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Britain's 'Obama moment' remembered

HISTORY MAKERS: Bernie Grant, Paul Boateng, Neil Kinnock, Keith Vaz and Diane Abbott with then Labour leader Neil Kinnock pose on last day of the party conference in 1987

TWENTY-ONE years before President Obama made history by becoming the first president of the United States, Britain had its own ‘Obama moment’. But it didn't get the props it deserved.

We didn't hang out the bunting, church bells did not ring the glory of our Lord. The political elite shrugged their shoulders, and even the media seemed to not quite grasp the magnitude of the moment - with the exception of this paper and its then rival the Caribbean Times. The black British community were left to celebrate that historic moment in the much more temperate way that suited the stiff upper lips of the English.


I am talking of that moment on June 10, 1987, when we voted in the first black and Asian MPs in modern times to Parliament. Bernie Grant, Diane Abbott, Paul Boateng and Keith Vaz were four Obamas to the cause at a time when Barack Obama was, according to his then Australian girlfriend, still wrestling with the question of how to be black.

That is symptomatic of the way that black achievement in this country has been marginalised and denigrated. It was a monumental struggle, arguably far greater than that of the American president, to get ONE black or Asian MP into Parliament at the time of Thatcherism, let alone FOUR. Here was a prime minister, Mrs Thatcher, who talked of British fears of the country being 'swamped' by black and Asian people. And yet the voters of Tottenham, Hackney North and Stoke Newington, Brent South and Leicester East rejected that divisive philosophy and voted four black and Asian MPs into Parliament, where there was none previously.

If truth be told the Labour Party resisted the opportunity to make history with every sinew of obstinacy in its constitution. And yet it was the greatest day in 20th century British politics. As significant as Britian's first woman prime minister, if not more so. As dramatic as a wartime/peacetime coalition. This was Harold MacMillan's ‘winds of change’ blowing in from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, right up the steps of Westminster Hall.

Today, the scene is transformed. We take black and Asian MPs for granted. So much so that we have forgotten our Obama moment 25 years ago. My daughters’ generation regard the American president with the reverence he deserves, but they are not awestruck by his political predecessors here in Britain, who arguably made it possible for America to vote for him 20 years later.

We all stand on the shoulders of giants. Here in Britain, those giants were Diane Abbott, Bernie Grant, Paul Boateng and Keith Vaz. The speaker of the House of Commons, the Right Honourable John Bercow has acknowledged this and has backed my suggestion to gather the current black and Asian MPs and Lords together for a historic photograph to mark that 25th anniversary on the steps of Westminster Hall. That photograph will be made public in a week’s time. I hope you will all celebrate it.

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