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The stone that the builders rejected

By Selwyn Ryan

 Trinidad and Tobago has few, if any, political heroes, if by heroes we mean individuals whose  contributions citizens regard as outstanding and odds defying, legitimate, and widely accepted.

My own view is that only one political leader, Dr Eric Williams, so far qualifies for such an appellation, notwithstanding the fact that there are substantial numbers of people who do not  so regard him. To be deemed a hero, one does not have to be loved or respected by all. Charismatic leaders, for example, are very polarising. People either love or hate them. As in the case of  tribally divided societies such as Trinidad and Tobago, the judgment must in addition extend across the various ethnic boundaries.

When one considers what is being said in the media by commentators, the indications are that with the exception of Panday, Robinson has already been admitted to the pantheon. Is this the national consensus? As a social scientist, however, I am required to be more deliberative.

Does Robinson measure up on the bench of history? Is he the stone that the business rejected?

 Robinson was clearly one of the most widely known       political figures in Trinidad and Tobago and the English-speaking Caribbean. 

He was, however, not a charismatic leader and was in fact  dull and boring. He was, however, scrupulously honest, oozing with dignity, and above all, piety.

He was also vain and firmly of the view that he was God’s chosen vessel to help save this land of ours. 

As he remarked after reviewing his life, “What a life it has been! I cannot thank myself for what has happened. I myself could not have done it, it is only Almighty God; it is only by his grace, his mercy. I could not have done it. I was directed by Almighty God to follow in the footsteps that he set out for me, even when I was in my mother’s womb.”

From his earliest years as a minister, Robinson looked on with dismay as corruption spread across the land. He was concerned that the reports which he brought to Prime Minister Williams from time to time did not generate the responses which he hoped for. 

I once asked him whether he ever suspected Williams of corruption. He replied in the affirmative, and pointed to the reference in his book. He, however, speculated that the corruption problem was tougher and  more widespread than he initially understood. To quote him:

“I think it has to do with the momentum that takes the leader from colonialism to independence and which deifies him. ... It is not unique to Trinidad and Tobago.

“People make use of the positions that they have acquired which by reason of the personality and the position of the leader they have been able to acquire, but they don’t always have the kind of philosophy of leadership that is necessary, and therefore they adopt what is  common to them. 

“So they patronise friends and relatives. Then the businessmen see that they can use the political leader to get certain favours and they use their position. Corruption grows and the leader should be aware of it. What happened to Williams was that he was not aware of it; or, if he  was aware of it, he didn’t have the strength in the end.”

 There is a lot in that statement that applies to us today.

I have been analysing Robinson for well over 50 years. One could not study Williams without being aware of his ever present deputy. Robinson hero worshipped Williams.

The latter often abused him. Among other things, I looked at the roles which he played in the establishing of our post-independence financial and taxation systems; of note too were the roles he played as  ideological rivals in the cabinet to Gerard Montano and John O’ Halloran.  

Robinson was initially disliked by the radical intellectual left. To them, he was much too conservative and conventional.

 He was, however, later adopted by some of the radical elements who were looking for someone to give credibility to their movement.

Robinson shifted to the left, but for the most part, his role was not transformational. 

He was never really comfortable with the “fat head” hair styles and the dashiki shirts which he wore in the 1970s.

Incidentally, this column was the recipient of two pre-action protocols for remarks which were made in columns about Robinson’s clandestine relationship with elements that might now be called “terrorist”.

There is still some controversy as to whether Robinson walked out of the PNM “into the rain”, or was kicked out by Williams. I am of the view that he walked since Williams was of the view that it was preferable tactically to have him “jump”.

On leaving the PNM in 1970, Robinson began a long political flirtation with the Indian community which lasted until 2001. Robinson was generally well liked by the Indian middle-class community which appreciated the support which he was prepared to give them after he walked out of the PNM. The general cordiality turned to intensive bitterness when the  election ended in an 18-18 tie.

The two parties were unable to agree on a unity formula and left it up to President Robinson to determine who should hold the reins of power.

In making that decision, Robinson justified his choice of Manning and the PNM on the superior “moral and spiritual” values which he claimed were displayed by the PNM-related community. Many Indians accused Robinson of being racist. Some believe Panday was the victim of a cleverly orchestrated coup.

 Robinson sought to explain his thinking on the issue in his autobiography, but did not do a convincing job.

As he wrote, “After speaking privately and simultaneously with both Mr Panday and Mr Manning, to my great surprise, a great commotion took place because of my reference to ‘moral and spiritual values’ which was really a quote from the Constitution itself. I quoted the Constitution of the country and said it was against this background that I was taking my decision. It was not only because of the Constitution. As I foresaw, some people were happy and others were not, and several attacks followed. My decision generated considerable controversy. Some felt that the incumbent should have been appointed.

“The most peculiar interpretations were put on my reference to ‘moral and spiritual’ values as stated in the Constitution, with some even going so far as to denounce what they saw as disrespect for certain religions. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

What in fact was the truth?

Is Robinson a great Trinidadian, notwithstanding? Was that part of a divine plan?


To be concluded

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