Fanfare for a forgotten MP: Nicholas Timmins recalls the election to the Commons of a man of many 'firsts'

THE CENTENARY of one of the best-kept secrets in British politics - the election of Dadabhai Naoroji, Britain's first non-white MP - was celebrated this week.

He was 67 at the time, a Parsee with a string of 'firsts' behind him that few could equal. The first 'native' professor in India; the first Indian to hold a professorial post in Britain - on Gujerati at London University; one of the first Asian businessmen in Britain; a campaigner for women's rights; and the founder of two Indian newspapers.

But a trawl through the dust- covered copies of Who was Who in the Commons press gallery library, or the Annual Register of Events for 1892, shows the Liberal MP for Finsbury Central rates not a mention. He seems almost to have vanished from history. Much of the Asian community, were it not for the present celebrations, barely know of him. Yet Naoroji was a remarkable man. The young Mahatma Gandhi was given a letter of introduction to him when he sailed from Bombay to England, his patron dubbing Naoroji as 'India's greatest son and champion' and its G O M - Grand Old Man.

Perhaps inevitably, his candidacy brought out both racism and its opponents. Lord Salisbury, the Conservative Prime Minister, won a mix of outrage and approbation by declaring: 'However far we have come in overcoming prejudice, I doubt we have yet got to that point where a British constituency would elect a black man.' Gladstone, the Liberal leader, countered by saying that he knew Naoroji well, 'and I know Lord Salisbury by sight, and I am bound to say that, of the two, Lord Salisbury is the blacker'. The press predictably split on the issue, the Leader damned Salisbury for traducing Naoroji. When he won the seat on a recount by just five votes, the St Stephen's Review declared: 'Central Finsbury should be ashamed of itself at having publicly confessed that there was not an Englishman, a Scotsman, a Welshman or an Irishman as worthy of their votes as this fire-worshipper from Bombay'.

In Parliament, MPs who found his name too difficult to pronounce dubbed Naoroji 'Mr Narrow Majority'.

Once there, Naoroji's impact was limited, his chief achievement being to help slip past the government whips a Private Member's Bill which resulted in Indians in India being picked for the Indian Civil Service, instead of only the rich who could afford to sit the exams in England.

Naoroji's impact was greatest outside Parliament, eloquently arguing India's case in England, founding precursor bodies to the Indian National Congress, and providing advice and guidance for the young Gandhi, who corresponded weekly with him during his South African campaign. Naoroji lost his seat in the Conservative landslide of 1895 and, despite standing again, never returned to Parliament. His defeat, however, saw the election of the first Asian Tory.

It was hardly the bursting of a dam. A century later, Parliament can claim only three Asian MPs - one Tory and two Labour - and a total of six from the ethnic minorities. Proportionately, there should be about 30. Naoroji faced both prejudice and support, and John Taylor's experience in Cheltenham suggests that little has changed.

Zerbanoo Gifford, a former Liberal Democrat councillor in Harrow and a Parliamentary candidate, who has just published a biography of Naoroji, argues that some things have changed. The parties are now so aware of the ethnic minority vote that John Major, Paddy Ashdown and Neil Kinnock each contribute a foreword to the book, even if their parties collectively chose just 24 black and Asian candidates to fight the 651 seats in last April's general election. The problem now, she argues, is getting the parties to select ethnic minority candidates for winnable seats.

Naoroji might have recognised that. In his maiden speech to the House, he said it was 'the spirit of the British institutions and the love of justice and freedom which has produced this extraordinary result'. Perhaps a little more of that is still needed.

(Photographs omitted)