Obituary: George Chambers
Saturday 15 November 1997
George Chambers was always the quiet man of modern Caribbean politics. In a region where the early nationalist political leaders were often charismatic and nearly always loud and rumbustious, he was a distinctly low-key figure. This did not stop him rising from lower middle-class origins and an early position as a legal clerk to become Trinidad and Tobago's second post- independence prime minister. He succeeded the legendary Eric Williams on his death in March 1981 and held office for over five years until he was defeated in elections in December 1986.
Chambers owed his political rise to a combination of diligence and loyalty to Williams and the People's National Movement (PNM), the first major nationalist political party to be formed in Trinidad and Tobago. In the multi-ethnic politics of the twin-island state, the PNM was always African- dominated, although its leadership was necessarily leavened by some East Indian figures. Chambers first came to prominence in 1971 when, having served in cabinet as the head of a series of ministries, he was appointed by Williams as one of three deputy political leaders of the PNM, the only one of the three of African descent.
He did not seek power, but rather urged Williams to stay on in 1973 when the latter briefly and unexpectedly offered his resignation; Chambers was then secretly chosen by the party leadership as its next leader when Williams died. Chambers was the least well-known of the deputy leaders and was far from the obvious choice, but he nevertheless emerged ahead of his two East Indian colleagues, a revealing indication of how much ethnicity mattered in Trinidadian politics.
His legacy was awkward in the extreme. The oil price boom which had launched Trinidad and Tobago into a frenzy of public and private spending in the late 1970s was beginning to turn sour and elections were due. Chambers shuffled his cabinet, took on the finance portfolio himself, terminated a few extravagant projects such as a horse-racing complex, settled a number of industrial disputes, made himself accessible to the press, held consultations with the people and promised, in a persuasive slogan, that "what's wrong must be put right". Not withstanding the deep, structural problems facing the economy, it was enough to turn around the PNM's flagging political fortunes and bring about a superficially resounding victory in elections in November 1981.
Yet the reality was that, amidst a low turn-out and significant opposition support, the PNM had won with the support of less than 30 per cent of the electorate. In retrospect, it can be seen that Chambers had been able to do no more than stave off by one term the eventual ending of the PNM's long hold on office in Trinidad and Tobago.
In any case, Chambers was no Williams. Lacking both the standing and the cunning of his predecessor, he faced a decline in the economy and a concerted opposition politics that would have tested any democratic leader. When elections were next held in late 1986, it was virtually inevitable that a tired, old and frustrated PNM, in power without interruption for the previous 30 years, would lose massively to the new National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) which won all but three of the 36 seats in the House of Representatives. Chambers lost his own seat and disappeared from politics.
The major external crisis which preoccupied Chambers during his time as prime minister was the revolution in neighbouring Grenada. He took a notably more conciliatory line than other Caribbean Community (Caricom) leaders in diplomatic discussions with the Grenadian leadership and at one time seemed to have come close to persuading the regime to hold elections. It also fell to him to chair the Caricom summit which met in Trinidad at the time of the revolution's collapse in October 1983 and at which other Caricom leaders concealed from their regional colleagues their intention to take part in the US-led invasion.
George Chambers's subsequent statement to the Trinidad parliament made no attempt to conceal the personal offence he felt at this deception and noted that it was "regrettable that military intervention of this nature has been imported into the Commonwealth Caribbean". It was the reaction of a principled man and a fitting commentary upon his core values.
- Anthony Payne
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