An icon passes
He passed on April 9, 2014, at 87, succumbing to old age and complications relating to diabetes. He had had a good innings, including the following sections: Island scholarship, Oxford education, ministership in the Federation, MP for Tobago East, a practice in law, ministership in People’s National Movement (PNM) governments, authorship of The Mechanics of Independence, breakaway from the PNM and formation of the Democratic Action Congress (DAC,) chairmanship of the Tobago House of Assembly, advocacy of Tobagonian self-government, contribution to the establishment of the International Criminal Court, political leadership of the NAR, prime ministership of the country, presidency of the country.
He was not the most exciting of batsmen, but he was both elegant and gritty—a Lawrence Rowe and a Larry Gomes combined. He could execute the latest of cuts—like appointing Patrick Manning as prime minister in the 2001 18-18 tie when Basdeo Panday was the incumbent, owned the popular vote, and was thinking of forming a unity government with Manning. And he could be gritty—like when he delayed the appointment of losing candidates to Panday’s cabinet, or when under the gun torture of Bakr’s cruel Muslimeen he called on the army to ‘attack with full force.’
No bowler could get him out easily. Not the upstart Manning, who, as Minister for Tobago Affairs, had the audacity to order him, in his capacity of Chairman of the Tobago House of Assembly, to come to him, and in Tobago to boot. Not Panday, who pulled out with his troops from his NAR government and who would, when he was President, propose the removal of two Tobagonian senators—Agnes Williams and Nathaniel Moore.
He was a man of his own deliberate, self-oriented mind. He announced the 1971 DAC/DLP no-vote campaign to the anger and horror of Vernon Jamadar and Aeneas Wills, partners with whom he had discussed no such thing, thereby giving the PNM all 36 seats. In the wake of the 1995 17-17-2 result, he used the two Tobago seats to give Panday’s UNC the government, but would declare later that, in doing so, he had made no deals for Tobago with Panday. And when oil prices were impoverishingly low in the 80s, when he was prime minister, he cut the salaries of public servants and teachers against all advice and clamour.
He would tell us in his autobiography that he was on divinely inspired mission, that he was an instrument specially called by The Almighty to intervene in the political life of Trinidad and Tobago in the ways he did.
So when in 1977 he pushed the PNM government into passing self-government legislation for Tobago, he was acting under divine guidance. And, of course, when he became the first THA Chairman, the third Prime Minister, Muslimeen hostage, and the third President, warning us against Panday’s creeping dictatorship, delaying appointment of several of Panday’s senatorial and ministerial choices, invoking the constitution’s ‘moral and spiritual values’ in the replacement of Panday by Manning as prime minister, deciding to not make any deals for Tobago when he enabled Panday to form the government in 1995, taking torture and bullets in the Red House.
As a young Tobagonian who was experiencing the widespread infrastructural neglect of Tobago under the PNM, and who believed in the power of education to usher in a better life, I fell under his influence, and I embraced his political agenda of Tobagonian autonomy and nationalism with fervour.
And when I look back on his achievements, I find myself selecting his advocacy of Tobagonian nationalism as the greatest—greater, I would argue, than his political elevation of the Indo constituency, than his role in setting up the ICC, than his taming of the PNM juggernaut in both Tobago and Trinidad, than his being the only person to hold the three top political offices in the country (THA chairman, prime minister, and president).
That advocacy has resulted in the return of the Tobago House of Assembly and an irreversible drive by the island for political equality with Trinidad in our governance arrangements. All of Tobago is now united in that drive, including the PNM who stridently resisted it for most of their political history. Indeed, incredibly, the PNM behaves as if it owns the initiative for political equality!
I have written of Robinson’s contribution to national life before in a column of August 9, 2012, and because what I have written still holds and also because I am not sure I can improve on the previous effort, I will reproduce some of the text:
“I was glad when he left the PNM because I thought he would now be free to focus attention on Tobago’s developmental needs in a way he couldn’t under the suffocating holistic, monolithic PNM. He was.
“The 1980 Act, passed under a PNM government, bestowed a measure of self-government on Tobago within the state of Trinidad and Tobago, and it morphed into the 1996 Act, which offered a greater measure of self-government but left intact the status quo of subordination of the island to the parliament and the cabinet of the country. Without a doubt, its most important clause is the one that set up a Dispute Resolution mechanism, whose first Commission set the ceilings of the percentages of the national budget that should be allocated to the THA for recurrent and development expenditure. Mr Robinson’s input was critical to the shape of both Acts.
“He is the Architect of Internal Self-government for Tobago and of the restored Tobago House of Assembly. He is also the quintessential Tobagonian icon—a man who was large in the eyes of Tobago, Trinidad, the Caribbean region, and even further afield. He successfully challenged Dr. Williams, articulated the Tobagonian nationalist cause consistently and convincingly, succeeded Williams as the most experienced and respected politician in the country, and became a respected international jurist.
“But despite these achievements, he left his constituency of Tobago East the most undeveloped and neglected in the country (by his own admission) and has left a party that is more cult than structure, with far lesser lights seeking to lead by personality and inertia than by knowledge and rationality.”
Death has breached his defences, as it will those of all of us. But in the meantime, the new generation of politicians can’t go wrong in taking to themselves the best parts of the legacy he has left us.