A Labour Lord
October 3, 2013, marked the centenary of the birth of Lord David Pitt. Few people in T&T today know who he was, probably, yet he played an important role in our political history during the 1940s. And in Britain, where he lived from 1947 to his death in 1994, he is recognised as a pioneering campaigner for racial equality.
Pitt was born in Grenada, and went to the Boys’ Secondary School there. Like his contemporary Eric Williams, he won the Island Scholarship, which allowed him to study medicine in Britain. In 1933 he entered Edinburgh University in Scotland, and graduated in 1938.
In the working-class districts of Edinburgh, at the height of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the young man realised that the effects of poverty, on people’s health and quality of life, were the same everywhere—in the slums of Scotland’s capital or the villages of Grenada. He became a socialist and joined the British Labour Party as a student.
Returning to the Caribbean, he came to Trinidad in 1939. After two years as a government employee at the San Fernando Hospital, Pitt established a private practice in the city in 1941, a move which freed him to enter politics.
He was elected to the San Fernando Borough Council in 1941 and later served as Deputy Mayor in 1946-47. But the young doctor wanted to take part in island-wide political life. This was an exciting time: World War 2 was still raging, but it was becoming clear that at war’s end, T&T would be granted adult suffrage—everyone over 21 can vote—and greater powers for the elected members of the Legislative Council.
Pitt formed the West Indian National Party (WINP) late in 1942, though it didn’t become really active until 1944-45. It was a South-based, socialist party, with a programme that was radical for the early 1940s: eventual Independence for a West Indian Federation, immediate self-government for T&T, and eventual state ownership of the oil industry. Politicians like Roy Joseph, Albert Gomes and Quintin O’Connor joined it.
After the war ended in 1945, everyone geared up for the elections of 1946, the first under adult suffrage. Pitt’s WINP joined with other left-wing groups to contest as the United Front. Three of its members won seats—Joseph, Gomes and Patrick Solomon—but Pitt was defeated by Ranjit Kumar for the Victoria County seat. This constituency had a majority of rural Indo-Trinidadians, mostly Hindus, and Kumar used his birth in India, and fluency in Hindi, to great advantage.
In 1947, Pitt left Trinidad for Britain, apparently to lobby there for self-government for T&T and the proposed Federation, a non-starter then. He was probably disillusioned at the results of the 1946 elections: his defeat, the fragmentation of the pro-Labour vote between several competing parties, and the tensions between African and Indian voters revealed in his own unsuccessful campaign. In any case, Pitt decided to remain in England, where he lived for the rest of his life.
In Britain, Pitt was a successful and popular doctor, with a practice in London. But he also soon engaged in Labour Party politics. He campaigned twice for a seat in the House of Commons, in 1959 (the first person of African descent to stand for a Commons seat) and again in 1970. He lost both times, with race playing a significant part in both defeats.
But he was more successful in London Labour Party politics. He became the first African-Caribbean person elected to the London County Council and its successor, the Greater London Council. In the 1970s, he served first as its deputy Chair and then as its Chair (1974-75)—the most important political post in the city held by a Caribbean immigrant.
Perhaps equally important, Pitt emerged in the 1950s and 1960s as a leading campaigner for racial justice in Britain and abroad. He co-founded the Anti-Apartheid Movement, to fight against apartheid in South Africa; and in 1965 he founded the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD), to fight for racial justice in Britain. It played a crucial role in lobbying for the Race Relations Acts of 1968 and 1976.
In recognition of his towering status, the Labour government made him a life peer (a lord) in 1975. (He wasn’t the first peer of African descent; that was Trinidadian Learie Constantine, ennobled in 1969). He took the title Lord Pitt of Hampstead, the name both of the London Parliamentary seat he tried to win in 1959, and the village in Grenada where he was born. As a member of the House of Lords for nearly 20 years, Pitt attended regularly and spoke often on causes dear to his heart.
An honour he greatly cherished was his election as head of the British Medical Association (1985-86), the first black person, and one of the few GPs (ordinary family doctors), to hold this prestigious post.
After his death in 1994, he was given a state funeral in Grenada. In 2000 a plaque was put up outside his former surgery (doctor’s office) in London, and in 2004 he was named one of “100 Great Black Britons”. His is a story worth recalling.
• Bridget Brereton is emerita
professor of history at UWI,
St Augustine, and has
studied and written about the history of T&T and the
Caribbean for many decades.