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PM Rowley: ‘Britain’s treatment of Windrush generation callous’
It is less than four hours since the Queen gave her public endorsement to the Prince of Wales as her successor as head of the Commonwealth, an announcement that Keith Rowley is more familiar with than most: he was sitting a few yards behind her when she said it.
As prime minister of T&T, he is one of the 53 Commonwealth leaders who gathered in the ballroom of Buckingham Palace for the formal opening of the summit.
While most of the Commonwealth has swiftly fallen into line behind the anointment of Prince Charles, Dr Rowley—he is a volcanologist, of all things—is sounding distinctly unenthusiastic. Does he think Charles is the best man for the job? “I don’t want to be quoted as saying that,” he says, firmly. He looks uncomfortable as he says it, stiffening in his seat in the suite of the conference hotel where we are talking: the Queen, after all, is his host. And he is having dinner with her later that night.
“Well, personally, I don’t think that it is about the person because if it is not the prince, it’s going to be somebody else. Leadership and the assumption of leadership by Britain of this grouping of people who share this common history and these common values, it’s that which is more important. It’s not to focus on the individual because...criticism of the prince ought not to be automatic criticism of the Commonwealth. And the Commonwealth’s future ought not to be packaged and cocooned by nuances of the prince.”
Not that he has any intentions of speaking out on the issue. As he puts it: “I’m not going to become caustic on it just for the sake of not agreeing with it.”
Dr Rowley, 68, is far too polite and circumspect to voice criticisms of Charles himself. But seeing as how he was brought up in the church, and T&T is a country where laws about sexual behaviour are still on the statute book—and more of that later—it is not hard to guess that questions of personal morality are at play here.
The ghost of Diana, Princess of Wales, and Charles’s adultery with Camilla, still looms large in some parts of the world. Not that Dr Rowley has anything personal against divorced members of the royal family. While he was here he had a meeting with the Duke of York at Buckingham Palace. “He’s a riot!” he says.
Dr Rowley’s slight unease over Prince Charles leaves question marks over how, in the long term, the head of the Commonwealth should be chosen— or even if there should be one at all. While some have argued for a rotating head of the Commonwealth, Dr Rowley reckons that it is probably best to stick with the present system—until, he says, “I hear a more feasible alternative.”
Anyway, he says, if the Commonwealth becomes identified too much with whichever member of the royal family is its symbolic head, that would mean subscribing to the idea—often voiced by left-wing critics of the institution—that the Commonwealth is an “anachronistic mark two of the Empire.”
So if it is not about that, what is it about? Well, it is about Nottingham Forest and Brian Clough.
Dr Rowley studied as a postgraduate at Leeds University in the 1970s, where he developed a passion for Leeds United, even going to away matches in London. When he is asked about Britain’s role in the Commonwealth, and whether it is a force for good, his answer is framed in the context of 1970s football.
“There was a time when Nottingham Forest was on the edge of their relegation and they were one match away, and Brian Clough was their manager. They had one game to play, and they had to win the game to avoid relegation. So the press asked Cloughie one day before the game, ‘What do you tell your team to motivate them to avoid relegation tomorrow?’ And Cloughie said, ‘Listen, you got us into this, now you get us out of it.’ And that’s how I see Britain’s role in the Commonwealth. You got us into this, now you get us out of it.
“There’s a famous photograph somewhere of a woman from India at a demonstration here a long time ago when this kind of issue was in front of us and this rejection with immigrants and the Commonwealth people. And she was carrying a placard that said, ‘We are here because you were there’. And that speaks loudly of what this is all about.”
'Unnecessary pain and humiliation to our people'
That other legacy of the Empire, the Windrush-era immigrants and how they have been treated, has been causing much pain among Caribbean leaders this week, and much discomfort for the British government.
Dr Rowley says he is surprised that it was allowed to happen, that it ever got so far. “Because I think it is offensive to us and I’m sure it’s offensive to British people as well because somebody has made a mess of something. And it created unnecessary pain and humiliation to our people, because we still regard those people as our people, and we still regard British prosperity as our contribution.
“And that’s why we hold Britain responsible to provide us with leadership, guidance and even sustenance, because we are not just passengers, we are contributors, right? And for those who don’t acknowledge that, we take offence and especially people at the end of their days to have been confronted with this... [it] is callous.”
Does it betray an underlying racism or just bureaucratic insensitivity? “I’m not sure that it’s not a little bit of all of that, and any of it is unpleasant, and in the 21st century I think it’s just a huge unforced error because I don’t know that the vast majority of the British want this.”
While he has only happy memories of his time in Leeds—“Yorkshire people were so friendly”—he believes that racism is all but impossible to eradicate. “I don’t think that the world has cleansed itself of it and I don’t think it ever will. That is why we have to always be vigilant that it does not resurge or take root or even grow in any significance, because we’ve had too many instances of people being hurt by that kind of approach...that’s why you require vigilance and rejection of any attempt to give it a legitimacy.”
He says there are still people who blame all their problems on the presence of immigrants. “And that is the argument that drove some of the worst atrocities in the early 20th century.”
On gay rights...'He paints a confusing picture'
If racial equality is the issue that binds the Commonwealth, gay rights is the issue that divides it. Both Theresa May and the prime minister of Malta, Joseph Muscat—the latter in his speech at Buckingham Palace—have spoken out about the 36 Commonwealth countries where same-sex relations are illegal. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have promised to campaign for gay rights.
T&T is one of the nations that stands on the cusp here: it has anti-gay legislation on its statute books but that has just been ruled unconstitutional by the country’s high court. Dr Rowley, it is clear, is not happy talking about this. He purses his lips: he knows that whatever he says has the potential to offend somebody, either at home or in the wider international community.
The fact remains, however, that instead of using the court’s decision to repeal the law, his government has appealed against the decision. He expects the case to be taken all the way to the privy council in London, which is still the final court of appeal for T&T.
“The vast majority of people in the country take the position that they want the law preserved because it is illegal to engage in homosexual conduct. But these are opinions on morality and law of criminality. It is the view of many that morality ought not to be legislated in that way because you’re saying it’s immoral. I’m saying it is not, and who makes your morals higher than mine outside of a court of law? In the court of law where my conduct is deemed to be criminal in the case of a choice of sexuality, I think the majority of people would not agree that it be criminalised.”
He paints a confusing picture. Do people want the law preserved or don’t they? He is also markedly reluctant to express his personal view. “My personal view is that I’ve been brought up in the church and in school and indoctrinated in religion, but I’m also a geologist, and I subscribe to the principle of evolution. So my personal view is not much of great value at this point in time.”
Either way, it would seem that he is trying to settle the issue once and for all by taking it all the way to the privy council. “It will always remain an issue as to whether in fact this is a moral act or an immoral act, or whether it is ordained by God or whether God has condemned it. That will always be there, and it is not for me to tell you how to come to your god. But whether consenting adults should be made criminals by their sexual orientation is the issue before the court, and we’ll want the highest level of the courts to adjudicate on that.”
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