A banquet has been prepared for you in my book entitled “The Politics of Snakes and Ladders”, sub-titled “Rising in Glory”. It is a simple story of an honest man who was forced to leave his happy Labour home and seek refuge in a strange land across the border. This article is therefore, a mere foretaste of what is on the menu, and is intended only to whet the appetite. Should you however, feel sufficiently filled by this morsel, I must tell you now, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet, folks”. You would have just felt the drizzle without experiencing the inundation.
After 14 years of faithful service and undeviating commitment to my own flesh and blood, the Saint Lucia Labour Party, in 1982, providence rewarded me with the high offices of Leader of the Opposition and of the Party. And no one would dare say it was “unmerited favour”: for St. Lucia knows that in the Party’s darkest hour, only Kenneth Foster and I stood militantly against the awesome UWP force which in 1964, had crushed what was left of Labour under George Charles, its first leader.
We were the only traffickers on the high seas, dominated by the full-blooded Compton and flanked by the battle-tested J.M Bousquet, George Mallet, Henry Giraudy, Allen Bousquet and others. We entered the arena with our bare hands, to take the bull by the horns while everyone else stood as spectators. So whenever that bull was
taken it was we, who wilted not, who took it. Circumstances have forced me to take an inventory of my political life. When presented to you, you will see how tirelessly and selflessly, I had worked in the vineyard with Kenneth, giving always the best wines to others so as to increase the sheep-fold and better shepherd the flock for the betterment of all. Yet, not one have we called upon to testify on our behalf. I now have had enough. So Neville himself will have to deliver Neville.
As will be seen from the figures that immediately follow, the job I was given to do, in 1982, was as daunting a task as what Foster and I were faced with in 1968, after the 1964 UWP avalanche that had all but buried Labour in its wake. He and I never rested. We never had a political sabbath. We were too busy re-directing river courses, rebuilding bridges, stabilizing banks and clearing obstacles, to find a way out of no way. The whole of St. Lucia is a “cloud of witnesses” for us.
The utter disgrace the Party had brought upon itself is vividly reflected in the 1979 and 1982 election results. In 1979, Labour won 12 seats and secured 25,294 votes to UWP’s 19, 706; but in 1982 it lost 10 of the 12 and 17,584 votes, scoring only 8,122, a decline from 25, 294 in 34 months. The Odlum faction (PLP), purloined 13,133 from its own Labour parent and seduced another 4,421 away from Labour, all as a result of a leadership struggle for self-distinction.
By that analysis, it was clear to me, upon whom the burden had fallen, that to return Labour to its former 1979 glory, Odlum, Josie and I had to compose our differences, and stand together, once again, under the Labour standard as one united force. So I did two things:
i) Privately, I had George to understand that while the people were still hurting there would have had to be a period of cleansing on his part. By that I meant that his faction had to disappear. He had recognized his folly, and after that discussion the PLP never resurfaced. In a matter of weeks, a crucial milestone had been achieved, worth 13,133 votes.
ii) Not long afterwards, and contrary to the Constitution of the Party, Peter Josie sought to wrest the leadership from me by a spurious convention. I quickly aborted it at Laborie, where I was unanimously elected at a convention there. He had qualified for expulsion, but I could not have boiled so Labour a kid in his mother’s own milk. At the next convention at Vieux-Fort in August, 1983, he saw
the error of his ways, when once again I was unanimously re-elected. Thereafter, I encountered no other annoyances.
At that point, I was comfortably seated in the saddle, satisfied that there would have been “peace in the valley” at last, for labour, come the next general election. They, Josie and Odlum, both knew that they had dealt the Labour cause “the most unkindest cut of all”. Their trumps had all run out, and they had played all their cards badly. Having committed suicide once, it was impossible for them to do it again, so I had no fear whatsoever of either of them. They needed me more than I need them and were sure that I would never deal them a bad hand. There could have been no attempt at removing me as the Party had been bludgeoned between its own altar and sanctuary.
While quietly working on the re-construction of the Party, I thought it necessary to lull Compton into a false sense of security, based on his pronouncements that the UWP was “here for another 30 years”. Politicians do speak that way when intoxicated with such success (14 seats to 3). I therefore kept no public meetings, issued no press releases, and subjected Compton to very little pressure in the House. So effective was my pretense, that an influential trade unionist friend, loyal to Labour, had reasons to say to my reticent wife, Julita:
“What’s wrong with Neville, a-a! a-a! A man like Neville! And what’s all that about John C. Calloun?”
Calloun was one of the respected Vice Presidents of the United States. He had written a treatise on government and I was contending with the fearsome Speaker, Daniel, on the constitutional right of the Opposition to be heard.
While the trade unionist’s protestations were an indication that my strategy was burgeoning, it was Compton’s mutterings, when I was deliberately meandering that were the most assuring. On one occasion, with his head tilted to the right, downcast eyes, and a smirk lighting up his face, I heard him mutter to himself: “Poor Cenac”.
I could have shouted in reply, “Poor Compton”, seeing how well my sleep-inducing tactic was working. Others too, were encouraged by my effeteness. One minister in particular was Ira D’Auvergne. While he was humouring me, I made things worse by replying, “Yes, the Labour Party is dead”. Then they all laughed, as if ready to jump out of their Parliamentary seats. At that point I thought I had let the cat out of the bag when I raised my voice and said: “But it’s not the death that matters. It’s the resurrection”.
But the cat was not out, for I saw them raise their shoulders even higher, laughing their heads off. I now had them all in my trap, snoring. No one but I knew what I was doing, because miracles never happen when too many are involved.
My next planned move was to bring Odlum and his PLP right back into the Labour fold to which they were so desperately longing to return. Then something happened which, through no fault of mine, drastically changed the course of events that would have given George Odlum an opportunity to redeem himself in the eyes of Labour supporters. That
something concerns a certain observation my wife had made about me which I am not to disclose in a “foretaste”. She was right and I listened to her. And she is honoured the more for it: for how many wives, seeing their husbands on the ascendency would so forcefully demotivate them! Certainly, it is highly unlikely, especially where the office is for control of the command centre, and lies next door.
Many have asked me why it was that I suddenly gave the leadership to Julian Hunte. Even the acting British Government Representative found it necessary to ask me at the 1984 Convention at Corinth: “But why are you doing this? All the people want you”.
My answer to him is in my manuscript, but it was only half the reason. “It is better for me to be at the right hand of power than to be on the throne”. I replied, and he looked at me quite puzzled.
Acting upon my wife’s observation, I selected Julian Hunte after weighing his merits against the many worthies anxious for the opportunity of becoming either Leader of the Opposition, which I was, or Prime Minster which I could have been. I did so freely, without solicitation, reservation or misgivings. I meekly placed myself under his lordship and command, though he was of the UWP race and had never once set foot on a Labour platform. But as he had never been engaged in any internal
battle, he was the best referee I could have found, in a game where the Party had so often been thrown off the field for foul play or indiscipline, and needed sanitizing to bring back its many lost fans.
Now this is what eventually led to my crossing the floor 25 years ago. The week before his election as political Leader, Julian Hunte sent my Chairman, Charles Augustin, to ask me whether I would appoint him afterwards to the Senate. Had I said yes, I would not have been forced to recourse to such drastic action. But I said to him concernedly, “Charles, tell Julian let’s not talk about that. That would break up the Party. I gave him what was mine to give. I cannot remove Foster. He has worked too hard for the Party. He was my political leader and will win the Anse-La-Raye seat. So will Evans Caulderon win the Choiseul seat. I have rewarded Mrs. Murry for all the hard work her husband, George Murry, did for the Labour Party with George Charles, Foster and me. We must leave things as they are”(My predictions about Choiseul and Anse-La-Raye returning to Labour came to pass in 1987).
After that conversation with my chairman, I took it that my concerns had been taken in good part. But soon after his confirmation, an obsession with the Senate resurfaced to haunt me, as if it had been made a condition to the acceptance of the leadership. In such a case, I would have considered him an unworthy candidate for being so self-serving, but I was unable to recall my power.
That refusal, solely for the unity of the Party, turned out to be my undoing. “And there began my sadness” as the Senate soon became
“the be-all and the end-all” for the newly appointed leader, bearing my chrism on his forehead as a sacrament of his confirmation. I, then known as the jolliest of the Labour folks, had suddenly become the dumbest, and my voice was never again heard in the whole of Saint Lucia, save Laborie, my constituency.
My natural love for the Party, my long commitment to the cause over the years (16), my generosity of attitude, were all of no consequence and every effort was made thereafter to drive me out of my seat, the safest in the country. I kept quiet. I made no complaints to the Party or raised any faction within it. It would not have been able to bear another malediction. Despite the pressures, I never dreamt of leaving the Party. My only plan was to withhold my support for Hunte whenever it was needed for his enthronement as Prime Minister. That’s a constitutional right that inheres in every elected member, and I would have used it righteously, justifiably, for his ingratitude.
Benjamin Franklin’s advice that: “Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead” is one that every politician should strictly observe. It was my failure to hold it sacred that brought about my severance from the Party whose darling I was known to be. I betrayed myself when I disclosed my secret plan to a certain UWP member of the House who had befriended me, (and another influential member of the Party), because he had a grievance over Compton’s treatment of him. The elections were a few weeks away. In a brief conversation at the back of the High Court, near the entrance, he said to me: “Man, I hear you in trouble at Laborie with your Leader”.
By that he meant that I was likely to be replaced. I said in reply:
“I will never support Julian Hunte as Prime Minister. If we got nine seats and UWP eight, I would support anyone else but Hunte. I would sooner support Compton”.
It must be clearly understood that my support for Compton would have only come, in political self-defence, to prevent my annihilation. So in a 9 to 8 situation, I would have said “I am supporting, in order of priority, Josie, Calderon or Baden Allen”. Should they all then throw their support behind him, I would have had no choice but to cross the border, especially (as I said in the House) “the Party had ceased to be the St. Lucia Labour Party, and had become the Party of Julian R. Hunte and company”. That is the only point I wish to make forever clear.
As it happened, the 1987 results gave nine to Compton and eight to Hunte. By 10am the day after, we were all summoned to the Leader’s house. I immediately surrendered the leadership of the Opposition to him, without a murmur, of course. Hunte then told us that there was $150,000 left from the campaign funds “to buy someone to cross the floor” .
The very frank, redoubtable Peter Josie, very quickly expressed how surprised he was to hear that there was “all that money to buy people” when he was unable to find money for his campaign.
Three emissaries had been dispatched to make the purchase, we were told. They went straight to the one in whom I had confided. The wrong course having been taken, I must have then said to myself “Mischief thou art afoot”.
It would have been unwise to have taken that bait with the knowledge of what my reaction would have been where my vote was also needed to raise Hunte higher. So a call was made to a second port to pick up another, as a safety factor, for 8 plus 1, minus 1 is still 8. The safety factor told me that he was even offered a scholarship as an additional inducement, but yielded not. In the twinkling of an eye however, Compton’s very active radar had picked up the movements, and the whole enterprise failed.
And so it was that on the 30th April, 1987, twenty-four days after the first election, Compton went back to the polls, making history for all the world to see, with all St. Lucians, until now, baffled as to why.
Since my plan was now in the open, (only because I had ignored Benjamin Franklin), I could have chosen to run on a UWP ticket: but that would have been too costly to the Labour Party, as I never ever had a quarrel with Labour. I was left alone only because they feared losing, the very Laborie seat. My constituency group knew that I was more Labour than Labour, and that I was being hunted down because of that famous Senate seat. In fact, at one point I was told: “If that’s the way they are treating you, then we will put you up as an independent and when you win, go and meet Compton”.
That’s a translation from the creole tongue of Buck Owen, who, like Peter, spoke for the rest of the Apostles.
I would have remained in the Party but for that revelation of my plan. Having spent 3 years in torment (1984-1987), I could not have subjected myself to five years more of what could have only been worse, as I had been double-crossed and was in a double bind.
Had there been anyone like Kenny Anthony emerging as a possibility, or Mario Michel (young yet not tender), I might have been considerably restrained despite my ravishment. But such signs were not on the horizon in 1987. And though there has been physical separation for 25 years, in my very Labour heart, I have remained loyal to my only spouse, even as, I in anguish, have watched its philosophy decomposing more and more, and the spirit of independence and self-reliance groaning for attention. Contemplating this state of affairs is too painful for expression: especially when so much had been sacrificed for so good a cause, at so early an age (29).
In concluding this episode, I wish, gratefully, to recall the sentiments of concern expressed by two great supporters of the Party in my moments of travail. One was the mentor of the Leader and very devoted to him. We were talking between the R.C.I building and the West Indies Insurance Company where Executive meetings of the Party were always held. I was seeking his intervention.
He said to me: “I have told Julian that if he looks for trouble with you we will lose the election”. The other person was the wife of a very prominent member of the Party, very gentle and kind. He had provoked me sufficiently to cause me to walk out of the convention held at Dennery in 1985. She left the back of the hall, seeing the commotion, and exclaimed, “What are they doing to Neville!” She and my wife were together. My wife then said to me, “Don’t leave. That’s what they want”. Obedient boy as I am, I returned to my seat with my group.
I regret nothing I have done except not having it made a condition that
George Odlum’s return to the Party be honoured. I could
not have foreseen that a man with 13,133 votes in his pocket would have been shunned. We lost as a result. I am proud of every stand I have taken even when I left to join John Compton, the worker. But I have never professed another faith or received another baptism. I am sorry to have to say that we are still a spineless people without courage or conviction.
We too often take the easy road that suits our purpose. Were I, once more, faced with the same circumstances, I would do nothing differently, for what an honest and selfless man does under excessive pressure, cannot be
measured by the outcome. I did my duty. It was for others to have done theirs.
There are good lessons to be learnt here:
i) Decision makers must take great care in their dispensation of justice for they each have to account to God for every decision made, as they are his deputies.
ii) When men act justly, by giving every man his due, they need have no fearof repercussions.
iii) Gratitude is too important a virtue ever to be neglected.
iv) Those who lack community love should stay out of politics, as it leads to caring for a part and not the whole.
I am not preaching what I have not practised. They have been the psalms of my life. Ask the people of Laborie and they will tell you. “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet, folks”, for the inundation is yet to come;
not one that scarifies but clarifies, provokes, and informs.