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The untold story of party politics

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The founders of the Progressive Labour Party, from left, Peter Smith, Hugh Richardson, Walter Robinson, Edward DeJean and Wilfred “Mose” Allen, seated

As time moves on often some very important things, if not cherished and preserved, are lost. Not the least of those is historic truth. There are many things and aspects of our lives where we now are at a loss on understanding the origins that support our present positions.

Religion is certainly one area where for the most part, there is little or no understanding of what the original followers actually believed and practised. It doesn't matter which faith, whether it is Christianity, Islam, Judaism or Buddhism, devotees all have the same essential problem of having no real proof of the original beliefs and practice as at the time of their beginnings.

Politics suffers the same fate as religion, and you will often hear in American political discussions references to the founding fathers and their intent. Fortunately for them, a great deal of their history, even anecdotal, was written and retained.

Bermuda was not as fortunate — much of our political history, except that which was expressed in Parliament, does not appear in literature but only in broad terms. However, the intimate details and anecdotes of what went on behind the closed doors of the political parties and the players involved have not been written.

There have been many authors who have written books on political history but were careful to write around the subject of the deliberations that took place that gave shape to what we see today. Instead of writing about it, they sacrificed informing their audience of the deeper details to remain accepted by their peers.

As an individual too young to have been among the pioneers of either party, I can only attest to having known many of the pioneers of both the Progressive Labour Party and the United Bermuda Party. I have too often experienced the naivete of many of our contemporary political activists, who are thoroughly ignorant of their own political history and evolution. Hence, I recognise the need to pass on that which I learnt from the pioneers themselves and which are not taught by any source — perhaps will never be told, if I don't pass it on.

In every case, whether of religion or politics and their origins, the closer you get to the actual participants and the quality of those who narrate the story is quintessential to the veracity of the narration.

Dame Lois Browne-Evans in 1980

With regards to the PLP and its formation and subsequent growth including and beyond the split, my principal narrators were Russell Dismont and Arnold Francis. There are, of course, many others whom I have conferred with who added substance to their stories. But in this op-ed, I quote in chief what I gained from my two principal former PLP sources who do not differ in their account. Nor do the others differ, except in their case they were not the individuals at the centre of the disputes but were affected and had an opinion of the events. On the UBP side, my principal sources were Stanley Ratteray and J. Christopher "Kit" Astwood.

The PLP settled on the name Progressive Labour Party after a dispute with Mr HH Brown (the uncle of Walton Brown) over who owned title to the name that they had first chosen. The catalysts in the formation of the party were Wilfred "Mose" Allen and Edward "Eddy" deJean. This happened at DeJean's home before the meeting at Hugh Richardson's garage and the formal meeting at Walter Robinson's office. The two would joke about how they co-opted the others who became known a little later as the founding fathers.

The original drive of the party after it gained six seats in the 1963 election was to develop and fill the branches in every parish. At that time there was still in existence the plus vote which gave people who owned land in more than one constituency an extra vote, but there was a great desire in the entirety of the adult population to participate in the electoral process. Universal adult suffrage was inevitable, but there were still a few of the “old guard” who resisted change and wanted to maintain the property vote.

However, there was a pragmatic group that included Sir Henry Tucker, who saw the writing on the wall and recognised the emerging threat the PLP, which then represented all classes of Black Bermudians, and was led by two prominent lawyers in Arnold Francis as the leader and Walter Robinson as his deputy.

Sir Henry Tucker

That dynamic did not sit well with Sir Henry and he strategised behind the scenes to eliminate or neutralise the political threat. I narrate this story from "Kit" Astwood, who was a young politician at the time. They targeted Arnold Francis through Wilfred “Mose” Allen, who was a sincere activist but had a militant character.

They (“Kit” and “Jack” Tucker) created an open door for Mose, who would drop by the office of Jack Tucker. Kit would usually be there and together they would use Mr Allen to propagate their disinformation. Mr Francis, an articulate lawyer and politician, was their chief target. After they gained Mr Allen’s confidence, they created a nickname or pet name for Mr Francis. Whenever Mr Allen would appear, they would ask “what's Mr Intelligent up to today?”, and they would feed him knowing, with his militancy, he would carry the message, if not the attitude, back to the party's Central Committee and cause dissension.

The strategy worked and by the summer of 1965, an explosion took place in the Central Committee, ostensibly between Mr Allen and Mr Francis, who was on the floor addressing the Central Committee. The argument, which could not be contained, was over processes of the party, in particular the branches, which Mr Allen was trying to intercept because he thought there were more pressing issues. Mr Francis pleaded with the chair to address Mr Allen’s concerns in “Any Other Business”, but to no avail. The argument resulted in four of the six MPs walking out of the room while Mr Francis was still on the floor and the last to leave the meeting, making it five. Only Lois Browne-Evans remained.

The five later felt the need to engage the entire party to inform it of what they saw as problems affecting the party's progress; in particular, the formation of the branches. It should be remembered that the leader at the time considered himself only as the provisional leader of the party until the branches were full and the general body could ratify a constitution.

They had the meeting in August of that year at the Leopards Club; it was chaired by the Central Committee. Instead of the five MPs presenting their own case, Lois Browne-Evans was presenting a synopsis of their matter against strong objections from the floor, who were yelling: "The men are sitting here, let them speak for themselves."

Walter “Dickie” Green, seeing the challenge coming from the floor against Lois, took to the floor and was exhorting persons to “respect and encourage the youth”. He misunderstood the voices from the floor, many of whom were older men, as being disrespectful to Lois, who was young at the time. So he kept speaking, believing it was in defence of her when in fact the issue was broader.

Mr Dismont said he had a walking stick and was pacing the aisle exclaiming, “Mr Chairman, take hold of the meeting, there is too much at stake. Make him sit down.”

The argument continued as Mr Green did not stop his speech. The meeting ended in confusion with no resolution.

Recently, believing I was giving new information to Arthur Hodgson, was instead told: “You don't have to tell me; I was at the meeting. I was back on summer vacation from university and decided to attend.”

All attempts after that to get the attention of the support base were thwarted because when it was time in October to have the annual meeting, which would have been an excellent opportunity to address everyone and at the same time ratify the Central Committee and all the officers of the party, which required a general meeting, the Central Committee cleverly decided to suspend the annual meeting, perhaps the only year in its 58 years of existence that there was no annual conference.

During this intervening period, as Dame Lois revealed in her biography, she had called Lynden Pindling, who then was the parliamentary leader of the Progressive Liberal Party of the Bahamas, told him about the rebel group, and asked his advice on how to deal with them. His response to her was to get rid of them.

When Parliament reconvened in 1966, a letter addressed to the Speaker of the House signed by Aurelia Burch as the recording secretary of the Central Committee of the PLP, read “the following members, Arnold Francis, Walter Robinson, Dorothy Thompson, Cecil Clarke, and Russell Dismont, no longer represent the PLP. According to Mr Darrell, the Speaker, caught by surprise, began to read then suddenly stopped and repeated the letter, but this time interjected, ”the Honourable Members“ and went over the list of names.

Thus it became a fact of history that five original members were read out of the PLP, leaving only one PLP Member of Parliament. They were unceremoniously dismissed from the PLP without a trial or opportunity to address the members of the party — a decision made by a Central Committee that had not been ratified.

Naturally, the news of this dissolution was music to the ears of Jack Tucker and Kit Astwood who had been trying to form another political party without too much success up to that point because of a lack of good Black candidates.

Stanley Ratteray, fresh out of university and embarking on a career as a dentist, was invited into the office of Jack Tucker. After that meeting, Stanley was so impressed he called his first cousin, Robert Adams — his accompanist in Canada during the days of the Progressive Group and the 1959 Theatre Boycott. He said very excitedly to Robert that “the whole world has changed” and proceeded to explain a new outlook for Bermuda going forward for the races. In Dr Ratteray’s mind, Jack Tucker represented the establishment, and if indeed they had a change of heart towards the issue of race and equality, he would be the first to welcome it as the best way forward.

So the nucleus of the UBP was formed with stronger Black representation after the split of the PLP. They were able to attract persons such as Gloria McPhee and many others by 1966 and before the next General Election in 1968. Gloria, who otherwise would have been a supporter of the PLP, like her sister Helene Brown, was blown away and discouraged from joining the party when Mr Allen said openly: “I don't trust light-skinned people.”

The split did not cause all to defect to the UBP, at least not at once, because during the elections of 1968 many of the former PLP members started another party called the Bermuda Democratic Party but were unsuccessful in that 1968 election. By then, with the Black Power Movement underway, an environment had emerged that enabled the party to castigate its former PLP members.

We now had the terms such as “Uncle Tom”, gradualist, and, God forbid, house n*****s, all of which were used in the arsenal to ostracise this new party that was filled with middle-class Blacks. After that failure and the complete vilification of some of the BDP, the UBP became the party of refuge for the beleaguered Black merchant middle class. It should be said that this group, with Gloria McPhee and Arnold Francis at the centre, quickly became the catalyst for the Black Caucus within the UBP.

Walter Robinson and Dorothy Thompson returned to the PLP primarily to assist it through the constitutional conference of 1968 because Lois Browne-Evans was the sole Member representing the PLP in Parliament and would otherwise have the burden alone to deal with the new constitution. The constitution was an issue of particular interest to both Mr Robinson and Ms Thompson.

Later on, after the PLP became the government, and during a Founder’s Day celebration, Aurelia Burch, in an emotional and tearful speech, lamented that there were others deserving to be at that celebration. She said she had carried some things she had known and could no longer withhold, that there were lies told about others back in the beginning and she knew at the time they were lies.

Thankfully, she made peace with her conscience before she had passed after carrying those secrets for nearly 40 years.

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Published December 04, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated December 03, 2021 at 4:24 pm)

The untold story of party politics

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