David Pitt, Baron Pitt of Hampstead
David Thomas Pitt, Baron Pitt of Hampstead, of Hampstead in Greater London and Hampstead in Grenada (3 October 1913 – 18 December 1994), was a British politician, general practitioner and political activist. Born in Grenada, he was one of the first peers of African descent, sitting in the House of Lords from 1975.
Early life and career
Born in St. David's, Grenada, Pitt won a scholarship to come to Britain in 1933 to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh, where he was an active member of Edinburgh University Socialist Society. He went on to graduate with honours. He was always concerned for broader social issues. He witnessed the poverty of the working classes in the slums of Edinburgh and saw similarities to the rural poverty he witnessed as a child. Nicholas Rea, in the British Medical Journal, said of Pitt: “it was in the slums of Edinburgh as much as in the Caribbean that he became convinced of the links between poverty, disadvantage, and ill health". In 1936, he joined the Labour movement.
He returned to the Caribbean to begin his medical career, founding his own practice and in 1943 married (Lady) Dorothy (née Alleyne). His passion for social justice continued alongside his medical career. In 1941, Pitt had been elected to the San Fernando Borough Council and then in 1943, he became a founding member and leader of the West Indian National Party (WINP) – a socialist party whose main aim was to deliver political autonomy across the Caribbean. Under Pitt, the party demanded self-government for Trinidad and Tobago, constitutional reform and the nationalisation of commodities industries such as oil and sugar.
After decades of campaigning, the people of Trinidad and Tobago were granted universal adult suffrage by the British Parliament in 1945. The first elections took place in 1946. WINP and others formed the United Front with Pitt as one of the candidates. He was not successful but he continued his activism and in 1947 led a group of WINP members to Britain to lobby the Clement Attlee government for Commonwealth status for a Federation of the West Indies.
Political career in Britain
In the 1959 general election, he was the first person of African descent to be a parliamentary candidate, standing as the Labour Party candidate for the north London constituency of Hampstead. From the mid 1950s, Pitt had become involved in local politics. After delivering a speech at the 1957 Labour Party Conference, Roy Shaw OBE, the then treasurer of the Tribune, asked if he would stand for Parliament. The issues of race were injected into the campaign, and he was defeated by the Conservative Party candidate, Henry Brooke. During the course of the campaign, Pitt received racist death threats, as did his family; however, despite the racist abuse, he refused to withdraw from the contest. He subsequently founded the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination, Britain's first civil rights organization.
Two years later, in 1961, he was elected to the London County Council (LCC) as member for Hackney and served on the LCC and its successor, the Greater London Council (GLC), until 1975; he was the first minority candidate to be elected to this position in local government. He was deputy chair of the GLC from 1969 to 1970, and in 1974 he was the first black person to become chair of the GLC.
Pitt's second attempt to be elected as an MP came in 1970, when he was the Labour candidate for Clapham. Although this had been seen as a safe seat for Labour, the Conservative William Shelton was elected. Enoch Powell was simultaneously campaigning on ending immigration; consequently, many believe that racism was a factor in this general election defeat as well.
In 1975, the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, recommended Pitt's appointment to the House of Lords as a life peer, and he was created Baron Pitt of Hampstead, of Hampstead in Greater London and of Hampstead in Grenada on 3 February 1975. As a member of the House of Lords, he played a leading role in campaigning for the Race Relations Act 1976. He was a leader in the movement against apartheid in South Africa.
Pitt was described as a black radical for suggesting that more ethnic minorities should apply to become police officers; this, ironically, angered many in the black community who felt that the police were institutionally racist. Lord Pitt is quoted as saying: "Some black people regard me as an Uncle Tom, while some whites regard me as a Black Power revolutionary. So I imagine I got it about right."
From 1985 to 1986, Pitt was the president of the British Medical Association, which he described as his most valued honour.
- Joan Lestor, "Obituaries: Lord Pitt of Hampstead", The Independent, 20 December 1994.
- Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Lords. 24 November 1976. col. 11.
- Nicholas Rea, British Medical Journal, Vol. 310, No. 6971 (7 January 1995), p. 54.
- Jennette Arnold, "Echoes of our past: A series of reflections by prominent black people".
- "UK Negro Candidate Threatened", Montreal Gazette, 22 September 1959.
- Thomas A. Johnson, "British Civil Rights Group Acts to Bar New Black Power Fight", The New York Times, 20 January 1969.
- 100 Great Black Britons.
- Muhammad Anwar, Race and Politics: Ethnic Minorities and the British Political System, Tavistock Publications, 1986, p. 99.
- "Tories Making a Stunning Comeback in British Vote", Lewiston Daily Sun, 19 June 1970: "Only Negro Loses: Dr. David Pitt, a native of the West Indies who had been expected by many to become the first black member of the House of Commons, lost to a Conservative in the Clapham district of London."
- The London Gazette: . 6 February 1975.