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Regular Column

Britain`s Ethnic MPs, Past and Present

Volume 12, Issue 2  | 
Published 09/10/2015
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In any discussion about the make-up and history of Britain`s ethnic MPs, the name Dadabhai Naoroji will feature prominently as the first Indian to be elected to the House of Commons, in 1892, as a Liberal.  He was defeated at the next election in 1895, when a second Indian MP, Sir Mancherjee Bhownagree, a Tory, was elected.  He served two terms until 1906, when he in turn lost his seat in the landslide victory of the Liberal Party in 1906. Later, in 1922, a third Indian MP, Shapurji Saklatvala, was elected for the Communist Party and served for two terms 1922-23 and 1924-29, in each of which years there was an election which he won twice.

In any discussion about the make-up and history of Britain`s ethnic MPs, the name Dadabhai Naoroji will feature prominently as the first Indian to be elected to the House of Commons, in 1892, as a Liberal.  He was defeated at the next election in 1895, when a second Indian MP, Sir Mancherjee Bhownagree, a Tory, was elected.  He served two terms until 1906, when he in turn lost his seat in the landslide victory of the Liberal Party in 1906. Later, in 1922, a third Indian MP, Shapurji Saklatvala, was elected for the Communist Party and served for two terms 1922-23 and 1924-29, in each of which years there was an election which he won twice.

These three MPs belonged to a different era. Their Indian identity was apparent and duly acknowledged, and so was the fact that as subjects of the Empire they could engage in the public life of its metropolitan home on the same basis as their indigenous counterparts.  But further back in time, the position was a little more nuanced.  After all, Britons had ruled and/or settled in countries far and wide across the globe and it was inevitable that their interactions with other peoples and races would have produced mixed progeny of one sort or another.  Historiographers have noted two such cases at the highest levels of the political hierarchy.

Adam Afiyie

Adam Afiyie

Chi Onwurah

Chi Onwurah

Chuka Umunna

Chuka Umunna

Clive Lewis

Clive Lewis

Diane Abbott

Diane Abbott

Robert Banks Jenkinson (1770-1828), second Earl of Liverpool, entered Parliament as a Tory in 1790 and became the longest serving Prime Minister in the nineteenth century from 1812 to 1827.  His mother, Amelia Jenkinson, was the grand-daughter of an Indian woman of noble birth, and had come to Britain and married his father in 1769.  Similarly, another Anglo-Indian aristocrat, David Ochterlony Dyce Sombre (1808-1851), heir to Begum Sombre of Sardhana, was elected to Parliament as a Whig in 1841, though the following year he was unseated by petition for some reason. Their part Indian ancestry however was never an issue, as they had been thoroughly subsumed into the mainstream of British society, and hence its ruling establishment.  This was also true later of the Sassoons, Sir Edward and Sir Phillip, with a mixed British Indian and Iraqi heritage, MPs respectively from 1899 to 1912 and from 1912 to 1939.  Since then there have also been other MPs of various shades of grey (Jonathan Sayeed, Sebastian Coe, Ian Duncan Smith, to name three contemporary figures).

Fast forward to the present and what we find is that Britain has truly evolved into a visibly diverse, multi-ethnic nation, the transition having begun with the post-WWII migration of South Asian and Afro-Caribbean people in the late 1940s.  It is in that context that any discourse on Britain`s ethnic MPs is conducted nowadays.  What then is the ethnic composition of the British Parliament?     

For starters, BAME is the abbreviated term commonly used to describe Britain`s Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities - in effect the non-white population, including those of mixed race.  But even using that as an ethnic label is fraught with difficulty, because there is no official classification of MPs along racial lines and it is not a simple black and white issue, for there are many variations in between on account of a multiplicity of lineages and affiliations. It is really a question of both self-definition and perception. To most readers of this magazine, what may be of interest is how many Asian and black African or Caribbean MPs there are and how has the picture changed over the years.    

It was in 1987, by which time the post-war wave of immigrants had been transformed into the `second generation`, that the first batch of BAME MPs got elected: Diane Abbott (British Jamaican), Paul Boateng (British Ghanaian), Bernie Grant (British Guyanese) and Keith Vaz (British Indian).  The first and the last named are still serving, 28 years on. Boateng retired in 2005, to become the British High Commissioner to South Africa until 2009, and in 2010 was appointed to the House of Lords as Baron Boateng. Grant died in office in 2000, to be succeeded by David Lammy, another British Guyanese, still there.

From then on it has been an upwardly linear story.  A House of Commons Library research paper records the number of non-white MPs elected to the House of Commons to have steadily risen from 4 in 1987 to 6 in 1992; to 9 in 1997; to 12 in 2001; to 15 in 2005; and to 27 in 2010.  The figures for the most recent election have had to be extrapolated from a number of sources.  

According to a widely circulated table of the 2015 election result, there are now 24 South Asian MPs (sub-grouped into Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan in terms of their ancestral roots). Included in this list is Lisa Nandy, who however elsewhere (in Wikipedia) is referred to as `Mixed Race British Pakistani/White British`, while Thangam Debbonaire (Mixed Race British Indian/White British) is not.  Among the others are two with a Ugandan connection (Shailesh Vara and Priti Patel), one, Suella Fernandes whose parents came from Kenya and two originally from Aden: Keith Vaz (married to an ex-Kenyan), the oldest and most high profile of them all, and his sister Valerie Vaz who was elected in 2010.   There are two other ethnic Asian MPs: a British Chinese and a British Iraqi!  Although what we are concerned with here is ethnicity rather than nationality, it is standard practice to attach the appellation `British` as a marker of the British-ness of the person concerned in terms of citizenship and domicile.

Helen Grant

Helen Grant

James Cleverly

James Cleverly

Keith Vaz

Keith Vaz

Kwisi Kwarteng

Kwisi Kwarteng

Lisa Nandy

Lisa Nandy

That takes care of the `A` in BAME.  What about the rest?  By my reckoning, there are some 15 of them. They range from Afro-Caribbean to West African, plus a variety of `mixed race` combinations: White/Irani; Black/White; White/South Asian; African/White.  But names alone are not always a guide to ethnicity: Mark Hendrick is of Anglo-Somali descent; Helen Grant is described as Mixed Race British Nigerian/White British; and James Cleverly as Mixed Race British Sierra Leonese/White British – all, incidentally, happen to be Conservatives! 

A simple white/non-white division does not always correspond with ethnic boundaries either. Jewish MPs, for example, count as white generally but Oona King, the daughter of an African-American father and a white Jewish mother, was proclaimed and to all intents and purposes became the second black MP (after Diane Abbott) when she was elected in 1997, notwithstanding her part-Jewish ancestry by descent.  She remained so until defeated in 2005, and in 2011 was elevated to the House of Lords where she sits as Baroness King of Bow.   

A total then of just over 40 BAME MPs is not a bad number. It fairly reflects the changed demographics of the country in the last six decades.  Among these 40+ BAME MPs are cabinet and junior ministers and leading opposition spokespeople, and there are bound to be more in the years to come. 

Of course historically those early Indian MPs sought to serve, and were returned by, an electorate devoid of any `ethnic` component or considerations.  Now, the population mix of specific constituencies can be a significant factor, but even so it must not be assumed that BAME MPs represent only areas where people of their particular ethnic background are in a majority.  While in some cases this may be so, there are many more where it is not, and everywhere they still have to appeal to and depend on the support of a broad cross-section of the local community.  On the whole, people exercise their democratic right to vote for whoever they think would serve them and the country well. 

Ethnic MPs are thus no longer a novelty; they are part of the nation`s institutional landscape.  Indeed, it was only while researching for this piece that I came across all their names and details.  These also show a remarkable degree of both gender and political balance: out of the 41 odd BAME MPs, 21 are male and 20 female; and 23 Labour, 17 Conservative and one solitary SNP member from Scotland (the Mixed Race British Pakistani/White British Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh).

But what are the ground realities behind the emergence of ethnic MPs?  These are no different for them as for all other aspiring MPs, who have to travel a very long distance before getting to the point of election.  It is a tough journey, full of pitfalls and challenges. They are invariably motivated by a desire to do good for society, with a belief in a cause or an ideology, and not to make money. There are countless examples of politicians who will have joined a party while still in their teens.  And it is when their goal becomes clearer that they turn into real activists. This would involve working in their party`s central or local office doing mundane admin work, sticking envelopes, canvassing or leafletting from door to door, before graduating into focus group or policy making committee activities. Then comes the crucial stage of being selected as a candidate for a general or by election. They have to be passionate and focused, able to debate, argue and communicate complex ideas in simple language and cultivate a media presence. These are just some of the qualities they must possess in order to succeed.

Mark Hendrick

Mark Hendrick

Priti Patel

Priti Patel

Sam Gyimah

Sam Gyimah

Shailesh Vara

Shailesh Vara

Suella Fernandes

Suella Fernandes

In my own lifetime I have seen enormous changes in the way politics is done in this country.  Gone are the days of class-based polarities and of public meetings where only the party faithful might be present or welcome.  Nowadays, there are series of critical hustings on the centre ground where all the rival candidates are lined up to address potential voters, mindful of not making an ass of themselves in this age of instant publicity on twitter, facebook and other electronic outlets. In short, every ethnic MP, like all others, will have earned his or her status through sheer determination and dedication.  Above all, they remain wedded to their constituencies, to whom they are ultimately accountable and where their power base lies.  That is something they never forget.

And the practical aspects?  The most striking feature of any election in the UK is how low-key, matter-of-fact, unhurried and well organised the whole process is.  We do not have uniformed police, army or other security personnel positioned near polling stations to keep order among the people coming out to vote, as happens in some other parts of the world.  Election day is a normal working day (not a national holiday).  Polling booths are open from 7am to 10pm. These long hours ensure that everyone gets a chance to vote without having to take time off work. Polling stations are conveniently located in every neighbourhood - in a school, church, town/village/city or community hall – usually within no more than a few minutes` walk from home.

The formal countdown to polling day starts with every registered voter getting a poll card by post from their local electoral officer, telling them which polling station is assigned to them. It also states that the card is for information only and you do not have to take it with you, though it would save time if you do.  If you do not take the card then all you need do is give your name and address or your electoral registration number and the clerk will find the relevant entry in the register.  Most importantly no photo ID is required, either at the polling station or as part of the registration exercise, and noone is finger-printed or marked with indelible ink prior to or after casting their vote!  Two clerks will double check the details before they give you the ballot paper. You then go to the polling booth (open at one end but otherwise curtained off) across from the officials` counter.  You cast your vote by putting a cross in the appropriate place on the ballot paper with a thick stubbed pencil, take the paper back to the officials` desk area and put it into the ballot box duly folded.  It all takes no more than a few minutes. The poll card, incidentally, also contains a host of other information and instructions, eg. as to postal and proxy voting options. 

It is a matter of pride that the whole system, grounded in trust and a sense of civic responsibility on the part of the citizenry, functions so well - a sure sign of a mature democracy at work. But all is not honky dory, for there have been abuses, involving downright fraud and deception.  And guess where?  In areas of high concentrations of certain ethnic varieties! This has been well documented in enquiry reports, and a few successful criminal prosecutions have resulted, with a consequent tightening up of procedures.

Thangam Debbonaire

Thangam Debbonaire

Valerie Vaz

Valerie Vaz

On the positive side, the UK has a generous franchise that extends to all British, Irish and Commonwealth citizens over the age of 18 – the latter two categories being a historical hangover from the days of Empire – though EU citizens may vote only at local and European Assembly elections. The entire resident population is thus empowered with a sense of entitlement and, as stakeholders, a voice and a part to play in the nation`s well-being. 

So much for the elected chamber, the House of Commons.  Suffice it to say that in the House of Lords too there is an appreciable ethnic presence.  According to one study, there are currently some 60 serving peers from all walks of life, across the whole spectrum of non-white ethnicities.  Quite a lot of them are `cross-benchers`, i.e. party neutral, while others belong to one or other of the established parties.  Actually, it is no exaggeration to say that members of both houses of the British Parliament collectively constitute a huge repository of wisdom, experience and expertise on practically every subject under the sun and our ethnic MPs are well represented there! 

© Ramnik Shah 2015                    

Ramnik Shah

Ramnik Shah, born in Kenya, practiced law in Nairobi from 1964 to ’74 and then for the next 30 years in England, where since retirement he has been engaged in academic research and writing on migration and diaspora related subjects and general literature. His first book ‘Empire’s Child’ has just been published. See also www.ramnikshah.blogspot.com

Website: ramnikshah.blogspot.com
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