Tom Adams – a visionary leader

The Rt. Hon. J.M.G.M. “Tom” Adams served as Barbados’ second prime minister from 1976 until his untimely death on March 11, 1985 at the age of 53.

The Rt. Hon. J.M.G.M. “Tom” Adams
The Rt. Hon. J.M.G.M. “Tom” Adams

In recognition of his contribution to national development, the Barbados Labour Party (BLP) sponsors the annual Tom Adams Memorial Lecture which was delivered this year by BLP General Secretary and former Minister of Health, Senator Dr Jerome Xavier Walcott.

As a public service, Barbados TODAY brings you the lecture in two installments. The first follows and the second and final part comes tomorrow. The title of the lecture was “Intellect, Vision and Fortitude in an Island State: The Tom Adams Story”.

In my opinion, Tom Adams was one of the greatest Barbadians who ever lived and is the most visionary leader we have ever had. I say this because

·     He conceptualized the construction of the ABC Highway – the major thoroughfare in Barbados today.

·     He initiated the development of the International Business sector – the number two foreign exchange earning sector in Barbados for the last several years.

·     He was the architect behind the Plantation Tenantries Freehold Purchase Act that has enabled thousands of Barbadians to purchase land and build their own homes.

·     He was responsible for the establishment of the National Drug Service which ensured that Barbadians of all ages could get medication free or at minimal cost.

·     He was the driving force behind the establishment and promotion of the Credit Union movement which has helped thousands of Barbadians to own homes, land, vehicles and to start businesses.

·     Hewas the catalyst for women’s upward mobility in society and the removal of the concept of illegitimacy which gave legal rights of inheritance to thousands of children born out of wedlock.

·     And he pushed for the establishment of the NCF which is at the centre of Barbados’ cultural and artistic renaissance.

The Hon. Mia Mottley, Leader of the Opposition, former Prime Minister, the Rt. Hon. Owen Arthur, current and former Parliamentarians, members of the Diplomatic Corps, distinguished ladies and gentleman, Good evening.

I stand before you this evening with the temerity to deliver the lecture; “Intellect, Vision and Fortitude in an Island State: The Tom Adams Story”. Tonight, I will share with you my perspective of the impact which John Michael Geoffrey Manningham “Tom” Adams had on the development of Barbados and the development of its people.

Although his widow Genevieve and his sons are overseas, she has given me her blessings for this evening’s presentation.

As I do this, I am particularly grateful to the Hon. Cynthia Forde, the current MP for St. Thomas, and her team, for entrusting me with such an important task.

Cynthie, as she likes to be called, served as Tom’s branch president and in diverse other roles for many years in St. Thomas; and her stellar representation of that parish is testimony to Tom’s insight in supporting her from an early age.

It is entirely due to the devotion and diligence of Cynthie and those who comprise the Tom Adams Memorial Committee that most people recall the name of Tom Adams at all.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is a blight on our politics and democracy – and the greatest absurdity in our history – that the work and worth of Tom Adams have been lost to the murky machinations of political forces.

Let us not make any bones about it. There is enough blame to go around. The BLP cannot be absolved from this. It is the most singular discredit to our matchless legacy that we have allowed this dismissal of such a superior intellect, and non-attribution of his accomplishments to take root.

There must be a reversal of this travesty.

Tom Adams must be accorded his rightful and magnificent place in our history!

If at the end of my presentation, I am able to stimulate interest among a generation for whom the legacy of Tom has been lost but, more importantly, cause any of our current crop of aspiring politicians, to be so inspired by the life of Tom Adams; to want to follow in his footsteps, I consider I would have achieved my goal.

Some of you are probably thinking, why is Jerome Walcott presenting this lecture?

After all, I was not one of Tom Adams’ contemporaries; and unlike those who have previously presented in this series of memorial lectures, including his son Rawdon, I never worked with him and I cannot speak of any serious interaction with him. However, thanks to my friend George Griffith, as a medical student, I got a chance to meet him on two occasions.

Worry no more; let me allow you to exhale.

The answer is simple.

It is about inspiration.

I have been inspired by Tom Adams the man, his style andhisstill unfathomable public service to his beloved Barbados. His ability to stimulate and motivate; the insightfulness and comprehensive balanced approach he brought to leadership; the visionary and futuristic concepts of his ideas; the clarity of thoughts and application to purpose; his clearly detailed preparation and, of course, sheer intellect.

Indeed, he meshed all of these characteristics to take Barbados on such an unimaginable journey in eight and a half years as Prime Minister, so that the stature and transformation of Barbados that he engineered remains the standard by which we are measured, and the engine on which Barbados still runs 30 years later, despite the war unleashed, especially in recent times, on this unshakable foundation.

I am not given to hero worship and my training as a surgeon has only exposed too often the frailties of man; neither would I wish to trespass on what is reserved for our God.

But if I had a hero, and I have said it before, that person would be Tom Adams. I consider myself fortunate to have been growing up while Tom Adams was on stage. My generation grew up in a time when political dynamism was at its peak, with probably the most formidable collection of politicians ever – with Adams and Barrow …all pretty much in their prime.

Amongst this exceptional group, Tom Adams was most exceptional. The magnetism of his intellect was palpable. For us, then teenaged boys, and for much of Barbados too, a disproportionate amount of interest in politics in the 70s was the result of Tom Adams’ sheer fluidity with language, the likes of which Barbados had not seen before – and has not seen since.

Tuesdays were not for getting up to mischief at the Lodge School. It was about not missing the school bus, jumping off as soon as it approached the traffic lights in St Michael’s Row and running to the public gallery of Parliament …… to listen to Tom; then running home. Well, you know, I still had to get home by a certain time!

I vividly recall standing in the pouring rain in Eagle Hall on the eve of the 1976 elections unable to vote but just to hear Tom. It was mesmerizing, it was dramatic. The Monday that he died, I was a young surgical resident in the operating theatre. After we received the news of his passing, I was unable to continue any surgery. Such was the effect Tom Adams had on me.

Nothing was as exciting as Tom in the House of Assembly. His interventions were textbook studies in content, phrasing, and emphasis, economy of words, the motivational, and the cruel put down. You listened to Tom to learn. He inspired us youngsters to go for excellence, to debate among ourselves, to be curious and to be achievers.

He was terrific at encapsulating any debate, and setting that description in your mind and that of the public. Note his first statement in the heralded reply to the 1976 Budget:

“Mr. Speaker, seldom has a budget and the reply been attended in this House of Assembly by so much confusion.”

Or the build-up and put down:

“I have seen some tinkering with the cigarette tax. I congratulate him (the Prime Minister ErrolBarrow) for saving the small shopkeepers in the country from having to put 5 cents or 6 cents in the tin whenever they sell a package of cigarettes. A little more foresight would have avoided this in the first place.” Or his description of the DLP as a Government that “came into power on a flood of euphoria and a complete absence of promise.”

Is this a case of deja-vu?

By the way, if anyone wants a lesson in debate demolition, Tom Adams’ 1976 Budget reply is required reading; a reply that he was asked to give immediately after the Budget had been presented by The Rt Excellent Errol Barrow.

His cleverness in debate has been spoken about repeatedly. Known for his respect for parliamentary rules and decorum, one admired trait was his knack for adhering to the Rules while breaking them.

Once asked to withdraw any reference to “wickedness” in the statement, “Can you believe that honourable members can be so wicked as to come into the House and try to make the public and the House believe people are being fired?”, Tom replied:

“I beg your pardon, Sir. The honourable Member for St. Lucy is not wicked, he is not vicious and he is not a liar and I withdraw all of those words that I have used or implied, Sir.”

In an aspirational society, who could not be inspired by Tom’s educational and professional achievements? He was a Barbados scholar in Mathematics, studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford, then went on to study law at Gray’s Inn.

There was also the expanse of his knowledge on areas unrelated to his studies or profession, and his apparent mastery of all kinds of eclectic subjects.

He was an expert philatelist; expert on war history (both ancient and modern); expert on the classics; expert on philosophy; expert on cards; expert on gardening.

There is a story about a Minister passionately outlining a proposal while Tom, chairing the session, sat at the head of the table reading a Time magazine, seemingly oblivious to the points being made.

After a while, the exasperated Minister interrupted himself and upbraided Tom for such a discourtesy. To the Minister’s chagrin, Tom apologized and repeated the speech of the Minister, ending by asking him if he wanted to know what was in the Time magazine – and telling him, too.

But the first lesson of the Tom Adams model is not intellect in itself, but its application to inspire and impact the society for the greater good.

What comes to mind is this extract from Machiavelli in “The Prince”: “…….there are three classes of intellects: one which comprehends by itself; another which appreciates what others comprehend; and a third which                                neither comprehends by itself nor by the showing of others; the first is the most excellent, the second is good, the third is useless.”

Tom was a unique combination of the first two while also exhibiting the notion that the greater intellect one has, the more originality one finds in men. In other words, excellence seeks out excellence and understands that progress is not the province of a few, but the inputs of many are necessary in making people become a part of their own narrative and in shaping policy.

Tom was lauded for his predilection to canvass opinions and give his colleagues room to grow once they stayed within the confines of Cabinet accountability, democratic principles, and the programme of the Government.

No wonder, then, that Tom was able to lead, that whichis often regarded as the best political team in Barbados’ history, and became known as “The Great Combination.” The team of Sir Henry Forde, Sir Bernard St. John, Sir Louis Tull, Dame Billie Miller, Sir Richard Cheltenham, Sir David Simmons, Lindsay Bolden and Ezra Alleyne; each of whom was brilliant in their own right.

For a man of elevated ability, he had a knack for being nice to ordinary folk; the story of the NCC worker whom he drove to Ilaro Court and his relation with “Slims” and “Gearbox”.

Adams welcomed conversing, even getting advice, from very much younger people. This tendency to recognize youthful talent and to propel the growth of individuals, for the benefit of the country, is best illustrated in Adams’ positioning of a young Owen Arthur.

Arthur became Prime Minister ten years after Adams; in describing Tom Adams, Arthur said “he was the mastermind of my political campaign, but he also found the time to be a canvasser, in his very complete way, he found time to both be my general and one of my foot soldiers”. Seeing Owen Arthur elected as MP for St. Peter in 1984 was Tom’s last great political crusade.

A few months later, speaking in debate on Tom’s passing, Arthur noted, “I want to believe that everything I shall do in public life will be to the glory and the credit of the investment he has made in me”. It is fair to say Arthur, in this respect, kept his word. He has so far come closest to fulfilling the promise of the Tom Adams model, and in so doing becoming the outstanding politician of his generation.

Barbados requires this application of intellect of the Tom Adams model rather than what has been our lot for the last seven or so years.Intelligence without ambition is wasted. Tom Adams maximized his intellect with a soaring ambition, ingenious in its simplicity – to make Barbados the best small island state in the world.

This was wrapped in a vision so farsighted that, in many respects, we still have not come to grips with the components of that visualization – aspects of which are still to be realized and or completed.

The vision to pole vault Barbados to a place unknown was grounded in certain fundamentals. The practice of democratic socialism, with a fully pragmatic twist. Firm management of the economy to avoid unsustainable fiscal deficits and borrowing for non-productive purposes. Development and investment for the common and universal good.

The great success of Tom Adams’ vision is even more astonishing when, not only the time span is factored in, but more so the distance from where he and his Administration had to come.By 1976, Barbados had gone through about four years of economic turmoil stemming from the 1973 oil crisis and the encompassing recessionary period that followed.

Socially, the country entered a phase of high unemployment which ballooned upwards of 24 per cent by 1975. Economically, Barbados’ Gross Domestic Product fell drastically between 1973 and 1976 while the debt had sky-rocketed, to more than double since 1971 to over $200 million, and the influx of foreign investment had quickly nose-dived.

With very high inflation rates hovering around 100 per cent in the four years of 1972 to 1976, and a staggering cost of living increase of 127 per cent between 1971 and 1976, the population began to question the promise of Barbados’ post-Independence   development.

Politically, the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) became dimmed in the eyes of polity by the time the 1976 general elections came around. The public had soured on a litany of  shadowy gambits including International Seafoods Limited, Carib West Airways, the purchase of Bath Plantation and the North Point – a boat that could not sail – all of which Tom later described as “an equation of financial disgrace”.

The DLP also displayed high arrogance at the depths of despair in the oil crisis by rolling out the “privileged pump”, which catered only to DLP members and cronies; and The Rt. Excellent Errol Barrow led the denigration of members of the public in the kind of shocking language that was unheard of, such as “crabs in a barrel”, “army of occupation” and the suggestion that people should be put in a barrel of oil, set alight and put to sea.

Tom himself was the focus of vituperative attacks. In fact, one of the DLP’s campaign slogans was, Can you trust Tom Adams?

Any of this sounds familiar?

Going where angels fear to tread,Adams, in the foreword of the BLP’s 1976 Manifesto, pledged “to bring new ideas, bold initiatives and fresh thinking about our national problems.”

He was being modest.

Polish philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote that “talent hits a target no one else can hit, [and] genius hits a target no one else can see.” He probably had Tom Adams in mind.

The vision was not merely to redress the major issues of socio-economic depression and mayhem left by the DLP. Adams’ ambition was the wholesale transplantation of Barbadians to a new state of mind and way of life, and Barbados from a country marking time with a colonial type model to being exceptional.

By 1985, Tom’s work was spectacularly successful.

I could end this part of the presentation now with these three statements. He had a comprehensive blueprint for the development of Barbados and Barbadians. Every component of Barbados was transformed by the vision of Tom Adams. Indeed, the revolution was so complete that today almost every aspect of life that we enjoy is due to the realization of Tom Adams’ vision. It is summed up in the BLP’s motto, “A Better Life for Our People.”

2 Responses to Tom Adams – a visionary leader

  1. Phil September 27, 2016 at 6:47 am

    This article too long. It is for people who have nothing to do and all day to do it. Do like the Nation produce a Tom Adams magazine, print it and sell it for $5.00 per copy BT gine now start mekin money. and Chris gine get a new target to get tax from. He gine call um MPT Magazine Pubkishing Tax.

  2. Sunshine Sunny Shine September 27, 2016 at 4:53 pm

    No wonder why this article is so long. Tom Adams was a joker.


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