In the last year Workers’ Liberty has published material about both Shapurji Sakatvala and Dadabhai Naoroji – two opponents of British rule in India and, in their different ways, socialists elected to the UK Parliament a century ago (Naoroji was MP for Central Finsbury 1892-5 and Saklatvala MP for Battersea North 1922-3 and 1924-9). Saklatvala was very much part of the Marxist tradition and Naoroji part of our tradition in a broader sense.
Naoroji was the first person from one of the Empire’s subject peoples beyond the British Isles to be elected to Parliament; Saklatvala the third. The second was Mancherjee Bhownaggree, another Indian who was elected for Bethnal Green North East in 1895 and sat as its MP for 11 years, longer than either Naoroji or Saklatvala.
Like the other two, Bhownaggree was a Parsi with roots in Bombay. He had radically different politics. Having campaigned for Naoroji in 1892, he moved to the right as the older Indian moved to the left. By 1895 he had thrown in his lot with the Tories.
In 1886 Tory Prime Minister Lord Salisbury had caused his party serious embarrassment by a speech in which he attacked Naoroji as a “black man” whom British voters should not support. Some historians have suggested that Tory leaders welcomed Bhownaggree’s candidacy as a way of helping dispel the bad smell Salisbury had created. However his hopes of a ministerial career never got anywhere, suggesting there were limits to the Tory enthusiasm about having a brown colleague.
Bhownaggree’s election in Bethnal Green, defeating well-known trade unionist and Lib-Lab MP George Howell, who had won the seat three times previously with no difficulty, came as something of a surprise. He did it by an aggressive right-wing populist appeal to support for the empire and hostility to immigration.
Far from downplaying his origin, Bhownaggree played it up – but in order to highlight his support for British rule in his homeland and elsewhere. Where Naoroji had and Saklatvala later would ally with Irish nationalists, he opposed Home Rule for Ireland (a major issue at the time).
The context of his anti-immigration stance was growing right-wing agitation in the East End against migrants from Eastern Europe, particularly Jewish ones, which in 1905 would bring about the Aliens Act, the UK’s first immigration control. After 1900 Bhownaggree worked closely with the far-right British Brothers League which campaigned against Eastern European migrants and for the Act. The League was led by Major William Evans-Gordon, another East End Tory MP who had been a British military official in India. These people evidently didn't mind working with and even voting for a brown-skinned foreigner, as long as he was upper-class and right-wing.
The far-right political tradition developed in the East End in this period surely fertilised the ground for the upsurge of the British Union of Fascists in the same area thirty years later, and other far-right movements later on.
Bhownaggree increased his majority in the jingoism-dominated “Khaki election” of 1900, but lost on a big swing to the Liberals in their 1906 landslide victory.
Some have emphasised points of similarity between Bhownaggree, Naoroji and even Saklatvala and tried to present the Bethnal Green MP as a kind of progressive. He was critical of racial discrimination in the British Empire. But as the facts of Bhownaggree’s anti-migrant campaigning makes clear, he had very little in common politically with the others. In 1895 Naoroji denounced him as a “reactionary Indian”, and in the 20th century Saklatvala clashed with him many times.
The Communist Saklatvala was imprisoned for supporting the General Strike and banned from India, while the Tory Bhownaggree was made a “Knight Commander of the Most Eminent Order of the Indian Empire”. Indian nationalists called him “Bow-and-Agree”.
Bhownaggree, as a pioneering BME MP, was more a precursor to the likes of Priti Patel.