Tribute to Tom Adams 2

Following is Part 2 of 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.

It would appear, too, that [Tom Adams’] own natural style of leadership and personality did not admit of [the dominance exhibited by his father Grantley Adams as Premier and Errol Barrow as Prime Minister]. Within a broad policy framework, [Tom’s] ministers were generally given a free hand. He was so free with me that he gave me no instructions when he asked me to lead the team negotiating the first double taxation treaty with the United States.

After about a year of negotiations with the Americans, I told him that I would like to update him. He advised that I was to work closely with my team and whatever we settled for “is what Barbados gets”.

All of that was consistent with what Tom had told me when he made me Minister of Agriculture, Food and Consumer Affairs. He told me that major reforms were needed in the sugar industry. He said he was giving me Jerry Hegelberg, then in his Ministry of Finance, and I should get on with the job.

Jerry was a German who had spent a lot of his years in Cuba and was generally regarded as an expert on sugar. He was a regular visitor to Barbados until about three years ago when he passed away in Kent, London.

Our first Central Bank Governor Sir Courtney Blackman knew Tom at school and worked closely with him as Prime Minister and Minister of Finance. Sir Courtney gave one of the Tom Adams Memorial Lectures in the course of which he commented on Tom’s leadership style as one of “collegiality”. On another occasion he was to refer to Tom, again based on his leadership style, as the first modern leader of Barbados . . . .

Tom Adams
‘Tom was a man of impressive style.’

But Tom Adams was more than rich substance. He was a man of impressive style as well. It arose from his tall and handsome looks, the memorable timbre of his voice, his distinctive gestures and his striking composure before the microphone and television cameras.

Nor must we forget his romantic relationship with and his command of the English language; his ready feel for words. Some have contended that he brought to the administration of Barbados what John Kennedy brought to America. It was a touch of King Arthur’s court. It was Camelot.

Tom, through his university training and wide reading, was exposed to a range of philosophers from Plato and Aristotle to Hobbes and John Stuart Mills to 20th century thinkers like Harold Laski and Milton Friedman. He also knew Marx and Lenin, their brand of socialism and much else.

But Tom was not concerned with “isms”. He wanted to continue his father’s dream of the total emancipation of the Barbadian society, particularly that class who were voiceless and down-trodden prior to 1937. He wanted to see them and their offspring well educated at all levels and that is why he never quarrelled with the growing bill which the Government faced for increasing numbers who were enjoying free tertiary education. He knew its importance to upward social mobility and economic well-being.

He knew, too, the value of home ownership and the sense of freedom and independence that goes with it.

Tom wanted Barbados to have a national health scheme which would be a variant of what obtained in Britain under the National Health Service, but no less comprehensive. He wanted to see a drug scheme, allied to the health scheme in which the elderly, the sick, the handicapped and those suffering from traditional diseases, like asthma and hypertension in all age groups, would be provided with free medication.

Tom wanted a Barbados in which all households would be provided with water and electricity. He felt that Barbadians were capable of enjoying one of the highest standards of living in the world and his aim was to so provide. Nothing gave him more pleasure than to be greeted by Barbadian maids vacationing in New York and London.

He came home after meeting them in those capitals and reported those stories with much pride and sheer delight. This was also a reflection of Tom’s egalitarian personality. He could mingle with the masses and the classes.

The Barbados Labour Party applied for and secured membership in Socialist International as early as November, 1978, during the organization’s 14th Congress held in Vancouver, Canada. In those days, prominent members of Socialist International included Olof Palme, socialist leader of Sweden; Willy Brandt, the well known mayor of Berlin; chancellor of West Germany and leader of the Socialist Democratic Party, Lionel Jospin; . . . and Carlos Andros Perez, president of Venezuela.

The BLP was excited over this development and a spokesman for the party stated that, “We are joining the mainstream of the International Socialist Movement”.  Tom saw conversations with parties and governments across the Western world as important for the party and the Government.

Apart from Tom’s philosophy, rooted in people and their upliftment, he had an architect’s/engineer’s view of Barbados which called for a network of roads opening up the interior of the island and gaining maximum advantage of our limited physical resources. His philosophy called for tasteful, yet modern public structures like the Central Bank and the General Post Office.  All areas of national life attracted his attention. He took initiatives to improve and enlarge our national festival Crop Over.  His further initiatives impacted the entire cultural scene for the better.

His commitment to democracy was at the heart of his philosophy. He put a high emphasis on Parliament and its finest traditions as the forum for the people’s business. He heavily emphasized, too, the party system and elections which are fair and free from fear. He introduced legislation to constitutionally protect the Electoral And Boundaries Commission. The free flow of information, too, about Government and its business was all at the heart of his philosophy.

I will never forgot where I was at the moment I received the news of Tom’s untimely death. I was in Cabinet with several colleagues awaiting the commencement of the meeting set to approve the Annual Estimates Of Expenditure.

After about one hour waiting around, Mr Frank Blackman, the long-serving Cabinet Secretary, appeared at the
open door of the Cabinet Room . . . . I remember him saying, hands trembling: “Lady and gentlemen, Prime Minister Adams is dead.”

I did not believe him and immediately enquired: “What sort of Chernenko joke is that?”

Chernenko was a reference to the leader of the Soviet Union whose death was reported in the Barbadian papers
that very day.

Mr Blackman was quick to respond that he was serious and that Prime Minister Adams was dead.

I was both shocked and dismayed at the news; but my thoughts ran to the succession and the need for St John, whom I was sure would be called upon to form the Government and be Prime Minister, to address the nation that very night at eight.

Grief-stricken as I was, I started to write St John’s speech. Suddenly St John, virtually out of breath, just having climbed the three flights of stairs to the Cabinet Room, entered and confirmed the news of Tom’s death. He turned to me and said: “Johnny, I want you to drive me to Government House to be sworn in.”

I promptly responded and in a minute or two we were off. During the car ride “Bree”, as I called him, reflected on the route he had taken to the Prime Ministership. He had stepped down as leader of the Barbados Labour Party and of the Opposition following his defeat at the polls in 1971. And it was following Bree’s resignation that Tom became leader of the party and of the Opposition.

Bree and Tom had always got on well. They were always urbane and civilized in their exchanges. However, some while before Tom died he had written a letter, which became public, to the Director of Tourism, a cousin of Bree’s called Patrick Hinds. In that letter he said the management of the tourism industry was more damaging to the Barbados’ economy than Hurricane Janet.

Bree was, in my judgement, nothing short of wounded by this letter which had become public. At the time the letter first surfaced he was Minister of Tourism, among many other ministries, but thereafter Aaron Truss succeeded him.

One day following a meeting with the Prime Minister and others, I enquired of Tom for whom was that letter intended. And he said to me that I am a man that often called a spade a bloody shovel and he proposed to respond to me with like bluntness. He said it was intended for Bernard.

He added: “I cannot speak to him and I am not happy with the way in which the tourist industry is being managed.”

On the Thursday before Tom died Bree left the Cabinet Room about 90 minutes after Cabinet was in session. The door to the Cabinet office suddenly became ajar and when I looked up, it was Bree beckoning me to come. And when I went to him he told me that he felt he should let me know that he had written Tom a letter resigning from the Cabinet.

In the weeks before that Bree was distinctly unhappy. The letter was in wide circulation and he was very conscious of the fact that it was a sign of disapprobation by the Prime Minister. Following Tom’s death, I enquired of the Prime Minister’s secretary whether she had seen the letter. She reported that she had not.

St John and I arrived at Government House. He took the oath of office at about 4:30 p.m. On our way back to Government Headquarters, we talked about many things. He told me very early in our conversation that we must go to the polls. That was his first instinct and I thought it was the correct one.

I told him, however, that our first duty was to bury our fallen leader in style. Thereafter I would provide him with a note on which constituencies had sitting members, which ones had “caretakers” and how many new candidates we would need. I advised Bree to go home and change into a black tie, white shirt and black suit. I told him that he should come back to me at Government Headquarters where we would rehearse the speech I had written for him to deliver and that, thereafter, I would drive him to CBC to address the nation at 8 p.m. We followed that plan.

St John was appropriately dressed and spoke to the nation in the right tone and with the right substance. You might think this was too detailed, but Bree was a bright man who would not necessarily have thought of something as mundane as appropriate clothing.

I followed his instruction, given to me on the way back to Government Headquarters, to advise my colleagues to be at Government House at 9 p.m. that evening to be sworn in as Ministers. That took place; but the footage of the ceremony cannot be shown.

Many ministers, after repeating four or five lines of the oath, dropped both The Bible that they were holding and the card on which the oath was written, and ran out of the room bawling. On each occasion Dr Milton Cato was to declare in firm and deadpan tones: “Sworn.”

. . . I now turn to our historical assessment of Tom’s contribution. It is still relatively early to do so, for after all, he has been dead only 30 years. But I regard a first statement as important particularly coming from someone who worked alongside him and interacted with him. It makes no claim to be comprehensive. The judgement may be criticised as biased in his favour but the facts cannot be challenged as inaccurate.

I want to identify four policy initiatives and/or activities of the Tom Adams administration 1976 to 1985 that underpin the thesis that he was a transformative and modern leader. Tom made a marked impact on his country –– its psyche, its economy, society, polity and its physical features. His legacy will, I have no doubt, be an enduring and positive one.

The first is the landmark piece of legislation on the statute books referred to as the Tenantry Freehold Purchase Act. Professor Hilary Beckles of the UWI and Dr  Nicholas Draper of University College, London, are leading the fight to secure compensation for the descendants of slaves in the West Indies and elsewhere. But it can be argued that Tom Adams, by taking the initiative to provide at peppercorn rate to the descendants of slave workers the piece of plantation land they occupied at ten cents a square foot, not exceeding $300, is an act of reparation and it must be seen in that context.

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

It was in Tom’s thinking an attempt to right a cruel wrong. He wanted to pay the plantation owners nothing, but he was persuaded that he would rank with Mugabe and others as a confiscator if he did so.

I now turn to the offshore financial sector. When he took office in 1976, Barbados was highly dependent on the sugar industry, tourism and light manufacturing activities for its foreign exchange. The sugar industry was in serious difficulties and facing an uncertain future. As Britain entered the EU it terminated the Commonwealth Sugar Agreement. As a result we lost the guaranteed price for sugar.

Tourism, too, was seen as fickle and in any event there was a period of very low occupancy between April and September every year. And before the Crop Over Festival was launched some hotels actually closed during that period.   

Manufacturing was on a growth path but was still in its early stages of development.

What was urgently needed was another prop to the economy and another serious earner of foreign exchange.

Barbados was regarded as a good candidate for establishing itself as an offshore financial sector. The sophistication of its telecommunications system, a good airport and seaport, reliable air links to Europe and North America, political stability, highly rated educational facilities at every level and the easy trainability of its people were among the considerations that supported that view.

The Offshore Financial Sector was given a major boost with the passage of the International Business Companies Act in 1978 and the Offshore Banking Act in 1979. That was followed by the Shipping Incentives Act of 1982 which provided for ships’ registration in Barbados. Then came the Foreign Sales Corporation Act of 1984 which, combined with an Exchange Of Information Treaty with the United States, qualified Barbados as one of the first locations for the use and establishment of foreign sales corporations . . . . Today the offshore financial sector is second to tourism as an earner of foreign exchange.

I turn to the highway from the Bridgetown Port to the airport and from St Peter to the airport, now called the ABC Highway. It needs to be said that at the outset Tom wanted a four-lane highway. The arithmetic of the project and the resistance of the IDB restricted the number of lanes provided. Today the expansion, as Tom envisioned it, is urgently needed and will cost several times more than it would have cost then.

Such was Tom’s foresight.

But the highway has allowed for the rapid movement of people and goods across Barbados and has opened up vast areas for housing and industrial development . . . .

Tom wanted to introduce in Barbados a national health service which, though in some respects might be different from the National Health Service in the United Kingdom, would be as comprehensive in its delivery of health care services.

His further vision was that it would cost nothing to the Barbadian at the point of delivery. It met with great resistance from the doctors, and Tom died before he was able to negotiate with them.

But it is to his credit that we do have a health care system that remains largely centered at the polyclinics across the country and at the QEH. It is free at the point of delivery and is of an acceptable quality.

. . . I have presented him as a great human being, a prominent and distinguished Barbadian leader who has made a transformative impact on his country.  Like his father before him, he was a man of large vision and stature. I am grateful for the opportunity to have worked closely with him and for the chance to reflect on him, his work and contribution . . . .

Source: Sir Richard Cheltenham

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