Two years ago I was sat on the House of Commons balcony having an ale with a Tory MP who, not being particularly ambitious or favoured by the pompous elite who run his party, was free to speak his mind. A tall, chiselled, feline fellow in a beautifully cut suit walked past, not saying hello, after which my drinking partner said: “Do you know Adam? Weirdest ****** I’ve ever met.”
In all the speculation about Adam Afriyie’s destiny as Britain’s first non-white leader, leaked to a bunch of pliant, eager-to-please Sunday political correspondents, the fact that some of his comrades in Westminster think him a distinctly curious fish has been missed. This is because the story fits several convenient narratives for journalists who adore rumours and plots. Unfortunately, the fact that Mr Afriyie’s evident ambition is now in the open actually reduces his threat to the Tory leadership, though it’s true that he’ll bask in the glory of his new found fame over the coming weeks. Expect to see him on Question Time soon.
What intrigued me was the speed with which most journalists, including many of my colleagues, referred to Afriyie as “the British Obama”. This is a disservice to both men. Naturally I can see why the label instinctively appeals: if Afriyie did make to Prime Minister, it would strike a blow for equality here in a way that Obama has in America. But anoraks like me who have studied Obama closely – you really must read David Remnick’s biography, The Bridge – will be more struck by the differences than similarities.
It’s true that Afriyie’s English mother and (absent) Ghanaian father recall Obama’s American mother and (absent) Kenyan father. It’s also true that they both have many siblings. And yes, they were both born on August 4. But Mr Afriyie started very poor, on a council estate in Peckham – attending the same primary school that Damilola Taylor later went to – and became very rich, with his wealth rumoured to be between £50-100m. Obama started lower middle class and became upper middle class, educated at a bunch of elite institutions (Occidental College, Columbia, Harvard) along the way.
Then there is the difference between their careers. Obama’s formative years were spent on the streets of Chicago as a community organizer, and later doing public law. Afriyie is a digital entrepreneur who oozes corporate zeal. Perhaps in part because of these heritages, their politics are very different. Obama is essentially a reformist Whig (like me, incidentally). Afriyie is Thatcherite. Nor has he shown any evidence of the eloquent oratory, political courage, or campaigning brilliance of Obama – yet.
So be aware, as this chap becomes a fixture in your life, of the limits to any claim that he is “the British Obama”. The same goes for Labour’s Chukka Umunna, a privately educated chap from Streatham, but we’ll save that for another day. It just rather irks me how quickly we journalists ascribe convenient labels as a substitute for real thinking. The Obama brand, which means so much, is here being imported to mean so little.
After all, if being an ethnic minority and hailing from south London was sufficient qualification for the highest office, I’d be a shoo-in myself. Come to think of it…