From refugee and new kid to head boy and first black cabinet minister, Lord Paul Boateng certainly resists a few stereotypes in British politics. In all other respects, he’s the consummate politician: a corporate handshake, a resonant voice and thoughtful hesitations, allowing him to think without interruption.
He’s also a man of conviction who’s concerned about the vacuous nature of modern politics. Throughout his career he’s championed civil rights and advocated for Britain to maintain its aid commitments to Africa. And he’s a man of faith. Alongside his political work, Boateng has been a lay preacher in the Methodist Church for many years. In 2009 he joined the global board of Christian development charity, Food for the Hungry, uniting his faith with his political concerns. Like many in the House of Lords, he argues for a reassertion of the moral and spiritual dimension in British social and political life.
Born in Hackney, east London, Boateng spent most of most of his childhood from the age of four in Ghana, where his father was a cabinet minister. At 15, he fled Ghana with his mother and sister when his father was imprisoned without trial in a coup. They returned to Britain where they were given a council flat in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire. Through this difficult time, Boateng says it was the Church, both in Ghana and in Britain, that provided the community and support they needed.
His career may be hailed as an equal-opportunities triumph, but with a political father and a Russell Group law degree, it perhaps isn’t quite so surprising that he found his way to the Cabinet room. Boateng attended his local grammar school, where what skill that eluded him on the cricket pitch he more than made up for on the debating team. He grew up surrounded by the vibrant political scene of 1960s Britain, and became a member of the Labour Party as a teenager. Though having trained as a barrister, he felt called into politics; he became MP for Brent South in 1987, and in 2002 Tony Blair appointed him chief secretary to the Treasury.
"WE ARE AT A TIME OF CRISIS AND OPPORTUNITY"
In 2005 he returned to Africa when he was appointed high commissioner to South Africa. He became a member of the House of Lords in 2010. His wife, Janet, and five children have been present throughout his successful career. This apparently smooth ascendancy has not been without its difficulties, as might be said of anyone, not least those in public office. Towards the end of his South Africa posting, it was alleged that his wife had bullied the staff at their Cape Town residence. And in 2011, his son, Benjamin, was convicted of sexual assault and sentenced to nearly four years in prison (the sentence was later reduced). When prompted on this issue, he responded as one used to deftly declining to comment, but not without reference to the challenges all families face.
This interview was just one of a number of things on the to-do list that day, before returning to ‘The House’. The professional trappings of the modern politician ? iPhone in one hand, iPad in the other ? were there to prompt him from one appointment to the next. There is one technological advancement where he draws the line, though ? Twitter: ‘I think it’s probably a mistake for people of my age to Twitter; we blather enough, we don’t need to Twitter as well.'
You had to leave Ghana as a teenager; can you describe what it felt like to flee what was essentially your homeland?
It was traumatic. Suddenly one morning at the age of 15 you wake up to the sound of drums beating on the radio; you’re informed that your father and all the other ministers are to report to the nearest police station because there has been a coup. Suddenly there are soldiers everywhere on the streets. Your whole life is turned upside down; your father is taken away; the house is ransacked. They took everything, literally everything ? they ate a cake my mum had baked the night before. And all that was left of value in the house was a ring that belonged to my dad that I’ve worn ever since.
When I went to school the next day, I was put in front of the class and told my father ought to be hung. It became clear that we had to leave.
We had two suitcases when we arrived back in the UK. My mum got a job [as a teacher], and with the job came a house in Hemel. It was an interesting time, because I was the only black boy in the school. That was novel ? because of course I’d lived in a country where it wasn’t unusual for black people to be lawyers, and to be on television, and all the things they do now in this country, but wasn’t done then.
So do you think growing up in Ghana fuelled your ambitions?
Growing up in Ghana meant that I had no sense that there wasn’t anything that I couldn’t do. I grew up believing that there was no reason why you can’t do anything if you work hard, participate and make yourself part of any community you’re in. That’s very much the Ghanaian way, and the way we were brought up at home and in our faith life. So that’s what I did. And by God’s grace a lot of exciting and interesting things have happened to me in the course of my life.
How did you become a Christian?
In Africa the Church is really at the heart of your life. I was brought up in a Christian family; Sunday school wasn’t just a chore, it was actually a pleasure. It was a place where faith was very much alive.
That was important when we had to flee. For me, my mother and my sister, the church was a place where we could feel confident and secure. My faith has always been nurtured in a church and community, family setting. That has been a great blessing; a source of strength and of inspiration.
Though you trained as a lawyer, was being an MP always your goal?
No, far from it. I’m first and foremost a lawyer; that’s what I do and what I always wanted to do. Politics for me was a vocation. I joined the Labour Party at the age of 15 ? I was a young socialist. It’s very difficult to imagine now what those times were like, because every young person then was political. You were thinking about a different form of society; you were thinking about the Vietnam War; about the struggle against Apartheid; about a new Britain, a new world that needed to be created. There was a clash of ideas, and people wanted to get involved.
Do you think young people today ought to be more ideological, more political?
Yes. One sounds a terrible old bore but I think values are important. Ideology is a reflection of values and vision. We are commemorating the death of the last great ideological politician that we have had in this country. Whether you agreed with [Thatcher] or disagreed with her ? I fundamentally disagreed with her on most things ? but she had vision, she had values, and she had ideology, and I happen to think that’s important. I think we’ve moved away from vision and values as a society and I think we are paying a price for that in all sorts of ways. If politics isn’t about vision and values, if it doesn’t have some ideological content, then what is it about?
I think that’s why so many young people are utterly turned off by politics. In the 60s it seemed to us that that was the way things were changed, and that there was a fundamental disconnect between us as young people ? and our vision for the sort of world we wanted ? and that of those who were running the show, and we wanted to make a change.
What do you think it would take to get to that point of change in our society today?
I think we may be approaching it, but we may not recognise that we are at a kairos moment ? a time of crisis and of opportunity. Youngpeople do have passions, they are concerned, but I don’t think they have found a way of engaging with the political process. And I don’t think we have found a way of engaging with them. My hope is that young people will start reclaiming the political space for themselves, because if they don’t, that political space will be enfeebled.
How have you seen a connection between the spiritual and political in your own life?
It has been in my work in seeking to combat racism; in seeking to combat global poverty; in promoting peace and reconciliation. That’s where my faith has been most important to me, and that’s where I have seen evidence of faith actually making most difference. I saw that in the whole movement to bring and to maintain faith in Eastern Europe; I saw that in the struggle against Apartheid.
I witnessed a meeting between an Afrikaans theologian, Dr Beyers Naudé, and Oliver Tambo, who was the head of the African National Congress at that time. Those two men ? one black, one white ? from very different communities, came together with a pledge to fundamentally alter the way that South Africa was governed, to declare that Apartheid was a sin. Those two men prayed together. No one would have thought then that within the decade Nelson Mandela would be free, that South Africa would be on the road to a non-racial, multi-party democracy. That was unthinkable.
If that can be done in Apartheid South Africa, don’t tell me that it is not possible to see a similar transformation in aspects of our own country.
Do you agree with those who say that Christians are being persecuted in public life?
I would certainly agree that people of faith are increasingly excluded from the public space ? and Christians above all.
What should Christians be doing about that?
Reclaiming the public space. But reclaiming it in the name of a vision that is inclusive, and that seeks to deliver practical goods and further enhance the welfare of the nation. What I find sad is that too often our response as Christians is one that sets us up against others. I think that’s a mistake. We need to try and be Christ-centred. Christ’s preoccupations were the poor, the disadvantaged. I didn’t actually hear him talk about some of the things that we as Christians go on and on about in our churches.
So is the Church’s engagement with politics deficient at the moment?
I would say so. It tends to be focused purely on issues of sexuality and of gender, and in ways which, frankly, don’t assist us in presenting our faith as loving and inclusive.
How do you relate your faith and your work in Parliament?
I’ve never hidden my faith. I don’t believe that Christians have a duty to vote one way or the other. I do tend to think that we as Christians have a duty to be engaged, to care, to be involved, and I think we probably do have a duty to participate actively in public debate. But I’m very dubious about people who somehow claim that the Holy Spirit is working through their party alone. The wonderful thing about the Holy Spirit is that it can work in all sorts of ways.
So I don’t confuse my politics with my faith. My faith has informed my politics, and I hope my faith informs my life as a lawyer, as a minister and as a diplomat.
What about taking a Christian stance on particular political issues?
I don’t go down the route that says if you are a Christian you must support this or that particular approach. It’s odd; people don’t tend to say ‘If you are a Christian you must support 0.7% of GDP for the poor.’ What they will tend to say is, ‘If you are a Christian, you must take a particular view on abortion, or on issues of sexuality, or issues of marriage.’ Well, no, I don’t think so. There is room for a whole spectrum of opinion, all of which is entitled to be respected.
What we should do, is engage as Christians, and not allow ourselves to be driven out of the public arena, which is why I am absolutely clear that we need to ensure that people’s rights to take specific views are respected. That’s why I supported those cases that went to the European Court of Human Rights. People are able to get away with saying things about Christians that they would never be able to get away with saying about other great world religions. Why? Our tradition in this country is a Christian one, and we should be proud of that. Children, whatever their faith background, whatever their ethnicity, should be exposed to that, because it’s part of Britain’s culture and history.
You’re obviously passionate about caring for the poor, and are on the executive board of Food for the Hungry. There are a number of Christian development charities you might have been involved with ? why this one?
I came to Food for the Hungry from its work in Africa. I value its holistic response that seeks to recognise the complexities of poverty. Poverty is not just material, it is spiritual too. We in this country are relatively wealthy, materially, but relatively poverty-stricken spiritually. When you have a relationship as churches between developed markets and emerging markets, what you find is that yes, the emerging market may be behind in the material index of poverty, but spiritually they’ll have a rich and textured life. So relationships between churches in the UK and in Africa enrich both. Food for the Hungry seeks to achieve that, through child sponsorship, but also through church to church partnerships, where you become active partners in each other’s development ? spiritually and materially.
You've had a varied and demanding career, how have your family coped with that?
There are huge pressures on us all in that respect. It’s not always been easy ? we’ve had our ups and downs. By God’s grace we come through the challenges that families have to grapple with. I don’t think one is alone in that by any means. Sure, public life makes its own demands, but I think the pressures on family are something that we’ve all experienced.
I’m fortunately at that happy stage in my life when I have grandchildren ? that’s great fun. I always tell my kids that my grandchildren are my reward for putting up with them!
In 2011 your son was convicted of sexual assault. How did you steer your family through that time?
I talked about God’s grace in our family, and by God’s grace we come through. That’s what we do and that’s what we have done. We’re not alone in that; families are a source of joy, and they are a source of challenge. God’s grace sees us through the joys and the challenges.
There are a number of challenges facing our society. If you had David Cameron’s ear today, what would you tell him to concentrate on?
All of us who have to grapple with the responsibilities of political office, wrestle first and foremost with the challenge of building community; strong, caring communities, where there’s a balance between rights and responsibilities. That’s the great challenge of politics in the 21st century. It isn’t just a challenge for Prime Ministers and politicians; it’s a challenge for all people.
How are we going to build strong communities? To do that we need values and we need vision. I don’t just say that to David Cameron, I say it to myself, and to my colleagues in Parliament. How do we transform our relationships with each other? How do we transform our relationship with the environment? How do we transform the relationships between countries? By putting the God of love at their heart.
How can we put Christ’s love at the centre of those relationships with a secular government?
I don’t accept secularism as the answer to our problems. The fact of the matter is that the overwhelming majority of people in our world are people of faith. We in Britain are in a tiny minority, globally, in terms of seeking to drive people of faith out of the public space ? if that’s what we are doing ? and we seem to be hell-bent on that. If we don’t as a nation understand how faith motivates other people, we won’t be able to make sense of our world.
Because what’s happening now for good and for ill in the world, in Africa, in Latin America, in the Middle East, and in Asia, is rooted in the faith visions that those people have. If we go on trying to conduct world security systems and world economic systems, that have no place in them for the spiritual life, they are going to fail, because they won’t be relevant to people who crave spiritual fulfilment just as they crave material fulfilment. Faith matters; it ought to matter to us, and it does matter in the world.