This column concludes the question I had asked as to whether or not citizens regarded Arthur NR Robinson as a “great man”.
My answer is that he was “outstanding”, but not “great”. The answer of course depends on the criteria used and the time within which the judgment is made and who makes it. Let me then first indicate the contexts in which I knew Mr Robinson.
As a public analyst, my paths crossed Robinson’s often.
He clearly found me an irritant at times, and on two occasions even offered me ambassadorial posts, first to Canada and later to the UK.
I declined both offers. We fell out when I invited him to deliver the keynote address at the annual meeting of the Caribbean Studies Association in 1990.
He agreed to do so, but failed to show on the morning of the opening day, explaining that he had had some serious disagreements with some of the statements which I had made arising out of another conference that I had organised about the 1970 Black Power Revolution.
He in fact went further and served me with a “gag writ” which called upon me and the Sunday Express to apologise for what had been said about him.
I apologised with great reluctance.
One also cannot meaningfully assess Robinson’s career without giving due attention to how he managed his stint as Prime Minister 1986-91.
In Panday’s view, Robinson was not interested in fundamental economic and political change.
Under the surface, the conflict between the two leaders was ideological and ethnic.
Mr Panday believed that the ULF had “lost” the election even though the party had won 33 of the 36 seats.
In his view, the time had come for Indians to hold the reins of power.
Panday also had fundamental disagreements with Mr Robinson as to how the country should be governed.
He bridled at the Westminster model with its prescriptions about collective cabinet responsibility which he claimed was not appropriate to Trinidad’s circumstances and required fundamental restructuring and reshaping.
He wanted shared executive power and argued sarcastically that all Mr Robinson wanted was a “ride” to the Prime Minister’s Office, but now that he had arrived there, he “no longer had need for those who took him there”.
Mr Robinson on the other hand was a Westminster fundamentalist who believed that power flowed out of #10 Downing St. The Prime Minister was an elected monarch and not a delegate or a messenger.
He was the “boss” with a licence to govern, notwithstanding the fact that he himself had won only two seats.
He had learnt his model from Eric Williams who believed that he was under no obligation to consult with any one.
Panday, not surprisingly, blamed Robinson for the collapse. As he moaned, “Within a period of less than one year, Robinson did what no Trinidadian thought possible. He completely destroyed all our hopes, all our aspirations, and all our dreams of ever ushering in a new society. In one fell swoop he smashed up the NAR and sought to polarise the society along racial lines in the hope of creating a political base for himself in Trinidad.”
Robinson had harsh things to say about Mr Panday in return.
He described Panday as a “terrorist” and an “extremist”. Here is what he had to say about Panday in his ripest language: “Many seek to assassinate my character if not to assassinate me physically. Those characters came and begged you (THA members) to release me: and I was elected unanimously as leader of the National Alliance for Reconstruction. I did not impose myself on anyone. I did not threaten anybody. I did not use ruffians to intimidate anybody. It was the membership of the National Alliance for Reconstruction who, in free and fair elections, unanimously elected me as their political leader. If you want to change the leader, there are ways and means of changing the leader, but I want to warn the country that there are some people in the nation today who are out to destroy our democracy, our way of life, our Constitution, and impose I know not what. They want to be a law unto themselves, so that when they cannot dictate to the Cabinet and control the Cabinet, they seek to destroy the Cabinet, and when they cannot control the executive of the party they seek to destroy the executive, and the issue today in Trinidad and Tobago is not Robinson. What is in issue is whether we will continue as a free and democratic people to be governed by laws.”
The NAR was split down the middle. Robinson’s firing of several ministers and then the entire Cabinet shook the society and sent many to pray in their churches, temples and mosques. In so doing, he was supported by several NAR notables who felt that Panday was trying to divide the country into ideological camps-capitalism vs communism. Panday was seen as a “political adventurer” who was seeking to transform Trinidad and Tobago into “another Grenada”.
While some preached caution, others were vengeful. Karl Hudson-Phillips told Robinson to stop vacillation.
While there was an ideological dimension to the problem, the issues were of course more complex. Ethnicity was at the base of the conflict.
Personalities were wounded.
The Treasury was empty and the workers were restless. How do we assess Robinson in the final analysis? Robinson made an awful mess of the politics. Panday was indeed a heavy cross to bear, but he spoke for many Indo Trinidadians who were alienated, felt socially marginalised, or under recognised. No wonder Robinson felt comfortable basing his decision as to whom to choose on “moral and spiritual values”.
Robinson, who hailed from rural Tobago, failed, but his failure was understandable.
He was a good man, but hardly a great one.