Sir John Compton

Father of St Lucian independence
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The Independent Online

John George Melvin Compton, politician, lawyer and farmer: born Canouan, St Vincent and the Grenadines 29 April 1925; called to the Bar, Gray's Inn 1951; Chief Minister of St Lucia 1964-67, Premier 1967-79, Prime Minister 1979, 1982-96, 2006-07, Minister for Finance, Planning and Development 1982-96, Senior Minister 1996-97; PC 1983; KCMG 1997; married 1968 Janice Clarke (one son, four daughters); died Castries, St Lucia 7 September 2007.

John Compton governed the former British Caribbean colony of St Lucia on-and-off for almost three decades, and was Prime Minister at the time of his death. Pending a state funeral, the island immediately went into two weeks' mourning for the man considered the "father of independence from Britain", who helped turn St Lucia into a successful modern economy and tourist attraction through major reconstruction. To his fellow islanders, he was respectfully known simply as Pa Pa.

Throughout the Caribbean, Compton, though politically pro-Western and anti-Communist, was hugely popular for his role in promoting regional co-operation and unity, notably through the founding of the Caribbean Community (Caricom, modelled on its European counterpart the EC) and the Caribbean Development Bank.

To St Lucians, he was a visionary who foresaw the decline of the traditional sugar-cane industry with the end of colonialism and shifted the economy towards lucrative banana exports and development of the island's natural beauty and beaches to attract North American and European tourists. Abroad, he was noted as a friend of the United States, the UK and Nato during the Cold War, allowing US military exercises around his island to counter the threat of Communist infiltration and, later, of drug trafficking.

John Compton was Chief Minister or Premier, the titles given to the local leader before independence, during most of the 1960s and 1970s, when other Caribbean islands had already broken away from British colonial rule. He was seen as the key player in negotiating St Lucia's own independence, which was finally achieved on 22 February 1979, when his title became Prime Minister.

As it turned out, St Lucians, who now number around 168,000, quickly became disillusioned with his United Workers' Party (UWP) and voted it out of power only five months after independence in favour of the St Lucia Labour Party (SLP). After a clever campaign by Compton, morally supported by both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, the UWP returned to power three years later, in 1982, and Compton remained Prime Minister from then until 1996, when he was already in his seventies. During that time, he also held, at one time or another, the portfolios of External Affairs, Home Affairs, Economic Affairs and Finance.

From 1996 until 2006, Compton having retired, the SLP were back in power, under Kenny Anthony as Prime Minister. Last year, however, Compton at the age of 81 returned to politics by popular demand and, though the opposition labelled him a geriatric, won 11 seats in the House of Assembly (the lower house of parliament) to the SLP's six. "Age is not a factor here," he said after his victory. "I am not going for a marathon. I am not going for the Olympics. Age is a state of mind. I am giving the experience and intelligence that God gave me."

One of the most controversial moments in what was to be his final term as leader was when his administration announced earlier this year that it would abandon the island's one-China policy and re-establish relations with Taiwan. Compton was already ill at the time, however, and it was not clear what role he played in the decision. The Chinese government was infuriated.

John George Melvin Compton was born in 1925 on the island of Canouan, one of the Grenadine Islands which, together with St Vincent, formed a British colony at the time. He attended primary school on Canouan until his family moved north to another colonial island, St Lucia, when he was 10. He went to secondary school in St Lucia before coming to the UK to study Law at the London School of Economics and the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. He was called to the Bar at Gray's Inn in 1951.

Back home, he found himself involved in politics, backing the rights of sugar-plantation workers against mainly white landowners, and successfully ran for the House of Assembly as an independent in 1954. His reputation grew around the island in 1957 during a strike against sugar-plantation owners in favour of decent conditions, when Compton blocked a white planter's tractor and was arrested. Like 90 per cent of islanders, Compton was a descendant of black slaves, one of his ancestors possibly having taken on the name of a British landowner after abolition.

His natural tendency to support the working class and the impoverished pushed him into the arms of the St Lucia Labour Party (SLP) throughout the late 1950s but by 1961 he had formed his own party, the National Labour Movement (NLM). After merging with another small party in 1964, they became the United Workers' Party (UWP), now one of St Lucia's two major parties, along with the SLP. The same year, Compton was elected Chief Minister on behalf of the UWP, succeeding the SLP's George Charles.

Even in the changing times of political violence and terrorism threats, Compton refused to have a bodyguard and walked around the capital, Castries, alone. "The day a prime minister has to get a bodyguard to walk around in his own country, that's the day he needs to go," he said.

Phil Davison

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