For The Punch – Issue 3 March 2011
by P. Anthony White
In this or another space from time to time we recount the birth and development of the Progressive Liberal Party, starting in late 1953, as the beginning of the thrust of the Bahamian masses to that historic first general elections in 1956, majority rule in 1967, and eventually to full statehood in 1973.
At each stage there was a vibrant presence of democracy, and particularly following the birth and development of the Free National Movement, and organisation which, it could be said, sprang from the bowels of the PLP, the result of the ambitions of some further to test the buoyancy of that democracy.
And so that birth, development of the FNM, a party which this year marks its 40th anniversary has evolved as an integral part of the modern history of The Bahamas, and Bahamians, especially the young, no matter what their political inclinations, have a right and a need to know.
What should be of interest to historians is that the Free National Movement did not come about as the result of the gentle or simmering yearning huddled masses yearning to breathe free, but rather like the restless awakening of a passionate woman who refuses to remain blind when light is shimmering all around. Those would-be historians need to get the story right.
The fact of the matter is that the events of 19 August 1992 – when the PLP government was toppled after nearly 26 years in office – became a powerful climax to a national political odyssey which began technically in the House of Assembly on 13 May 1970.
That was when the maverick Member of Parliament for the St. Barnabas constituency of New Providence, Randol Francis Fawkes, who has served as Minister of Labour and Commerce in the first PLP government, moved the following Resolution:
“Whereas Government, by its failure to consult with investors prior to the passing of Legislation nullifying the effects of certain provisions of Government’s agreements with local and foreign businessmen has caused the economic dislocation of the resources of the Commonwealth.
“AND WHEREAS moneys are being paid out to the Hon. Clifford Darling, the Minister of State, when unlike other Ministers no specific office of duties assigned to him are shown in the Bahamas Official Gazette.
“BE IT RESOLVED, that this House has no confidence in the Government.”
It was at that point that the MP for Freetown, the late Simeon Bowe. Who was then a Parliamentary Secretary in the PLP government, moved that Mr. Fawkes’ Resolution be amended by deleting all the words of the Resolution and substituting, instead, the following:
“Whereas this Government has a responsibility to the people of this Country to discharge its duty in their best interest and,
“Whereas this Government is discharging such duties (and) has done so to the satisfaction of the people:
“BE IT RESOLVED, that this House has confidence in the Government.”
The question was put and passed, and the record shows that the House resolved that the Resolution be amended as agreed..
It was a pivotal point in Bahamian political history, for it was then technically that black Bahamians were challenged publicly to support or vote against the black Bahamian government.
Some Members were absent from the chamber when the matter was put. Of those present, staunch supporters of the government and the prime minister, Lynden Pindling, remained seated during the vote, suggesting their were voting their confidence.
Of those who stood, indicating a lack of confidence, a majority were members of the then opposition United Bahamian Party. There were other members standing against the government, however, who were PLPs. Among them were the eight, including two cabinet ministers – Cecil Wallace-Whitfield and Dr. Curtis McMillan – who became known afterwards as the Dissident Eight.
At that time, the PLP government was barely three-and-a-half years old, but problems with the leadership had existed since the party’s convention of 1968, and indeed when Cecil Wallace Whitfield stood as one of those lacking confidence in the government and in the prime minister it was the second occasion upon which he had been openly and publicly defiant.
Yet Wallace Whitfield and Dr. Curtis McMillan remained in the PLP cabinet following that May 13 vote. Instead of any flickers of conciliation or mending of broken fences, the political chasm inside the PLP had widened.
By the PLP convention in October 1970 – five months after the no-confidence attempt – there were clear indications of a breaking point. Cecil Wallace-Whitfield, them the Member of Parliament for St. Agnes, was Minister of Education and Culture, and had performed admirably in that capacity, including new teaching concepts and learning, introducing revolutionary learning aids.
PLP leader Lynden Pindling delivered the convention’s keynote address on the first day, and a volatile keynote it was indeed. Lashing out at his critics and obviously confident about the measure of his support in the party, he warned those who disagreed with him: “if you can’t fish, cut bait; if you can’t cut bail, get the hell out of the boat”.
Yes, as The Tribune’s Nicki Kelly wrote back then, it was a masterful speech by a master politician, and it contained just the ingredients, the challenge, the temptation for revolution inside the party. Cecil Wallace-Whitfield had been born a revolutionary.
The crowds cheered wildly, others quietly drank in the great challenge, and yet others sucked their teeth and strode from the convention hall at the Sheraton British Colonial Hotel.
As each convention night progressed, cabinet ministers, one after the other, reported on the activities of the relevant portfolios, setting out also what future plans there were. It was not until Thursday evening that the Minister of Education and Culture was scheduled to report to the convention.
Cecil Wallace Whitfield was already not a totally liked figure in the PLP by those who misunderstood or misread his thinking in standing up and daring the brilliant black prime minister, and especially in standing shoulder to shoulder with the white Bay Street MPs when they voted against the PLP government five months earlier.
But Cecil Wallace Whitfield had never planned to participate in any popularity contest at the time, or at any other time. He strode up the centre aisle of the convention toward the platform, whilst Coconut Grove MP Edmund Moxey played rousing music on the organ.
The minister presented an expansive and detailed report on his portfolio, reading in measured tones from neatly typed five-by-seven index cards. He finished his official report and shoved the pile of cards into his coat pocket. At the same time he extracted a second set of a few cards from another pocket. He looked around the hushed hall and the organ started to play. He turned deliberately to Edmund Moxey and said that he wanted no music.
A few minutes before that the guards at Government House had opened the gates to admit a car in which rode Edwin “Vikey” Brown, and Ms. Beryl Pierce. One was a St. Agnes constituency general and the other the private secretary to Cecil Wallace Whitfield at the Ministry of Education.
Reading from his second set of cards, the Minister of Education told the convention that he had listened to all that had occurred during the week. He spoke of agreed principles which had sustained the PLP through the years, and about a philosophy and commonality of purpose which had brought the PLP to the seat of government, but which, he felt, had been violated.
All that he could not repudiate, he said, “no matter how grave my disillusionments”. Then, Cecil Wallace-Whitfield said, at 8 p.m. that evening he had had delivered to His Excellency the Governor his resignation from the Government of The Bahamas.
He then uttered what became his immortal epigram: “Free at last. Free at last. My soul is dancing!”.
From the West End and Bimini delegation table near the front, MP Warren Levarity leapt to his feet shouting an anguished, “No, no. Not yet, Man!”
Others were screaming in disbelief whilst the greater numbers were shrieking in something akin to merriment. At his Kemp’s Bay constituency table, PLP leader Lynden Pindling sat quietly, unsmiling amidst the pandemonium swirling about the room.
In the days and weeks that followed Dr. McMillan resigned as Minister of Health, and Dr. Elwood Donaldson gave up his post as Sports Commissioner. The troops, led by the gallant eight who had stood in Parliament on 13 May that year, rallied, and before the end of 1970, a curious creature known as the Free PLP was on the scene.
It was the first necessary step from the PLP to the Free National Movement, and the historical revisionists, no matter where they stand politically, need to get it right.
Get it right . . . for what it’s worth.