How to become the British Obama

What Britain’s political class seems to want is a vacuous, ‘authentic’ outsider with a talent for flowery rhetoric.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics USA

As unprecedented numbers turned out not only to vote for Barack Obama, but to whoop, cheer and no doubt faint, Britain’s political class could only watch in swooning envy. And it’s easy to see why: young, talented and, most celebrated of all, black, Obama proved capable of invigorating an electorate long noted for its indifference. What wouldn’t Britain’s politicians and their media cohorts do for their very own Barack Obama right now?

So, in the spirit of those desperately hoping that black is not the new Brown, here’s a guide to making the British Obama:

1) Have no experience

For many, Barack Obama really did seem to come from nowhere. A first-term senator for Illinois, the 47-year-old appeared desperately inexperienced beside one-time first-lady Hillary Clinton and American Civil War survivor, John McCain. Which, as it turned out, was no bad thing.

In fact, Obama’s relative youth and chronic inexperience proved a great electoral boon. Unlike his main rivals, first for the Democratic nomination and then for the presidency itself, Obama appeared unsullied by the political world in which Clinton and McCain had long been sunk. In this sense, political experience, far from equipping candidates for the presidency, merely played upon people’s suspicion of the professional politician.

Likewise, recognising the widespread cynicism of the British electorate towards politicians, it is best that any British Obama should have as little experience of politics, indeed life, as possible. While the latter often comes easily to those pursuing a political career, finding someone who will appear untouched by the hypocrisy and self-interest of parliamentary intrigues means that a British Obama ought, ideally, to be a very young nobody. Labour MP David Lammy once fitted this bill when, aged 27, he was mooted as Britain’s first black prime minister. Unfortunately, he has since been a cabinet minister.

Enter Chuka Umunna, widely talked up as the real ‘British Obama’. Thirty years of age, and working for think-tank Compass, Umunna is not even an MP yet – although that might change seeing as he is now Labour’s prospective candidate for the London seat of Streatham. However, seeing as at the time of writing he remains uncorrupted by experience, this young naïf certainly has the virtue of inexperience. Better still, no one outside of the Westminster tearoom (and even many of those inside it) has the foggiest idea who he is.

2) Keep it real

It should go without saying that the British Obama must not be white. In this regard, Umunna – of Nigerian, Irish and English descent – is definitely a winner. He is not alone however. A list of prospective British Obamas in the New Statesman earlier this year – including Helen Grant, Adam Afriye and David Lammy – was entirely black or Asian.

A key requirement when searching for the British Obama, then, is to fetishise the category of race. To judge someone according ‘to the contents of their character’, as Martin Luther King put it, misses the vital importance of skin pigmentation in the quest to win more votes.

This is because politicians assume there is some value to be attached to skin colour. Blackness, in itself, denotes something grittier, more authentic, they believe. It is the stench of the streets, not the whiff of privilege.

3) ‘Not one of us’

The importance of racial authenticity, of keeping it real, is especially important because of the widespread perception of ‘machine politicians’; that is, white males, and occasional females, hatched at Oxbridge, nurtured at a think-tank, and groomed as parliamentary assistants. A network here, an arselick there, and hey presto, the career politician might get a run at a safe seat somewhere with barely a brush with those they expect to vote for them.

Hence, if they are to avoid the accusation of being ‘out of touch’, a British Obama ought not to be of ‘one of us’. And what better way to indicate their distance from the dreary political class than with a splash of skin colour, with all the connotations of authenticity, of keeping it real, that that entails.

The irony to all this is that it’s the disengaged, political class doing all the handwringing. It’s their proposed quota systems for MPs of ethnic backgrounds. It’s less the public’s loathing of all things white and middle-class than British politicians self-loathing which gives rise to the search for a black saviour for British politics. Rather than appearing to be in touch with the streets, the political class comes over like a giant Ali G.

4) Cut out the content

It’s no good handpicking the British Obama if he or she has got the oratorical skills of current British PM Gordon Brown. They might look the part, but it’s all to no avail if they’re about as interesting as listening to a washing machine. A perfect example of this came at the weekend in the Observer US election special. Nestling in amongst the hype and panegyric was a piece written by Brown himself. Making nominal reference to the ‘progressive values’ that Obama apparently shares with Brown, the PM went on to talk about the global financial crisis.

And what did he say? What grand words did Brown summon up to mark the occasion of Barack Obama’s presidency? With what rhetorical swoop did Brown meet Obama’s call for collective strength before the perils humanity faces? He demanded that ‘British firms move up the value chain’.

There are many problems with this, not least the dead hands of a thousand management consultants. Fortunately for those who are unfamiliar with the glorious prose of business reports, Brown explained that it meant focusing on producing ‘niche products, high-technology services, custom-built goods’. Unfortunately, that made it no more inspiring.

The lesson of this for any British Obama is to cut out the content. Giving your rhetoric some concrete references will only break the spell. Can you imagine if Obama had said ‘What I was banking on was if we could just draw our forces together… to challenge ourselves to be better, then there was no problem that we could not solve, and there was no destiny that we could not fulfil. That’s why I’ve implemented a one per cent cut to the basic rate of income tax.’

The British Obama must therefore avoid the dull managerial speak of the political class, and certainly avoid any content. Political means must be elevated into sublime ends. Emptiness, as Cameron has frequently shown, is a supreme virtue in a world of vacuous politics.

5) Anywhere but here

In essence, the British Obama must not be British. The search for a ‘British Obama’ itself expresses shame about British history and disillusionment with British politics. To call for a new Tony Blair, or even worse a new Margaret Thatcher, will not go down well at all. To answer the cynicism of the British electorate towards politics, the political class believes it needs to break absolutely with tradition. In this spirit, it is probably best that the British Obama is American; hell, it should preferably be Obama himself. Come and save us.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics USA


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