FOREIGN DISPATCH: Adam Afriyie — the British Barack Obama?

Will we soon see a mixed-race face in an official 10 Downing Street portrait?
Will we soon see a mixed-race face in an official 10 Downing Street portrait? // Creative Commons

This is the latest piece in Kiki Ochieng’s WKND BLOG column, exploring matters of political and international import beyond polls and borders. Watch her introduction to her writing series and focus here.

Last week, the British House of Commons voted in favor of gay marriage, despite more than half of Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party voting against the reform. Given the dissent between the party and its leader, and growing doubts about whether the embattled Cameron can lead the Tories to victory in Britain’s next elections, the time seems ripe to consider whether the Prime Minister’s weak standing leaves room for a newcomer to redefine British Conservatism.

Enter Adam Afriyie MP.

The immediate surface-level parallels between America’s 44th President, Barack Obama, and Afriyie are striking. Both born on August 4th, they share the experience of having a white mother and absent African father (Ghanaian for Afriyie; Kenyan for Obama).

Looking at the broad strokes of their stories, some have been quick to label Afriyie, a rising Tory star, as the “British Barack Obama.” However, aside from those biographical markers, the lives of the two men are remarkably different.

While Obama had a middle-class upbringing, Afriyie grew up on a council estate, the British equivalent of public housing. As a young lawyer, Obama engaged with low-income communities as a community organizer and worked as a civil rights legislator. Though he is now wealthy, Obama had to climb his way to success. He finally managed to pay off his student loans just nine years ago. In numerous speeches, he has addressed the fact that help from others ultimately enabled him to dream of the presidency. In Obama’s eyes, success is acollective endeavor.

And then we have Obama’s alleged British doppelganger. A self-made millionaire with a net worth of around £100 million, Afriyie is not only exceedingly wealthy, but also remarkably conservative in respect to his upbringing. In contrast to the liberal politics of the Labour Party, which has worked to save Britain’s safety net, Afriyie has stated that Labour policies “breed dependency.” Afriyie is a Thatcherite and he staunchly believes that choices, not government programs, are the key to self-betterment. This view contrasts sharply with Obama’s progressive approach to social policies, as outlined in a famous line from his July 2012 speech in Roanoke, Virginia: “If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help.”

With the British government imposing harsh austerity measures on its citizens, Cameron has been the target of a great deal of the animosity towards the conservative wing of the government. In such a tenuous political climate, changes among the Tories might be seen as unwise, but Afriyie is rumored to be positioning himself to stand for leadership before the next general election in 2015. According to the British parliamentary system, the party that wins the most seats in the general election forms the next Government. The leader of that party, a figure chosen by party members, becomes the Prime Minister. With Afriyie reportedly angling for Tory leadership after only a few years in office, he appears have sets his sets high — just like another rising mixed-race star across the pond did in 2008.

Yet despite their similarities in ethnicity and ambition, Adam Afriyie and Barack Obama believe in politics at opposite ends of the political spectrum. And it remains to be seen whether Afriyie possesses the charisma and aplomb that propelled Obama to the White House. This flaw may prove to be the death knell of any high aspirations. For now, Cameron supporters and other political commentators in Britain view his effort to lead the party as little more than a novelty, and a foolish one at that.

 

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