Darcus Howe celebrates "Pablocito" Boateng

Will Paul Boateng's loyalty be stretched by Labour's plans for asylum-seekers? Asks Darcus Howe

Over the jubilee weekend, black Brixton remained seriously republican. Young blacks took over Coldharbour Lane, shoulder to shoulder, in celebration of themselves, with not a Union Flag to be seen. Heavy Jamaican dub music blared out. A police van parked discreetly around the corner marked the only presence of authority. But for me, the big day was the previous Wednesday, when Paul Boateng became the first black Briton to enter the cabinet.

I postponed writing to Paul, his wife Janet and their children, expressing my congratulations. Then I went to the Grosvenor House Hotel in the West End to present an Emma (Ethnic Multicultural Media Award) for best novel. And there was "Pablocito" Boateng. I hailed the man. He turned on hearing my voice, went into a youth-man jig and threw his entire weight at me in a celebratory embrace. He yelled a song of happiness.

So much of one's real political response comes from the gut. Whatever scepticism I may have held on his appointment disappeared in that embrace. Paul always knew where he was headed. In the 1970s, Ben Birnberg, whose law firm trained Paul, asked me to meet this young man with serious political ambitions. I was a black activist, an extraparliamentary campaigner. Paul listened to me, and appeared moved. But he was clear that he would join the Labour Party and become the first black cabinet minister.

I thought he was at best overenthusiastic and at worst crazy. Hardly any blacks joined Labour in those days, believing that it was guilty of pandering to the racist element in the white working class. Looking back on his movement from black activist to cabinet minister, I see a cold and unrelenting pursuit of ambition; and for this, Boateng must be congratulated.

Boateng's father was a cabinet minister in Ghana, in its early democratic flush, so I think parliamentarianism is in his blood. When Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana's first leader, was ousted in a military coup, Paul's father was thrown into prison. So the young Boateng, although born in England, returned with his sister and mother as a kind of asylum-seeker. He will find it immensely difficult to go along with the government's Powellite plans for repatriation of those who now come here in a similar plight.

The demands of collective cabinet responsibility and party loyalty will stretch him to breaking point. The cynics say vulgar opportunism and not principle will win out. We shall see.