Tribute to Tom Adams 1

Sir Richard Cheltenham
Sir Richard Cheltenham

Following is an edited version of the Sixth Tom Adams Memorial Lecture delivered by attorney-at-law and former Member of Parliament Sir Richard Cheltenham, QC, last Wednesday, March 11, at the Grande Salle, Tom Adams Financial Centre, The City, marking the 30th anniversary of former Prime Minister Adams’ passing.

Tom Adams is, on any reckoning, one of the most outstanding and gifted Barbadians of our history. His contribution to party politics, the House of Assembly, the constituency of St Thomas and to the country and its governance has been large indeed.

It is wholly appropriate, therefore, that his memory is being kept alive. It is commendable that for the last 30 years –– and today, too –– the constituency branch has placed a floral arrangement on his grave . . . .

It is only about ten years ago that this lecture series commenced. This evening’s lecture is the Sixth Tom Adams Memorial Lecture. They have not been annual, but they have been continuing.

Former Prime Minister Tom Adams.
Former Prime Minister Tom Adams.

At the forefront of the efforts has been the Honourable Ms Cynthia Forde, the Member of Parliament for St Thomas. I want to recognize her for her untiring and enlightened efforts in regard to Tom’s memory, and for her caring and energetic service as a Member of Parliament.

Sir Alexander Hoyos’ book Tom Adams: A Biography apart, much of what has been written to date relates to his role in sending Barbadian troops to St Vincent in December, 1979, to quell the disturbance at Arnos Vale.

There is much mention, too, in the literature, mostly journal articles, of his role, acting in concert with Dame Eugenia Charles of Dominica, in inviting the United States to send troops to Grenada, and to spearhead the efforts of Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean to restore order in Grenada, following a failed coup d’état and the assassination of Prime Minister Maurice Bishop in 1983.

Tom Adams is a large subject. And this evening I propose speaking to you about him, his early upbringing, his education at Harrison College and later at Oxford University, and his years in London. I next turn to discussing his role and effectiveness as parliamentarian, Leader of the Opposition and Prime Minister. The main emphasis here will be on his philosophy and style of management . . . .

Tom was born on September 24, 1931. His mother Grace Thorne was married to Grantley Herbert Adams in 1929 at St John’s Parish Church. According to F.A. Hoyos’ book, Tom was born a “blue baby” and had to be dipped in hot and cold water immediately after his birth to save him from the fate of “stillbirth”. As a child he suffered all the ailments of children known at the time, including rheumatic fever.

Tom was given a formidable list of names. His father wanted him to be called John after the outstanding and highly effective British advocate Sir John Simon. Grantley was, himself, called Sir John by those who admired his prowess at the local Bar.

There is no uniformity of spelling of Tom’s first name John. His birth and death certificates list him as “John” while alternative sources like Wikipedia and other websites like Totally Barbados list him as “Jon”.

His mother favoured the names Michael and Geoffrey. She wanted, too, to show her gratitude to the doctor Gerald Manning, who had brought her and her son out of what F.A. Hoyos in his book refers to as “the shadow of death”. She, therefore, added the name Manningham to her son’s many. And like most Barbadian boys he was entitled to a nickname and the one she loved most of all was Tom. Tom was thereafter known at home and abroad simply as Tom Adams. No other name was used.

Tom was Barbados’ second Prime Minister. He served for eight years and six months. He was the only son of Sir Grantley Herbert Adams who was, himself, the effective leader of Government since the semi-ministerial system of Government was introduced in 1946 under the so-called Bushe Experiment. It was named after Governor Sir Grattan Bushe. And Sir Grantley remained the effective leader until 1958 when he left Barbados to go to the Federal Government.

Some analysts point to the early influence of his father and the politics-filled nature of his household to support the thesis that Tom Adams was the leader best prepared by virtue of his parents and upbringing to lead the country.

He was educated at the Ursline Convent and at Harrison College, which he entered at age eight. He was a sickly lad in his early years and lost the entire first year at Harrison College due to ill health. It had no effect on his performance as he was tutored at home by Dr St Elmo Thompson, who found him “precociously bright”. Carlisle Burton, later
Sir Carlisle, one of our most outstanding public servants, also tutored him at home.

Tom was a regular boy in the village, mixing freely with the girls and boys of the Codrington/Spooners Hill area.

At Harrison College he joined the Acton Club and participated in its debates. His vocabulary was large for a boy of his age and his memory powerful. As early as then he was an effective speaker. He edited a mathematical journal at Harrison and displayed quite early his organizing ability and his capacity for careful and meticulous work.

He followed in his father’s footsteps and won the Barbados Scholarship in 1950. His headmaster Mr Hammond remarked that he could have won the scholarship in any one of the specialist offerings in the sixth form –– classics, modern studies, science or mathematics. Tom won the scholarship in mathematics.

Continuing to follow his father, he went to Oxford University. However, unlike his father who attended St Catherine’s, Tom’s college at Oxford was Magdalen. At Oxford he pursued a degree in politics, philosophy and economics, and left with an MA.

While in England, Tom was employed at the BBC as a producer and broadcaster, being in charge of the West Indian programme. It was while there that he met his wife Genevieve, who also worked at the BBC.

They were married in England in 1962 and honeymooned in Venice . . . .

Tom returned to Barbados in 1962 with his wife where he started the practice of law. The Barbados Labour Party had suffered a devastating loss at the polls in 1961. The party was in desperate need of an injection of new blood. Tom worked in the party as its secretary and tried to introduce systems of organization and record-keeping.

In June, 1966, he attended the Barbados Constitutional Conference in London as a Member of the BLP’s delegation. Later in the year he contested and won a seat as the Senior Member for the constituency of St Thomas under the double member system, that is, each constituency returned two Members to the House of Assembly.

Tom’s style of leadership, whether presiding over the Cabinet, or one of its sub-committees, or over party meetings of the national executive committee was relaxed, informal and discursive. It was wide-focused and anecdotal. At the same meeting he would, for short periods, be concentrated and discuss agenda items with single-mindedness and take four or five important decisions.

Then, it was not unusual for him to return to his anecdotal self.  Matters as diverse as friendship, deception, love, loyalty and espionage were among some of the many matters that he would speak about.

Tales of the exploits of Hannibal and Caesar of old, and of generals Rommel and Patton in World War II, the sinking by the Germans of merchant ships in the Atlantic in the Second World War and the memorable battle in the North Atlantic to sink the Bismarck, queen of the German Navy, might all be part of the same Cabinet meeting.

Not all Cabinet members favoured his style. St John, in particular, was always concerned that we should stick to the agenda, and when he chaired in Tom’s absence, and later, when he became Prime Minister, he would often say when other issues were raised, that they were for the lunch table or 111, Roebuck Street.

In all of this, Tom exhibited the extent to which he was a frustrated military leader and the extent, too, of his knowledge of matters large and small. He knew more trivia than a dozen men, yet he had a range of knowledge and a depth of understanding of serious issues matched by few.

He was, too, a big teaser. If he got hold of a good story on you, he was likely to tease you about it for a long time. Such was his sense of mischief and playfulness. He had, too, a devilish sense of humour.

At all times Tom’s mind was flexible and open to new ideas. He would argue persuasively for a particular position, yet he was prepared in the face of solid argumentation to depart from his own early position and even abandon it while embracing the opposing viewpoint . . . .

In the period 1971 to 1976, Tom Adams became Leader of the Opposition following the rout of the party at the 1971 general election. The then leader of the party and Opposition, Bernard St John, had lost his seat, and the party’s numbers in the House had been reduced to six.

Tom’s profile rose steadily in the country during his days as Leader of the Opposition. He was effective in Parliament and on the public platform at political meetings. He was a natural before the microphone and the television cameras. And increasingly the public saw him as a “Prime Minister-in-waiting”.

One of the highpoints of his performance as Leader of the Opposition was his 1976 response to the Budget Debate. The Budget Speech of the Prime Minister was delivered on July 30, 1976, and Adams was required, in a departure from tradition, to respond the same afternoon. He accepted the challenge well knowing that he had what Hoyos, in his biography, described “as a time bomb” which “he planned to explode in the Government’s face as he drew near the end
of reply”.

Before the House, a packed Visitors’ Gallery and a wide radio and television audience, Tom charged that certain members of the DLP had received from Sydney Burnett Alleyne such sums as $20,000, $5,000 and a regular subvention of $600 a month before Alleyne Mercantile Bank was licensed by the Minister of Finance. He pledged to make copies of the cheques documents of the House, adding: “If there is a Watergate, the Prime Minister will have to investigate that; not me.”

He gave the impression that his bag was stuffed full of cheques, but really there were no more. Tom was a true poker player and pulled off an elaborate bluff.

He sent Government members into a state of panic. He blamed them in the eyes of the public and scored, on any reckoning, a major victory. His real problem was at the level of the parliamentary party and that is a story which needs to be told.

Tom had been given copies of the two cheques drawn on the Sydney Alleyne Mercantile Bank. He advised a meeting of the parliamentary party the evening before displaying the cheques, and said that he wanted to disclose them in the course of his reply. I was not intending to be at that meeting, though those of us who were courting constituencies for the upcoming elections would frequently be invited to the meeting of the parliamentary party on Mondays.

Around 4:30 p.m., I was driving through High Street returning to my office on James Street, when Tom stopped me and said he was on the way to the Leader of the Opposition’s Office and that I should go and park and come right back. I did as suggested and when I got there I recall that Clarence Jemmott, then a senator and close to him, was there. Bernard St John and Henry Forde were also there.

I struggle to remember others who may have been there. But it was a small group of us.

Tom had a good assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the members of his team –– those who were naturally cautious; those who combined a sense of caution with a realistic sense of adventure; and those who erred on the side of pure adventure.

Tom raised the cheques issue indicating how he intended to proceed. I remember both Bernard and Henry urging caution and arguing that there may well be an innocent explanation which, if raised in the face of his having disclosed the cheques, might turn out to embarrass him.

Tom’s political instinct and judgement was that he had highly explosive material which he should use against the Government. He went around the table and asked for the vote of each member calling us by name. I remember that Clarence Jemmott and I supported the disclosure, Henry and Bernard dissented, and Tom obviously was in favour of disclosure . . . .

But he was not unmindful of the caution issued and he was clearly checking the morning papers in the days following to see whether there might have been a response from the member of Government whose name was on the cheques. Two days after, at about 5:30 in the morning, Tom called me to say that the Government member had written a letter to the newspaper in his defence and that it was such “a poor defence that we have nothing to worry about”.

The Government was already under pressure and that revelation added considerably to its discomfort . . . .

Among his colleagues and the public in general, Tom’s stock rose dramatically. He clearly had an uncanny political sense and political nerve. He knew . . . when he had an Ace in his hand and not a Jack, and was not afraid to play it at the right moment.

Grantley Adams as Premier of Barbados and Barrow as Prime Minister were dominant leaders. Everything centred on Grantley Adams when he was Premier.

Often it was reported in the newspapers of the day that no decision was taken on a Cabinet day, no matter how pressing the issue, because Grantley Adams was out of the Island. Barrow, too, was a leader in that tradition –– dominant and dominating . . . .

Tom, in contrast to his father and to Barrow, was a delegator. Tom appreciated that his father, and to a lesser extent Barrow, presided over a Barbados that was more simplistic as a society and as an economy. He appreciated, too, that an effective style of management could not be premised on “all roads lead to Tom”.

To be continued.

Source: Sir Richard Cheltenham

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