The Mancunion

Britain's biggest student newspaper

Does it matter whether Britain ever has a black Prime Minister?

Elrica Degirmen pulls apart some claims made by a recent BBC documentary about race, class, and social mobility in politics


I was idly browsing through the internet on the evening of the 13th of November when I stumbled upon a documentary by the BBC in which they were discussing issues of social mobility and race. The programme was entitled “Will Britain ever have a black Prime Minister?” and was hosted by David Harewood. He starts from the roots of social mobility and looks at the factors that may influence someone to become Prime Minister: socio-economic background, what type of school or university they went to, or what grades they achieved, to name a few. In short, it is implied throughout the programme that one’s education can provide the foundation to potentially become a Prime Minister, and the lack of it means that your chances are reduced.

Thank you, Sherlock. Of course, a good education helps an individual — irrespective of their innate talents and potential — to achieve career success. Everybody knows this. To that end, it is shocking that the BBC has used tax payers money to commission this documentary.

I do not want to be accusatory, but it seems as if there was a message being pushed throughout this programme — that the reason we will never have a black Prime Minister is due to the supposed inherent racism in our society. We live in a multi-racial and tolerant society. I firmly believe that anyone, irrespective of race, has the potential to be Prime Minister. One major thing this documentary overlooks are the qualities necessary to be Prime Minister.

I presume that any Prime Minister should be resilient in times of great struggle, have the ability to deal with the media, or be able to connect to the electorate with a great vision for Britain. There are many factors beyond one’s background and education that makes a Prime Minister. Heaven knows how many of those who fit the typical description of privilege — white, male, straight, privately-educated, middle-class — never get to be Prime Minister.

In my opinion, a white, state-educated, working-class person will probably have the same chances as that of a black person with the same educational and socio-economic background. Let us not misuse statistics and look at pass rates of different races, or apply generalisations.

The final sentiment that I came away from the show was the supposed startling suggestion that a white person in this country is considerably more likely to be Prime Minister than a black person. The host (and the statistician, surprisingly enough) found this shocking. To me, this is common sense. Basic arithmetic tells you that — by a considerable margin — there are more white people in this country than black people; of course, a white person is more likely to be Prime Minister. The conclusion made is false, but what struck me is this more pernicious idea running through the whole documentary that Britain is somehow a racist country.

Cameron Alexander, a black student studying at Oxford declared that, “Oxford is institutionally racist” and went further in saying that, “Britain is institutionally racist”. This is nonsense of the highest order of magnitude. Harewood attempts and fails to garner some way for Alexander to back these provocative statements up.

However, in the 2007 paper by Broecke and Nicholls entitled “Ethnicity and Degree Attainment”, they state that “findings do not automatically imply, however, that there is some form of ethnic bias within the HE [Higher Education] system”. They specifically mention that a lot of the so-called “evidence” people use when justifying institutional racism — be it in education or elsewhere — often does not consider the multiple variables that affect outcomes. In the case of this study, examples of variables not considered included term-time working, having English as an additional language, parental income and education, and the quality of the educational institutions previously attended. Obviously, these factors affect your degree attainment. It is impossible to control for every variable that has a significant effect on your degree classification and thus it is wrong to declare that black people, or indeed any other races, are at a disadvantage.

So how does this play out in wondering whether a black person will ever make it to Prime Minister? This documentary has shown that socio-economic factors influence whether you can attain the top political job, and other political jobs. We knew this from the beginning. I am sure similar conclusions would have been made if the programme were entitled “Will Britain ever have a working-class person as Prime Minister again?” The odds are stacked against the average working-class person entering politics, and most importantly to stay in politics for the long run. But this would not have made for an interesting documentary in the eyes of those at the BBC.

I recall one moment where Harewood asks the viewer to think of the racial make-up of previous Prime Ministers. Indeed, they were all white. But this does not matter. It is disgraceful to reduce someone to the colour of their skin, which is essentially what this programme has aimed to do. What matters are the qualities that a Prime Minister expresses, and it is a shame that that message was lost in favour of emphasising the myth that Britain is racist.

  • Chris Hume

    Thank goodness! The first sensible critique I have seen. This was a woeful programme that completely failed a very important subject, by treating the audience as if they were completely stupid. The use of statistics (such as the one about white people being far more likely to be PM than black people) was risible throughout. The educational stats were all over the place. Where was the serious analysis? Why do other ethnic groups outperform Whites? Is there ‘institutional racism’ in favour of Asian origin children? Why is it actually white working class boys who perform worst of all groups? What are the odds of a scaffolder from Basildon, with two GCSE’s becoming PM? Is that institutional ‘classism’? The programme had an agenda but like all pre-ordained ‘investigations’ it only resulted in half-baked theories trying to be given credibility through highly selective and unrigorous data. Such a shame, I was really looking forward to this programme but it was a total let down.

  • Angela

    The documentary clearly highlighted that wealth was a significant factor therefore acknowledging the class element, so i’m not sure why this was missed by anyone else, We live in a multi-racial and tolerant society but it does’t meant that racism doesn’t exist at all and doesn’t manifests itself within our institutions. Anyone who is trying to deny that is clearly very short-sighted, especially in an age of Donald Trump being in Power and UKIP growing in power – lets not pretend the supporters of these parties would not be biased against blacks if they were on a university admissions board!

  • JJ

    Maybe they’ve all previously been white because we are a white country and have been for well… literally every single year humans have lived in Britain minus the last 30. I could only find stats for 2005, where 11% of families were non white. So even if we say 15% considering the relatively low levels of immigration. Based on that statistics I think it would be proportionate and logical that in (100%/15% = 6), 1 term is 5 years. 6*5 = in 30 years we had a black prime minister, not taking into consideration the class barriers that exist.

    • JJ

      Oops… 100/15 is 1/7. So 35 years.