Saturday 21 November 2009

Cameron Conservativism, 1895-style

Ethnic minority representation in the House of Commons did not begin with the important post-war breakthrough of the class of 1987.

In a piece for the history section of the latest issue of Total Politics, I look at how the long history of black and Asian MPs in the House of Commons has reflected a range of shifting - and politically contested - ideas about race and representation in British politics. Read the piece here.

The early history is a strikingly cross-party affair. I thought Next Left readers might enjoy some background information about three fascinating characters elected in the 1890s and 1920s.

That the voters of Finsbury Central were represented from 1892 to 1895 by Dadabhai Naoroji, a prominent campaigner against the iniquities of British rule in India, perhaps symbolises the fashionable progressive radicalism of London Liberalism in the early 1890s. (Often with a dash of entryist Fabian 'permeation' in those pre-Labour party days). And the first Labour Asian MP Shapurji Saklatvala was a Communist candidate in Battersea North, to whom the Labour Party offered a (highly unusual) endorsement, influenced by Saklatvala's local popularity in the Independent Labour Party and trade union circles.

But I would particularly like to put in a slightly tongue-in-cheek claim for Sir Mancherjee Merwanjee Bhownagree, elected for Bethnal Green in 1895, as among the very first of the Cameron Conservatives.

Bhownagree certainly would have needed few lessons from Steve Hilton in the value of counter-intuitive publicity for the Conservative cause, persuading the party running an Indian candidate on a pro-Empire and strongly patriotic ticket could challenge the idea that Indian voices were overwhelmingly pro-Liberal and reformist (as the overwhelming majority were).

These were the days before the A-list, and being offered the Tory candidacy for Bethnal Green North-East may not have necessarily seemed a sure fire route to Parliament. The trade unionist and Chartist George Howell had held the seat for a decade, as one of the Lib-Lab candidates of the period.

Howell had been a long-standing campaigner for universal suffrage but he was not at all pleased to be swept away by Bhownagree's pro-Empire, anti-Disestablishment and anti-Irish Home Rule campaign:

After ten years hard labour in Parliament ... I was kicked out by a black man, a stranger from India, one not known in the constituency'

But the result was part of a tide in which the Tories won 51 of 59 seats in London in both 1895 and the Khaki election of 1900, on both occasions putting a strongly pro-Empire argument in terms which they felt would appeal to the newly enfranchised skilled working-class voters.

So I admit that Bhownagree's strong support of the British Empire may just make him a little too right-wing to be a modernising Tory icon. In many ways, his views might place him closer to the Heffer-Dacre school of thought.

Awarded a knighthood and made Companion of the Indian Empire, I rather doubt that Bhownagree would have felt any social inferiority among the rather aristocratic and expensively educated Conservative frontbench of his day (or indeed of ours, come to think of it). Here he is, looking rather dapper, in the National Portrait Gallery.

So his opponents in both Britain and India certainly had reason to disparage him as 'Sir Bow and Agree'. (Apart from his political advocacy, he had done Queen Victoria the service of translating and publishing a Gujerati edition of her Highland Journals).

But, out of fairness, let us also acknowledge that his pro-Imperialism found space for some compassionate conservatism too. Bhownagree did make common cause with his Indian nationalist foes, including Mahatma Gandhi, to press the government to investigate the conditions of indentured Indian labourers in the Traansvaal. He was an effective Parliamentary advocate on the subjectt, persuading Colonial Secretary Alfred Milner that the conditions were intolerable.

The legacy of Bhownagree's Victorian career is now best left to the history books of Empire; modern Conservatives might do well to emphasise that they are the party of Iain MacLeod as well as Enoch Powell.

Still, let me suggest one rather contemporary modern lesson which black and Asian Conservative would-be candidates now might still take from Bhownagree's career: the colour of your skin shouldn't matter at all - but you would be very well advised to make sure that you're a pretty hardline Eurosceptic.

(This post is indebted to the pamphlet on Bhownagree by Professor John Hinnells; the best online account of his life and political career which I have seen is at


Even 114 years after his election to Parliament, I suspect that an application from Sir Mancherjee Merwanjee Bhownagree would not have impressed Orpington Tory Councillor Peter Hobbins. This might be chalked up as another example of how some of those who probably think of themselves as extremely proud of their history don't seem to know much of it.

Hobbins' emails complaining about would-be Tory candidates with "foreign names" rather than "a normal English name" were published by LibDem blogger Duncan Borrowman on Friday - and Hobbins swiftly resigned from the Conservative party and from the Tory council group. That action by the party was surely both inevitable and appropriate.

(His quasi-apology "My comments were unintentional and meant in no way to offend. I am not and have never been a racists in any capacity" does suggest a rather weak understanding of what racial prejudice involves).

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