The Rt Hon. the Lord Boateng (LLB 1973, Hon LLD 2007) is a lawyer and British Labour party politician. Throughout his groundbreaking legal and political career, he has championed civil rights, campaigned on social issues and provided powerful representation for marginalised people across the UK. Elected to parliament in 1987, Lord Boateng made history as the first Black UK minister in 1997. He was previously Chair of Book Aid International, is Vice-President of the London Library and sits on the board of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, among others.
This year’s winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award, Lord Boateng talks to us about life as a Bristol Law student and his astonishing career.
On growing up
I was born in Hackney, London in 1951 and when I was four years old my family moved to Ghana. My father was a lawyer and Cabinet Minister and was jailed in 1966 as a political prisoner. My mother, sister and I fled to the UK, where we settled in a council estate in Hemel Hempstead when I was 15 years old.
On being a student in the 1970s
In the 1970s there was a sense of transition, a sense of change. We were living in the aftermath of the 1968 civil unrest in Paris and the subsequent student uprisings. There was the Vietnam War, the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, the Civil Rights movement in the US and a growing movement in the UK for women, Black people and gay people. But racism, sexism and homophobia were the order of the day, and we were at the height of the Cold War. We were living in a very challenging time, but one where anything seemed possible. To be politically and intellectually aware was very exciting and I threw myself into it – I was on the Student’s Council, the Drama Society and I was President of the Debating Union.
On studying Law
I decided to train as a solicitor rather than a barrister after reading a Yale Law Review on the Law Centre Movement in the US. Law Centres provided representation for people up against landlords, people subject to oppressive policing and police racism, and women experiencing domestic violence. In those days, to work in a Law Centre in this country you had to train as a solicitor, and I was inspired by the idea of working in the community and advocating for people.
It was the first term of my first year at university, and I wrote to one of the most well-known, radical solicitors of the day, Benedict Birnberg. He was in all the high-profile civil liberties trials of the time, acting for the Race Today Collective and the women’s refuge movement. He agreed to meet, and he promised me articles after I had done my final Law Society exams. I was very lucky to know what I was working towards throughout my degree.
Early days as a lawyer
Benedict Birnberg worked with two partners, Judith Walker and Tess Gill, who were remarkable feminist lawyers involved in the women’s refuge movement, and worked closely with Erin Pizzey, who established the first women’s shelter in this country in 1971. The firm didn’t have the money to spend on bailiffs, so it was my job to serve papers to men who had been abusing their partners. I was chased all over the streets of London! When I eventually became a solicitor, there were only two other Black solicitors practising in London; it was a very different time.
On working in politics
It was working for a group of Black women in Lewisham who had formed the ‘Scrap Sus’ movement that inspired me to seek elected office. They were protesting the ‘stop and search’ laws that were causing so many of their young people to be criminalised on suspicion alone. I saw how the political system was failing people of colour and I thought to myself, this has to change.
In 1982 a group of people asked me to stand as Labour MP for the Islington North Constituency in London. I didn’t get that selection in 1982 by four votes and Jeremy Corbyn did. History might have been rather different otherwise! I was, however, selected in that year in my hometown in Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire, and finally won in Brent South in 1987. That’s when I gave up the law and in 1989 I became a frontbencher, working for the then Shadow Chancellor John Smith QC. He was a very special man and I think he would have made a truly great Prime Minister had he not died tragically young.
As a lawyer and politician himself, John advised me that in order to keep my feet on the ground while working in parliament, I should go back to practising law. So I did. It wasn’t practical to run a law office while working as an MP, so I trained to become a barrister and maintained front bench responsibilities right up until 1997. Of course, then we got into Government with Tony Blair, and I was once again committed full time to politics.
For me, there’s never really been a simple dividing line between law and politics. Style, content and context are of course necessarily different, but I am, first and foremost, an advocate on a mission to persuade, either as a lawyer, or as a Parliamentarian.
On being the UK’s first Black minister
I became the UK’s first Black minister in 1997, and the first Black cabinet minister in 2001. It was breaking a glass ceiling, but it was not universally welcome. I had a barrage of hate mail. And in my first week, my driver and I noticed the most terrible smell in the car. Eventually we found a frozen bag of Brussels sprouts taped under my seat, which over time had started to thaw and rot. I find it very difficult to talk about – it demonstrates the degree of pathological hatred about the fact a Black man was sitting in a ministerial car. At some stage you have to break through a glass ceiling, and it just so happened that I was the person who had to do it.
On overcoming challenges
I am able to overcome challenges because of my faith and because of Janet my wife. I couldn’t have achieved anything or survived all I have without the understanding and forgiveness they have brought into my life.
On receiving the 2023 Alumni Award for Lifetime Achievement
I’m so grateful for this award, and the opportunities that a Bristol education has afforded me. I’m conscious, though, that it’s no easier for a Black boy from a council estate displaced and uprooted by political circumstances to become a lawyer today, than it was in 1970. It makes me angry and disappointed that, despite real progress in some areas, social mobility is moving in the wrong direction. I am determined to continue advancing the causes of social and racial justice, and hopeful that a new generation will take up the struggle for change.
Each year, the University of Bristol recognises alumni who have made remarkable contributions to society through the Alumni Awards. You can see the full list of our 2023 winners on our website.