One of the most critical events in the political life of Arthur NR Robinson was his elevation to the office of prime minister, the office which he believed he was destined to occupy.
As he wrote in his autobiography, “I somehow knew that I was being prepared, all along, to assume responsibilities of an enormous nature. After all, my father had called me Napoleon, and I remembered the story of how Napoleon battled his way through Europe.”
Reading his autobiography leaves one with the distinct impression that in his view, he was born great, and not as others believe, that he had greatness thrust upon him. It may well be that his belief in destiny had much to do with how he sought to handle power once in the office.
Following his resignation from the People’s National Movement (PNM) in 1970, Robinson tramped up and down the countryside of Trinidad and Tobago, seemingly in search of a political steed to ride into office.
There were many rivals on the hustings. Robinson’s main vehicle was the ACDC\DAC, which focussed its energy on the Indo and Afro middle class.
Support was not readily forthcoming, however until the mid-80s when his political fortunes began to improve. Polling data generated by St Augustine Research Associates (SARA) (the author’s firm), indicated that Robinson had emerged as the most respected opposition leader, followed by Basdeo Panday of the ULF, Karl Hudson-Phillips of the ONR and Lloyd Best of Tapia. This was a stunning reversal for Robinson whose Democratic Action Congress had been decisively rejected by the Trinidad electorate in 1976 and 1981. In 1976, the DAC had received a mere 8.1 per cent of the popular vote. In 1981, its share was only 3.7 per cent.
The findings of the poll went a long way towards encouraging the leaders of the embryonic NAR to revise their decision to face the electorate as “party of parties”. The leadership question was partially resolved when Panday agreed to defer to Robinson. Panday was of the view that the population would not accept him, an Indian, as prime minister. John Humphrey however explained that “we in the NAR have a provision that no prime minister should serve for more than two terms. Robinson is 60, Panday is just over 50, and when his time comes, the country will be ready to accept him.”
Hudson-Phillips, the third aspirant, and the leader of the ONR, the strongest of the three parties was reluctant to give way to Robinson, and heavy pressure had to be brought to bear on him by his associates. They felt that the party’s chances of winning with him were poor given his image and reputation as a tough law and order man.
The polling data however reinforced the views of those who saw an NAR electoral victory as being essentially associated with Robinson’s assumption of the leadership. A reluctant Karl was told that given Robinson’s age, only one term was likely following which he could possibly inherit. Hudson-Phillips was offered the presidency, an offer which he rejected on the ground that he was too young for such an office and that his lifestyle was unsuited to it. Deeply hurt and embittered that his close political associates had abandoned him, Hudson-Phillips capitulated to Robinson, for whom he had neither love nor respect. He resented having had to make tracks for Robinson’s agouti to run along.
In an attempt to address some of the thorny sticking points of conflict that could lead to institutional failure, Panday and Robinson flew to Grenada on a Neal and Massy private jet. Hudson-Phillips was already there dealing with legal matters relating to his practice.
Following a marathon meeting at which the “Grenada Accord was signed the team met at the home of Sydney Knox in Western Trinidad (Bayshore).
Following tough discussions, the prized leadership was offered to Robinson, who expressed his appreciation for the honour being bestowed on him. He nevertheless indicated that he could not accept there and then and that he had to consult with his colleagues in Tobago, some of whom felt he should remain as chairman of the House of Assembly, an office which he had recently assumed.
Robinson’s hesitancy might have been a function of his uncertainty about a NAR victory.
He might well have been concerned about the possibility of a repetition of the 1981 experience when the Organization for National Reconstruction was decisively rejected by the Trinidad electorate.
He might also have been genuinely reluctant to become ensnared once more in what he called Trinidad’s “Callaloo politics” for which he had barely disguised contempt. Robinson was however quietly happy that his goal was within reach.
The country needed him and was ready to give it to him seemingly on his own terms.
Destiny was knocking. The stone which the builder rejected had become the capstone of the building.
As he recalled, “I myself felt that having regard to the need in the country at large, and to the fact that Tobago might benefit also, I needed to put the interest of the country as paramount. My executive also came around to this view... so eventually, I decided to stand for the leadership...”
The NAR leadership also had to resolve a number of other critical decisions which threatened the outcome of the enterprise upon which the founders were embarked. Not surprisingly, no decisions were made as to how power would be shared in the event of victory since both Panday and Hudson-Phillips calculated that the balance of power was in their favour. More importantly, it was felt that if the issue was brought to the table, the coalition would come apart, a development which the PNM was confidently expecting. Lloyd Best was of the view that it was a fatal mistake leaving these and other pivotal issues open. Panday was certain that he controlled the largest block of “safe seats” and that he would emerge as the kingmaker and undisputed boss in the post-election power sharing arrangements.
It was a safe assumption, but one that he nevertheless lost. We note too that Robinson made it clear that he did not consider it his role merely to ratify decisions made by others elsewhere. That of course was a recipe for conflict. The assumption was that given what was at stake and what was desired by supporters, the leaders would make the required sacrifices. It was a fatal mistake.
Failure was inevitable.
Next Week: Who or what caused the collapse? Who was mostly to blame for the fact that Robinson had to fire the whole Cabinet, all at one time in order to allow him to govern?