Meet Vaughan Gething, Europe’s first Black head of government

BY Nii Ntreh March 28, 2024 11:38 AM EDT
Wales' First Minister Vaughan Gething. Photo Credit: Welsh Government

If you discount the pedantic insistence on their unique geographical separation from the continent, the United Kingdom of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales is very much European. This makes Humphrey Vaughan ap David Gething, the First Minister of Wales, the first Black person to head a government in an European nation. He gets around as Vaughan Gething, and he is the son of a Black Zambian woman and a white Welsh man. He was born in his mother’s land 10 years after it had gained independence from Britain.

It is tempting to attempt to reconcile what significance this political promotion holds for Gething, vis-a-vis his upbringing. Two years after he had been born in Lusaka, Gething’s parents left for the Welsh town of Abergavenny so that his father, a veterinarian, could take up a new role. But the small and quiet market town – these days counting fewer than 15,000 inhabitants – was not to be the home the mixed race couple had hoped. The offer to Gething’s father was rescinded. The family then had to resettle in the southern English countryside of Dorset.

Gething’s public recollections of his younger years have not indicated much in the direction of race although he has publicized the racist backlash his parents’ marriage received in the 80s and 90s. One of the reasons race is not highly placed on his list may be due to the fact that Wales is the whitest of the nations in the UK. The country also presents a generally finer portrait of racial harmony – or in this case, a large and pervasive ethnic white majority that is able to subsume the racial tensions that may manifest. In a country of 3.3 million or so, Wales’ Black population is about 30,000, for instance.

Another reason for which we may not have heard much about Gething’s own experiences of racial tensions is because he is a nationally recognized politician who is well-liked. This is not an indictment of the man as much as it is an acknowledgement that racial politics can be negotiated much differently in other places apart from the United States.

In his victory speech earlier this month in the Senedd, Gething promised to “bring together a government that constantly makes the positive case for progressive politics. To remind people, that only through coming together, can we achieve for the many.”

Fairly incontrovertible and statesmanlike language for a politician in a liberal democracy. Still, Gething understands his place in the grand scheme of Welsh public affairs.

“We have a range of our own issues to resolve. And whilst [we are] busy with a once-in-a-century pandemic, I don’t stop being Black just because I am here [in Wales] and a politician. So that matters to me just as the job matters to me. So you can’t unpick who you are just because you have a really significant job to do,” he said in an interview in 2020 about the topic of racism in the United States and in the west.

When asked what he personally felt about racism in Wales, he was not generous with details but spilled enough to occupy anyone interested in the subject.

“I wouldn’t say that everyday of my life I was subjected to racist abuse growing up. We had a protective childhood. My father was a vet in a rural community so he was a figure of wealth that people looked up to. But there were still comments made by people you occasionally played with [in school]. And then as you got a bit older, it got a bit more serious…You cannot deny that [racism] is part of your own experience [as a Black Welsh citizen],” he said in the same interview in 2020.

Perhaps, what constitutes personal affliction for Gething may not be his race but his health. He was diagnosed with Nephrotic Syndrome about three decades ago and has said that recent successful medical trials have given him hope for the future.

The kidney disorder delayed Gething law school education by a year. Nevertheless, at Aberystwyth University, Gething was elected head of the Students’ Union. He would go on to preside over Wales’ National Union of Students.

Before becoming a politician, Gething was a lawyer who represented labor interests. At only 34, he became the youngest and first Black person to be elected head of Wales TUC, the largest umbrella body of labor unions in the country. He had served as a city councilor between 2004 and 2008 before embarking on a career in active politics in 2011 when he went to the Welsh parliament. His ascent to the top as largely been flawless since then.

The tasks before the father of one are not new. Gething has been part of the Welsh Labour government of the last decade, serving in various ministerial capacities. As First Minister, he will be responsible for implementing domestic policies across health, agriculture, education and local government. But as a Labour politician, he will also be looking to steer his party towards delivering UK Labour the majority in the UK parliament in the British general election expected at some point this year. A Labour victory would mean Gething would have stronger ally at No. 10 Downing Street.

Currently, the consensus is that in the small nation west of England, the 50-year-old is fairly liked and if he remains dominant within the local Labour Party, he will be the country’s First Minister beyond the next Senedd elections in 2026.