Boateng was born in Hackney, London of mixed Ghanaian and Scottish heritage; his family later moved to Ghana when Boateng was four years old. His father, Kwaku Boateng, was a lawyer and cabinet minister under Kwame Nkrumah. There, Boateng attended Accra Academy High School. Boateng’s life in Ghana came to an abrupt end with the jailing of his father in 1966 after a coup against Nkrumah. His father was imprisoned without trial for four years. Boateng, then 15, and his sister fled to Britain with their mother.
They settled in Hemel Hempstead where he attended Apsley Grammar School. He read law at the University of Bristol and began his career in civil rights, originally as a solicitor, though he later retrained as a barrister. He worked primarily on social and community cases, involving women’s rights, housing and police complaints, including a period from 1977-1981 as the legal advisor for the Scrap Sus Campaign. He represented Cherry Groce, a mother of six who was shot and paralysed by a police officer during a raid on her home in the search for her son. He became a partner at the firm B M Birnberg & Co, and as a barrister, he practiced at Eight King’s Bench Walk.
Boateng was elected to the Greater London Council for Walthamstow in 1981, which was then under the leadership of Ken Livingstone. Boateng was only the second person of Afro-Caribbean descent to be elected to the GLC. As chair of the GLC’s police committee and vice-chair of its ethnic minorities committee, he advocated greater accountability in the Metropolitan Police and spoke out against racism in relation to their dealings with the black and Asian communities.
Member of Parliament
He stood, and lost, as a parliamentary candidate for Hertfordshire West (which included his former home town of Hemel Hempstead) in the 1983 general election. He won in the general election of 1987, when he became the MP for Brent South in succession to Laurence Pavitt, being one of the first three black MPs (the others being Bernie Grant and Diane Abbott). During his victory speech he said: “We can never be free in Brent until South Africa is free too.” He then famously declared, “Today Brent South, tomorrow Soweto!”
Like many other members of the left in the 1980s, he became more moderate under the leadership of Neil Kinnock, who made him a junior Treasury spokesman in 1989, making him the first black person to join the front bench as a party spokesperson. His portoflio included economics, industrial strategies and corporate responsibility. In 1992, he became shadow minister for the Lord Chancellor’s Department, a post he held until the 1997 general election, where he was a strong advocate for increasing pro bono legal services among UK law firms.
With Labour’s victory, Boateng became the UK’s first black government minister as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department of Health, where he was responsible for social services and mental health. In that position, he published guidelines to end the denial of adoptions purely on the basis of race.
In 1998 Boateng became a Minister of State at the Home Office and subsequently became Number 2 Minister at the home Office. He was made aPrivy Councilor in 1999. He earned a reputation for being tough on crime, particularly with regards to aggressive begging on the streets. He also worked with Eric Holder, who was then Deputy Attorney General, and Louis Freeh, then Director of the FBI on issues related to international drug trafficking and interdiction.
His portfolio was expanded in 2000, and he became the first Minister for Young People, where his priority was to listen to and be a voice for Britain’s youth. He launched the Youth, Citizenship and Social Change programme, then the UK’s largest research project designed to examine social exclusion and promoting citizenship among young people. He also played a leading role in establishing and launching the £450m Children’s Fund designed to tackle child poverty. Boateng’s ministerial colleagues encouraged him to stand as the Labour candidate to be the Mayor of London; however, he ruled himself out and strongly criticised his former GLC colleague Ken Livingstone. Boateng supported the candidacy of Frank Dobson, with whom he had served in the Department of Health.
In 2001, he was made Financial Secretary to the Treasury, and was promoted to the position of Chief Secretary to the Treasury in May 2002, making history as Britain’s first black cabinet minister. He was quoted as saying “My colour is part of me but I do not choose to be defined by my colour.” His appointment was greeted with praise by civil rights activists who said that his appointment gave hope to young black youths and would inspire them to become involved in politics. To commemorate this historic achievement, Parliament commissioned a painting of Boateng by Jonathan Yeo, which is displayed in the collection of 21st Century Parliamentarians.
In March 2005, Boateng announced that he would not stand for re-election as an MP in the May 2005 general election. Dawn Butler was selected by the Constituency Labour Party to replace him and was elected in Brent South.
High Commissioner to South Africa
Due to Boateng’s passion and enthusiasm for the government’s Africa Commission Report and his associations with African leaders. Tony Blair named him to be the next High Commissioner to South Africa for a term of four years. Many Africans praised the appointment, stating that it was an important symbolic break from Britain’s colonial past and saw it as a symbol of Tony Blair’s commitment to the continent. Boateng is credited with building a close relationship to South Africa’s ANC government, and it was reported that he privately worked to bring together bitter rivals in the crisis in Zimbabwe, although he publicly condemned the Zimbabwean government’s illegal occupation of land from white farmers and the resulting turmoil, which Boateng labeled a “human rights crisis.” He has also addressed the World Economic Forum on issues concerning Africa. In 2008, he participated in a number of talks with political leaders in the United States to encourage them to support the Doha Development Round trade negotiations that would open Western markets to goods from Africa and other developing countries. His tenure as High Commissioner ended in May 2009.
Appointment to the House of Lords
On 28 May 2010, it was announced in the 2010 Dissolution Honours that Boateng would become a member of the House of Lords. He was introduced as Lord Boateng of Akyem andWembley on 1 July 2010; he was supported by Lord Ouseley and Lord Janner. His maiden speech to the House of Lords highlighted the needs of poor and disadvantaged children, both in rural and urban areas.