Hemel Hempstead in the House of Commons, the lower chamber of British parliament, but was defeated in his bid.
Promised "Tomorrow Soweto!"
In 1987, he ran again, this time from the constituency of Brent South in London, and this time he won the seat. In his victory speech that June night, Boateng made a famous remark that caused somewhat of a stir in Britain, and would be repeated many times over in the course of his political career. He referenced the apartheid regime in South Africa, and in particular the black township in Johannesburg that was a focus of foment against the all-white government, which denied the country's majority black population any political rights. "We can never be free in Brent until South Africa is free too," he said then, according to a Guardian report by Martin Kettle. "Today Brent South. Tomorrow Soweto!"
Boateng's victory was more than just a symbolic one: he and two other newly elected members of parliament, or MPs, became the first blacks ever to sit in the House of Commons. The first non-white MP was an Indian, Dadabhai Naoraji, who was elected in 1892; three years later another Indian won a seat, then a third in 1922; remarkably, no other non-whites were elected to House of Commons until Boateng, Diane Abbott, and Bernie Grant won their seats on the Labour Party ticket in 1987.
Boateng's constituents in Brent South continually returned him to the House of Commons every four years, but his political views grew less radical over the years, even as his suits—tailored by his cousin, British men's designer Ozwald Boateng—became more vivid. The shift in tone brought some criticism from Britain's black activist groups, but the still-fiery Boateng retorted that black political groups had become too internally divisive for them to work effectively for change. In 1989, Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock moved him from the back bench to the front with a new party assignment. The "front-benchers" occupied seats in the House of Commons which were, by custom, reserved for government ministers in the ruling party and their "shadow" counterparts in the opposition party. Boateng became opposition spokesperson on treasury and economic affairs, and in 1992 was made the opposition spokesperson for legal affairs.
At a Glance …
Born June 14, 1951, in Hackney, England; son of Kwaku (an attorney and politician) and Eleanor (a teacher; maiden name, McCombie) Boateng; married Janet Alleyn (a social worker and social-services administrator), 1980; children: six. Education: University of Bristol, LLB, 1976. Politics: Labour Party of Britain.
Career: Paddington Law Centre, London, England, solicitor, 1976–79; B.M. Birnberg & Co., London, solicitor and partner,1979–87; Bar of Gray's Inn, barrister, 1989; Police Committee for the Greater London Council, chair, 1981–85; British House of Commons, elected Labour Party candidate from Brent South (London), 1987, reelected every four years until 2001; Labour Party posts: opposition spokesperson on treasury and economic affairs, 1989–92; opposition spokesperson on legal affairs, 1992–97; parliamentary undersecretary of state, Department of Health 1997–98; minister of state, Home Office 1998–2001; finance secretary to the Treasury, 2001–02; and chief secretary to the Treasury, 2002–05; British High Commissioner to South Africa (appointed by Prime Minister Tony Blair), 2005.
Addresses: Office—Foreign & Commonwealth Office (Pretoria), King Charles St., London SW1A 2AH, England.
Named to Blair Cabinet
Boateng held that post until the Labour Party, led by Tony Blair, won a majority in the 1997 national elections. Blair immediately named Boateng to serve as parliamentary undersecretary of state in the department of health. Between 1998 and 2001, he held a post as minister of state in the Home Office, and then moved on to the Treasury department as its finance secretary. In May of 2002, Blair named him chief secretary for the Treasury, a high position in that ministry and one that qualified him as an official member of cabinet. He was the first black ever to hold a cabinet post in Britain, but tried to dismiss its relevance when the announcement was made. "My colour is part of me but I do not choose to be defined by my colour," Times of London writers Andrew Pierce, Tom Baldwin and Michael Gove quoted him as saying. "I work in a world in which people are not judged by their colour but by the content of their character. I want to be judged by my work in this position."
Boateng held the post for nearly three years, but the former civil-rights attorney and onetime firebrand was reportedly unhappy in the finance job, which dealt largely with government budgets and allocations. In March of 2005, he announced that he would not run for his Brent South seat in the coming May election, and furthermore would resign from the Treasury job if Labour won another majority in the polls. It did, and Boateng soon left Britain to serve as the British High Commissioner to South Africa. Nearly every newspaper report about the job switch repeated his "Tomorrow Soweto!" remark from 1987. Yet he was also considered an ideal candidate for the job, with his former radical credentials likely to resonate with South Africa's decade-old all-black government—many of them former firebrands themselves.
Boateng married Janet Alleyn, a social worker by training who became a social-services administrator, in 1980. The couple has six children. Though his some of his political foes criticized the appointment to Pretoria as an example of cronyism within the Blair government, and asserted that the jobs should be given on merit, not political loyalty, Boateng's last boss, Chancellor of the Exchequer (Treasury) Gordon Brown, told BBC News that Boateng "has displayed huge dedication to the cause of African development for many years and it is fitting that, in this year of challenge and opportunity for the African continent, Paul has been given such a pivotal role in our fight against poverty and injustice."
Guardian (London, England), May 30, 2002, p. 2, p. 8.
Independent (London, England), November 13, 1999, p. 6.
Sunday Times (London, England), October 6, 1985.
Times (London, England), May 30, 2002, p. 2.
"Boateng to Step Down at Election," BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/4347171.stm (November 5, 2005).