Michael Taylor works as an NHS senior manager.
In 2020, Labour celebrated the 33rd anniversary of the “first” Black MPs elected to Parliament. Unfortunately, newly unearthed information has shown that this isn’t true.
Throughout 2020, Labour filled social media with tweets and articles about how it had been 33 years since the election of the UK’s first Black Members of Parliament: Diane Abbott, Paul Boateng, and Bernie Grant.
Various Labour MPs tweeted about how the three had been pioneers for the Labour Party’s fight for diversity, whilst activists and members celebrated their historic election victory.
There was just one problem. They actually weren’t the first, indeed they weren’t even close. And since it is Black History Month, I thought I’d delve into the world of historic, black parliamentarians.
In 1987, when all three Labour MPs were elected, very little research had been conducted into the ethnicity of Members of Parliament from the 18th-20th century, meaning just five non-white MPs, all of Indian descent, were known to have served:
- David Dyce Sombre – Whig MP for Sudbury (1841-1842)
- Dadabhai Naoroji – Liberal MP for Finsbury Central (1892-1895)
- Mancherjee Bhownagree – Conservative MP for Bethnal Green North East (1895-1906)
- Ernest Soares – Liberal MP for Barnstaple (1900-1911)
- Shapurji Saklatvala – Communist MP for Battersea North (1922-1923 and 1924-1929)
However, due to research by a variety of different academics and authors and the unearthing of various documents and newspaper articles, we now know that the first Black MP was a gentleman by the name of James Townshend, who was elected in 1767 as the Whig MP for West Looe.
According to Dr Wolfram Latsch in ‘A Black Lord Mayor of London in the Eighteenth Century?’ and Randy J Sparks in ‘Where the Negroes are Masters: An African Port in the Era of the Slave Trade’, Townshend’s mother was the daughter of an African woman and a white solider, who was in the service of the Dutch West India Company.
In 1772, whilst serving as an MP, Townshend was elected as the Lord Mayor of London, defeating the great parliamentary reformer John Wilkes, after the Sheriff of London manipulated the votes to prevent the election of Wilkes.
In 1780, Townshend, who was by now the MP for Calne (where he served until his death in 1787), was joined by a fellow Black Whig MP, in the form of Richard Beckford, who had been elected for Bridport. Research by Dr Amanda Goodrich in her book Henry Redhead Yorke, Colonial Radical: Politics and Identity in the Atlantic World, 1772-1813, found that he was the ‘illegitimate child of William Beckford and a slave in Jamaica’ and had previously ‘stood for Parliament in Hindon, Wiltshire in 1774’.
Hindon was the Beckford family’s seat, however as Richard was illegitimate, his father’s widow and legitimate children sided against him and he lost convincingly to Richard Smith and Thomas Brand Hollis. Both Smith’s and Brand Hollis’s election to Hindon were later declared void, after it had been found that they had been offering 15 guineas per vote and were later imprisoned for bribery.
One of the more controversial, newly-unearthed BME MPs, is John Stewart, a Conservative MP for Lymington, who was elected in 1832 and whose father was a notorious plantation owner. Though his mother was black, Stewart himself became a prolific slave trader and regularly defended the practice of slavery in his Common’s speeches. Indeed, he was even compensated £22,468 (£2,697,000 in 2019) in 1833 due to the abolition of slavery and the freeing of 433 slaves from his Demerara plantation in British Guiana.
After being defeated for re-election in 1847, the Dundee Courier and Argus wrote ‘It was said that the bigoted anti-colour party in the West Indies could never get over his election by an English borough, but he was extremely popular with his constituents.’
Whilst researching for her book, Dr Goodrich stumbled upon an interesting discovery: that the very subject she was reviewing was the son of a freed slave and an Antiguan plantation owner. Whilst never holding political office himself, Redhead Yorke was at the very forefront of the abolitionist movement that was sweeping through Great Britain, and was regularly arrested for revolutionary sentiments before ultimately being jailed on the charges of sedition.
Sadly his death in 1813, at the age of just 41, meant that he did not live to see his dream of the abolition of slavery come into fruition, however his cause was taken up by his younger son, also called Henry, who became the UK’s fourth black MP in 1841. A Whig MP for the City of York, Redhead Yorke Jr was an ardent champion when it came to the rights of the now freed black population within the UK and it’s colonies, and later joined the Reform Club to further progressive causes that he passionately believed in. Sadly, in 1848, Redhead Yorke committed suicide by ingesting cyanide, whilst out walking in Regent’s Park.
Following Stewart’s defeat and Yorke’s suicide, it would be a further 20 years before the UK elected another Black MP, and whilst this MPs background was comparable to Stewart’s, due to them both having a white, plantation owning father, a black slave mother and having benefited from compensation awarded after the abolition of slavery, that was where the similarities ended. The MPs name? Peter McLagan, who was elected as a Liberal in 1865 and became Scotland’s first non-white MP.
Having inherited his father’s fortune, which included the equivalent of £2.1m in compensation for the freeing of 451 slaves in 1833, McLagan dived into the world of politics and was elected as the Liberal MP for Linlithgowshire. His vast wealth certainly helped his candidacy as candidates, at that time, could only stand if land of a certain value was owned. Since he possessed both the Pumpherston Estate in West Lothian, as well as still retaining land in British Guiana, he was all but assured election to this safe seat.
Whilst in Parliament, McLagan fervently supported both women’s suffrage and the need for female doctors. Unfortunately, his parliamentary career ended in disgrace after a failed business partnership, to mine shale oil on his Scottish land, led him to both bankruptcy and his resignation from public life. McLagan, therefore, was to be the last, visible Black MP till 1987.
Paul Boateng, in a recent video for the Labour Party, stated that ’33 years ago, there were no Black, Asian, minority ethnic people in Parliament’, whilst a Labour article stated that “Keith Vaz was the first MP, of Asian descent, elected to Parliament since the 1920s” when Vaz was elected in 1987, however, once again, neither of these statements are true.
In 1983, during the height of Thatcher’s premiership, the Conservatives elected two MPs from BME backgrounds: Jonathan Sayeed, whose father was from India, and Richard Hickmet, whose father was Turkish. By not acknowledging the electoral victories of Sayeed and Hickmet it only highlights that, all too often, Conservative politicians from ethnic minority backgrounds are ignored, overlooked, and have to work harder in order to be recognised.
Labour continuously claim that they will have the first BME or ethnic minority party leader, but since they are yet to have even a female leader, I doubt that this will be the case, especially when the Conservatives might have actually beaten them to it.
After all, the Conservatives have already had two leaders, who have been of minority descent. The first is Iain Duncan Smith, who is of Japanese descent via to his maternal great-grandmother, Ellen Oshey Matsumuro, a Japanese woman from a Samurai family.
The second is non other than our current leader: Boris Johnson, whose great grandfather, Ali Kemal, was Minister of the Interior during the final years of the Ottoman Empire. Ali, a Turkish Muslim, was later assassinated during the Turkish War of Independence, forcing his family to settle permanently in England. As mentioned earlier, Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians, of Turkish descent, are highlighted in documents and articles, so why has Boris been left out?
And that’s without even raising the question of Benjamin Disraeli…