The Renwick Rose’s three-part article entitled, “Our Approach to Independence”, has given me cause to reflect on the leadership of SVG’s first Prime Minister – Robert Milton Cato, at the time of achieving full statehood in October 1979.
Aloof and Elitist?
The Milton Cato of whom I heard talk, was portrayed as an aloof leader, more aligned to the planter and mercantile classes, rather than to the working people of St Vincent and the Grenadines. His government seemed not interested in full public discourse or perhaps was not keen on entertaining any consideration for adopting a constitution that reflected the likely progressive thinking of civil society organisations.
I was made to understand that Westminster had a ready blue-print of our constitution, which was sent to St Vincent and for Arthur Williams, the then attorney general, to review and tinker with, here and there.
While Cato led the country into partial Independence (associated statehood) in 1969 and then again to full Independence 10 years later, he couldn’t shake off the image in some quarters, of one who fought for the Empire (literally). He saw duty in Europe during the 2nd World War, through the First Canadian Army.
Increasing criticism, Increasing distance from the people
As he got older, Milton Cato, the politician, seemed to have distanced himself from the people somewhat. He didn’t take too kindly to increasing criticism, coming especially from the young progressives. By 1979, he had already completed more than 20 years in active politics and perhaps felt that he should not be subject to the ridicule that the tabloid writers and the younger calypsonians had heaped on him. He voiced his response through his able lieutenant, the late Hudson Tannis – who performed the role of spokesperson. Tannis became known to many as the “Mighty Explainer”.
I recall the opening of the Calliaqua football league, when Cato, the parliamentary representative for the area and prime minister, accepted an invitation to attend and deliver remarks. The then president of the Football Association- St Claire Leacock, made the comment that he was quite pleased to see Mr Cato and that he would seize the opportunity to “make a profound statement” on the needs of footballers. When it was his turn to speak, Prime Minister Cato began by saying that he thought that he “had come to open a football tournament, not to listen to any profound statement”.
Cato in the midst of Changing Times
The young progressives saw Cato as someone who had led us to Independence but who couldn’t come to terms necessarily with a changing region. In the mid to late 1970s, there was a strong surge to challenge the existing world order. We witnessed the growth of the Non-aligned Movement. Jamaica’s left–leaning Michael Manley was one of the progenitors of the US-despised International Bauxite Association – an intended cartel, much akin to OPEC. With Bay of Pigs long behind him, Fidel Castro was now entrenched in Cuba and had embarked on an “Internationalist” programme, particularly in south western Africa. The Sandinistas had overthrown Somoza in Nicaragua, also in 1979.
The Bishop / Coard Grenada revolution had just occurred six months prior to our Independence. Activism was abuzz throughout the Caribbean, reflected in the Desmond Trotter and Tim Hector cases in Dominica and Antigua respectively, Walter Rodney in Guyana as well as by other progressives in other CARICOM member states.
The more centrist St Vincent Labour Party (SVLP), was keeping a close eye on YULIMO, The Young Socialist Group and others. The emergence of the left-leaning United Peoples Movement (UPM) and its commendable first-time elections showing, caused palpitations for Cato and his administration.
1979 – a tumultuous year for the Cato administration.
La Soufriere Eruption
The government had to contend with the Good Friday eruption of the La Soufriere volcano. Unlike the explosive eruptions of last year, the people were not as forewarned and prepared. Recovery was a huge challenge for the government, while still preparing for the upcoming Independence.
Independence then General Elections
At 12:00a.m. October 27, it was a signal moment in the life of the country and as high as Milton Cato’s star could rise in the firmament. A few weeks later, Cato capitalized on the euphoria of the moment and called general elections for December 5. The Labour Party romped home to victory over a recently formed and still struggling New Democratic Party (NDP) as well as the UPM and the Joshuas, who were by then a spent force.
The Grenadines – a Rebellion and a Declaration
A few days after the general elections, the Cato regime had to quell the rebellion of young Unionites, who, perhaps inspired by events in Grenada, felt that they were not being well treated by the Kingstown administration. Cato got military support from the Tom Adams administration in Barbados. The need to forge a more perfect union was not helped by secessionist dalliances through the Grenadines Declaration, penned by Sir James Mitchell.
Milton Cato completed a near full term after the 1979 mandate renewal, but not without failed attempts to pass controversial legislation that was disapproved by many. At age 69, he called it a day, shortly after his party had lost the 1984 elections. He appeared tired and spent.
The Cato story needs to be told in full as what we hear often, is not consistent with someone who, as a candidate, won seven consecutive elections and who led us into Independence. The good work that he had done for the country was partly clouded by his progressively reduced tolerance for change.
I will speak on this next week.