Monday, May 24, 2010

BME Conservative MPs - the pioneers

This general election was the first to see a sizeable number of Conservative MPs elected from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. In addition to the re-election of Adam Afriyie (Windsor) and Shailesh Vara (North West Cambridgeshire), it saw the first election of Rehman Chishti (Gillingham & Rainham), Helen Grant (Maidstone & The Weald), Sam Gymimah (East Surrey), Sajid Javid (Bromsgrove), Kwasi Kwarteng (Spelthorne), Priti Patel (Witham), Alok Sharma (Reading West), Paul Uppal (Wolverhampton South West - yes Enoch Powell's old seat) and Nadhim Zahawi (Stratford-on-Avon). The number is actually lower than many hoped for, with several prominent candidates like Shaun Bailey being unsuccessful, but it represents over 78% of all the BME Conservative MPs ever. I hope the list grows at future elections.

It seems an appropriate time to take a look at the handful of past BME Conservative MPs. There are some surprising entries on the list and it also starts much earlier than many might expect.

The first ever BME MP was a Liberal, Dadabhai Naoroji, a Parsi, who was elected for Finsbury Central in 1892. In 1895 he was defeated in what was a terrible year for the Liberals in London. However the same election saw the victory of the first Conservative BME MP.

Had he lived a century or so later, Mancherjee Bhownagree, another Parsi, would probably have been a nightmare for party organisers, being perhaps a little too hardline for many. He would surely have been one of the Maastricht rebels and a staunch supporter of Better Off Out (of the European Union), to the point that UKIP would probably not have stood against him. In his day the equivalent issues were Irish Home Rule (he was staunchly opposed), British Imperialism (he was a staunch supporter of the Empire) and the maintenance of the Established Church (again a supporter). He also opposed Home Rule for India. (Next Left: Cameron Conservativism, 1895-style comments 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.") However he did pursue some surprising causes including the conditions of Indian workers in the Transvaal.

Bhownagree was born in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1851 and worked as a journalist before becoming to the UK as a lawyer. Amongst his other accomplishments he produced a Gujarati edition of Queen Victoria's Highland Journals. Clearly she was amused as in 1897 Bhownagree was made a Knight Commander of the Most Eminent Order of the Indian Empire. Critics, however, dubbed him "Sir Bow and Agree".

The idea of an "A-List" of star candidates did not exist in the 19th century, but Bhownagree was something of a symbolic candidate in his day. He persuaded the party that by running an Indian candidate on a pro Empire ticket the party could challenge the perception that Indians were Liberals and reformists. Bethnal Green North East was not an obvious target constituency to stand in (indeed in the 125 years since Bethnal Green first had constituencies of its own, Bhownagree is one of only three Conservatives to have been elected, all in either landslide general elections or special circumstances by-elections). But he gave it his best shot and amidst a Conservative landslide in both London and the country Bhownagree unseated George Howell, a trade unionist and the sitting "Lib-Lab" MP of the last ten years. Bhownagree retained the seat in the 1900 election (a very Imperialist election), before being swept away in the Liberal avalanche of 1906. He retired from politics after that.

Not all Conservatives are happy about appearing on such lists - some have a strong desire to be considered "MPs without prefixes". And this has often led to confusion about whether or not someone was or wasn't a BME MP. Such is the case with Jonathan Sayeed, who has mixed Anglo-Indian ancestry but always declined to be listed in such. In many ways Sayeed was a Conservative equivalent of Stephen Twigg. For Sayeed was first elected to parliament in 1983 when he defeated Tony Benn, the Labour MP Conservatives hated most and a prospective future leader. (Like Michael Portillo, Tony Benn has undergone something of a shift in popularity and perception since his defeat. In 1983 Benn didn't have the image of the staunch man of principle/cuddly grandfather figure but as a staunch socialist who was trying to take both the Labour Party and the country decisively to the left.) Additionally Sayeed was the first Conservative to ever actually be elected for the constituency (Malcolm St Clair was returned for the-then Bristol South East constituency in a 1961 by-election but only after Benn was ruled disqualified as a hereditary peer by an Election Court). His later parliamentary career has more parallels with Twigg - holding onto the seat at the next election but being defeated at the subsequent one, then returning to parliament at the following election when the party was defeated. However Sayeed (MP for Mid Bedfordshire from 1997-2005) took longer than Twigg to climb the greasy poll, only joining the front bench in 1991 when he became a Parliamentary Private Secretary. He did not become a spokesperson until 2001 when he became a junior shadow minister for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Sayeed was generally an economic conservative, a social liberal and a Eurosceptic, though with some variation within all of these. In 2003 he resigned from the front bench in order to oppose the Iraq War. Sayeed's downfall came over revelations about his business dealings and use of Commons facilities in a successful attempt to resist deselection. Although he survived that vote the central party withdrew the whip, making it unlikely he would be eligible to restand as a Conservative candidate, and he announced his retirement on grounds of ill-health in March 2005.

Sayeed sometimes does and sometimes doesn't appear on lists of BME MPs, in part because of his own views on the matter. It is a sign of the unease a number of Conservatives have with what they perceive as grouping and ghettoisation and other examples can be found - for instance there are a number of Conservative MPs and recent candidates who are openly Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Trans but dislike the idea of being listed as "LGBT Conservatives". And one of the unsuccessful Conservative candidates at the last election was Mark Clarke (former Conservative Future chair) in Tooting, who sometimes has and sometimes hasn't appeared on these lists. His own comments on the subject have been "Personally, I don't ever complete questions about ethnicity on forms. I'm not interested in the being put in a box based on the colour of my skin." Oh and here are some other comments from him on the matter: "I am surprised that you can write an article about race and CF without mentioning the fact CF has this year elected its first ever ethnic minority to be National Chairman."

There has never been any doubt about Nirj Deva. Born in Sri Lanka he came to the UK and worked in business, as well as holding a number of public posts including chairing the Committee on the Deregulation of European Air Transport, which resulted in the growth of budget airlines. In 1985 he became Deputy Lord Lieutenant for Greater London. He was elected for Brentford & Isleworth in 1992. In 1997 he shared Bhownagree's fate of being swept away in an avalanche. In the interim he shared Sayeed's achievement of serving as a PPS, albeit at the Scottish Office. After 1997 he restored his political career when in 1999 he became the first Asian Conservative Member of the European Parliament, and has represented the South East ever since.

High profile candidacies in target seats did not begin with the A-List. As early as 2001 the party was heavily promoting Shailesh Vara, but he narrowly failed to take Northampton South. Four years later he was elected for North West Cambridgeshire and has held the seat since. Vara was born in Uganda to Indian parents and came to the UK in 1964 at the age of 4. He worked as a solicitor and business consultant, and also held a number of positions in the Conservative Party including as a Vice-Chair of the party under Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard. In parliament he had a fast assent, being appointed Deputy Shadow Leader of the House of Commons in 2006. He held the post for the next four years (reshuffles have been limited under David Cameron's leadership), and now serves in the Whip's Office. At the same time he has championed a number of causes in the Commons including breast cancer, however the private member's bill he introduced on the subject was talked out. It remains to be seen where his career will take him.

In the run-up to 2005 Adam Afriyie was also given more prominence than the average candidate selected in a held seat. Born in Wimbledon, he worked in business, especially IT. In 2005 he was elected for Windsor (I wonder, did he get the Duke of Edinburgh's vote?). Two years later he was appointed a shadow minister for Innovation, Universities & Skills, focusing especially on science, and kept the post for three years despite the government department going through a number of changes. However he is one of a number of shadow ministers who have not been included in the new government because the Coalition limits the number of places available to Conservatives. I hope that he will be considered for inclusion in the first reshuffle.

None of these five MPs have reached the Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet, although the peer Sayeeda Warsi was appointed in 2007 and now sits in the Cabinet as chair of the Conservative Party. The current Coalition means that there are fewer places for Conservatives on the frontbench so the current eleven may not advance as quickly as they would have in a single party government. But I strongly suspect the first BME Conservative MP to reach the Cabinet is currently sitting in the Commons. Don't ask me which one though.

1 comment:

Mike Law said...

Hi Tim,

I read your comment on Gray's blog. I no longer contribute to his blog (he's an arse). I had a spat with him a while ago about my "ethnicity" and whether or not I'm a Jew (my mother is Jewish - I do not practice that faith).

He claims that most Jews he knows consider themselves as BME. That's interesting as, to the best of my knowledge, all that I know (family members included) do not. But if Gray says it is so, it must be the case because... he says so!
Some how I don't think it would have gone down too well if I'd announced that I was a BME member when I was a Labour councillor!

Gray seemed obsessed, wanting to label me a Jew... only he can know why, but it did come across as more than a little odd.

AS for D'Israeli, wasn't his father born in Enfield? Okay, his grandfather was Italian but does that qualify him for BME status?

I wonder what D'Israeli would have made of it. I can only assume that, to a degree, he would have agreed that, because of his distant family ties to the twelve tribes he could be considered a member of an ethnic minority - I guess he had that "Semitic" look expected of Jews. Yet I have nephews and nieces who are blond and blue eyed and are practicing Jews - my sister married a Jew. To lump them in the BME pot would be absurd.

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