In modern times, 1987 is often cited as the year when the first MPs from ethnic minority backgrounds were elected. But the first MP from what we may now consider an ‘ethnic minority background’ may have entered Parliament more than two centuries earlier.
This Insight looks at ethnic minority representation in the House of Commons both historically and currently.
Following guidance from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), we use the term ‘ethnic minority’ to refer to Asian, Black, Mixed and Other ethnic minority groups. Where information on minority White groups is unavailable, ‘ethnic minorities’ refers to all groups other than ‘White’.
Our analysis of historical MPs is based on family origin and our use of the term ‘ethnic minority’ in reference to these individuals is necessarily anachronistic.
Ethnic diversity in the House of Commons today
The 2019 General Election was celebrated for returning the most ethnically diverse House of Commons ever.
It’s difficult to establish the precise number of MPs from an ethnic minority background, as ethnicity is self-defined and not an official requirement to provide. Here we are relying on external sources which collect this information, often based on MPs’ public assertions.
Currently, 65 of 650 MPs are said to be from ethnic minority backgrounds, and this number has increased steadily from four in 1987. However, if this figure reflected the UK population, there would be at least 90.
When was the first MP from an ethnic minority background elected?
Attitudes and understandings around ethnicity have changed over time. Even today the language used is subjective and highly personal. It’s therefore difficult to be certain about when the first MP from an ethnic minority background entered Parliament, and how many there have been since.
Some are the sons and grandsons of wealthy men known as ‘slave holders’ and enslaved or formerly enslaved women. While we commemorate them among Britain’s first ethnic minority MPs here, we also recognise that their families’ profits from enslaving others may have helped them to stand for Parliament. Candidates were required to own land of a certain value in the early 1800s and weren’t paid a salary until 1911.
Until recently it was thought that the first MP from what we would consider today to be an ‘ethnic minority background’ could have been John Stewart, elected for Lymington in Hampshire in 1832, or David Ochterlony Dyce Sombre, elected for Sudbury in Suffolk in 1841.
It is thought that John Stewart may have had a mixed ethnic background. David Ochterlony Dyce Sombre, of mixed European and Indian descent, lost his seat in 1842 along with the other MP for Sudbury, Frederick Villiers, after alleged corruption. Sombre died several years later after trying to restore his fortune, seized by his wife’s family, who had declared him insane (under false pretences, by his account).
David Ochterlony Dyce Sombre
However, it’s possible that the first MP from what we might consider an ethnic minority background today was elected as early as 1767. James Townshend, Whig MP for West Looe in Cornwall, had a British grandfather who worked for the Royal African Company, a mercantile trading company that also traded enslaved people. His grandmother, a prominent businesswoman who also owned enslaved people, was of African and Dutch descent. Their daughter Bridget moved to England and had ten children, one of whom was James Townshend.
A timeline of ethnic minority MPs
James Townshend is possibly followed by Richard Beckford, elected MP for Bridport, in Dorset, in 1780. He was the son of a plantation owner and an enslaved Jamaican woman.
There were other MPs, too, who descended from the slave trade. Henry Redhead Yorke was the grandson of an Antiguan plantation owner and a freed enslaved woman from Barbuda. Their son, also called Henry Redhead Yorke, moved from the West Indies to England as a small boy and became a political revolutionary. His son, like him, attended Cambridge University, and was elected Liberal MP for York in 1841.
Scotland’s first MP from an ethnic minority background is likely to be Peter McLagan, MP for Linlithgowshire from 1865 to 1893 and the son of a Scottish ‘slave holder’ and a Black woman of whom we know very little. He was one of a group of men who supported women’s suffrage that earned the nickname ‘suffragettes in trousers’.
The first MP with Asian origins was Dadabhai Naoroji, a professor of Gujarati at University College London born in Mumbai.
He stood for election several times, facing considerable racism each time. He was eventually elected Liberal MP for Central Finsbury, in London, in 1892 with a majority of three votes. Naoroji was a critic of British rule in India and prominent pro-British Indians decided to put up their own candidate, Mancherjee Bhownaggree, who was elected MP for Bethnal Green North-East, in London, in 1895.
The last MP from an ethnic minority background to serve before the 1980s that we know of was Shapurji Saklatvala, a Parsi from Mumbai who represented Battersea North, in London, from 1922 to 1923 and 1924 to 1929.
The table below lists MPs from the past whom we might describe today as from ethnic minority backgrounds, although this is based on their family origins as described by various sources.
|Father: English. Mother: English, African and Dutch.
|Father: English. Mother: Jamaican.
|Believed to be from a mixed ethnic background
|David Ochterlony Dyce Sombre
|Mixed European and Indian
|Henry Redhead Yorke
|Father: British and Bermudan. Mother: English
|Father: Scottish. Mother: Black.
|Bethnal Green North-East
|Father: Indian origin. Mother: English
|Henry Finnis Blosse Lynch
|Father: Irish. Mother: Mixed British and Armenian
Richard Beckford was later MP for Arundel in 1784 and Leominster in 1791.
Alexander Raphael was later elected Catholic Tory MP for St Albans in 1847.
Shapurji Saklatvala was later Communist MP for Battersea North in 1924.
A definitive list?
As ethnicity is subjective and subject to changing interpretations, there may be more historical MPs who would now be understood as being from an ethnic minority background.
The above list is therefore a work in progress. If you think you know of other ethnic minority MPs before modern times, we’d love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more about ethnic diversity in politics and public life, read our full briefing Ethnic diversity in politics and public life.
About the author: Rebecca Lees is a Diversity and Inclusion Programme Manager in the House of Commons, currently on secondment at the House of Commons Library.
Image: House of Commons Chamber 1 by UK Parliament. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 / image cropped.