The Rt Hon. Paul Yaw Boateng
Doctor of Laws
18 July 2007 - Orator: Professor Hodder-Williams
Exactly fifty years ago Ghana achieved its independence. Paul Boateng was barely in primary school. His father, Kwaku Boateng, held several ministerial posts in the government of Nkwame Nkrumah’s Convention People’s Party, whose ideology was initially a mixture of socialist concern for the poor and disadvantaged and a liberal acceptance that individuals differed in their endowments and their energies (and their luck) and therefore their wealth and status. The great Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe, encapsulated this combination in his A Man of the People: a successful person was entitled to the benefits that flowed from that success and the people took pride in that show of success…unless it was excessive. At this same time, Ghana’s education system, rooted in a liberal Christianity, was exceptional for the quality of its teaching and the breadth of its curriculum. This was epitomised in Achimota College, from which so many of the leading Ghanaians graduated. Its shield represented the black and white notes of a keyboard. As one of its great founders, Dr James Aggrey, often explained, society was like music that demanded both black and whites notes where each had equal merit and importance. Paul Boateng later said: “I work for a world in which people are not judged by their colour but by the content of their character”. I set this scene because these early days in Ghana resonate throughout Paul Boateng’s life.
In February 1966 the Boateng world fell apart. A coup drove Kwame Nkrumah and his Convention People’s Party from power. Paul, his mother and sister had to flee. They naturally came to the United Kingdom, where both Paul and his Scottish mother had been born. Paul went to Apsley Grammar School, where he excelled, being head boy, a gifted actor and singer, and, as his headmaster put it, already ”an outstanding but extrovert speaker with multitudinous ideas”. His first step into public politics was to join the Young Socialists and into informal politics to become actively involved in social service. He won a place here at the University of Bristol to read Law, was a committee member of the Students’ Law Club, and a member of the Council of the Students’ Union. Such public politics were again matched by volunteering, time spent using his developing legal skills and political commitment in St. Paul’s, one of the most run down and ethnically diverse parts of this city.
After graduation in 1976 and a period at the Paddington law centre, he began working as a trainee solicitor at Birnbergs which, in the 1970s, was probably the leading trade unionist and civil liberties solicitors’ firm in London, where he became a partner. He later trained as a barrister, where his natural gifts lay, being called to the Bar in 1989. But he also continued to throw his energies into work that helped many of the most disadvantaged of our citizens. At a time when race relations were unacceptably poor, he was the legal adviser to the campaign against the discriminatory use by the police of stop-and-search laws in Lambeth which, as he foresaw and warned, would fuel the Brixton riots.
He was elected to the Greater London Council in 1981 at the age of 29, as a vigorous and vocal supporter of the Labour leader Ken Livingston. He chaired its Police Committee and was vice-chairman of its Ethnic Minorities Committee. While many people remember him for his open radicalism and a member of what they dismissively called the ‘loony left’, others remember him for his effective work and wholehearted commitment to the needs of people then much underrepresented and whose voice went largely unheard. He made things happen. As Herman Ouseley recalled, “it wasn’t surprising to see him come into a committee meeting with a pile of papers under one arm, one of his children under another”, and then ensure that positive action ensued.
His public persona, radical but also effective, helped him gain the Labour nomination in 1985 for Brent South, then (as now) perhaps the poorest of all constituencies in England, and he was comfortably elected to Parliament in 1987. To many people’s surprise, he quickly gravitated to the modernising wing of a deeply divided party and Neil Kinnock appointed him a junior Treasury spokesman in 1989. In 1992, John Smith made him shadow Minister for the Lord Chancellor’s Department, a post confirmed by Tony Blair and held until the 1997 General Election, when his party won a famous and overwhelming victory. He held a number of junior ministerial posts until, in May 2002, he became the first person of African descent to serve in the British cabinet when Tony Blair made him Chief Secretary to the Treasury. In 2005 he moved across directly to the diplomatic world, as only a small handful of people have done before, and was appointed High Commissioner to South Africa, an African back in Africa, where his easy friendliness has charmed citizens of all colours.
Madam Chancellor, this truncated history hints at a remarkable transformation. He had entered Parliament with well-recognised left-wing credentials. But these soon mellowed in the crucible of power. Some found it difficult to forgive; others never comprehended the shift. While retaining the fundamental principles that he had absorbed as his father’s son, he came to understand the importance of what was possible and practicable. Unless one was in power, it was impossible to change the country for the better. Few individuals were more loyal to the new Labour project than Paul Boateng. He was a fine parliamentary performer, fiercely eloquent, and one of the diminishing band of members who could speak fluently, powerfully and entertainingly without a prepared text. Inevitably he became a role model for many aspiring young people from minority backgrounds. But he tried never to play the race card. “My colour is part of me”, he once said, “but I do not choose to be defined by my colour”. He felt that the party’s black sections were “needlessly divisive”.
Increasingly, his views and style did not fit that of a stereotypical left-winger. He expressed his professional success by dressing smartly, in no small part due to the skills of his tailor cousin Oswald Boateng, and by sending some of his children to private schools. He knew much about opera and served on the Board of English National Opera. All this irked his middle class constituency activists. But the great majority of his local party supported him vigorously, mindful of his performance as a caring and successful constituency member, and they were genuinely proud of his success both as a barrister and, of course, as a national politician. He mirrored what was good about Achebe’s ‘Man of the People’.
He was also a friend of this city and the University of Bristol. When he returned to his alma mater, which he did regularly before the burdens of cabinet office limited the opportunities, he would revisit those individuals and groups whom he had helped at the very beginning of his public life. Or he would talk to, or adjudicate in, the School of Law. In the University’s 1990s Campaign for Resource, he was a regular attendee at the Patrons’ annual dinner and used his good offices to connect the University to potential supporters and hosted occasions for Convocation at the House of Commons. In the 2001 Celebrations marking the 125th anniversary of the opening of University College, Bristol, he committed to giving one of the public lectures. In 2005, he delivered the Anne Spencer Memorial Sermon in the University’s church. This last commitment is a reminder that Paul Boateng has retained a strong Christian faith and is an active Methodist and lay preacher. He has been the Methodist delegate to the World Council of Churches and Vice-Moderator of its programme to combat racism. His childhood roots, with a Christian Socialist father and a Quaker mother, have had a long and deep effect.
So, you have before you an immigrant from Ghana who has been unquestionably successful and contributed (as have many other immigrants) enormously to the public life and well-being of this country; a man who was the first ever non-white cabinet minister but has refused to make political capital out of his colour; an alumnus who has helped and supported a range of activities of this, his University; a man who has never forgotten his early experience as a political activist in this city; a man who now represents the Queen and her government in one of the most significant and important overseas postings. Madam Chancellor, I present to you the Right Honourable Paul Yaw Boateng as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.