YOU WILL have heard of a president for life - Dr Hastings Banda of Malawi is one example - but maybe not of a prime minister for life. However, that in essence is what could have happened in the last remaining Polynesian kingdom, the Kingdom of Tonga, after Queen Salote died in 1965. She was succeeded as sovereign by her first son and premier, Prince Tupouto'a Tungi. The constitution of Tonga (virtually unchanged since 1875 and allowing no political parties) empowers the head of state to appoint all ministers of the Crown; and in those Friendly Islands of the South Pacific, he or she who appoints does not normally disappoint.
So it was that Tungi, having become King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, then named his younger brother to succeed him as premier and later prime minister. It was a post which Prince Fatafehi Tu'ipelehake, the second son of Queen Salote Tupou III and Prince Viliami Tupoulahi Tungi, was to hold without interruption, and without having to face the polls, for close to 26 years. It is easy to see why he was frequently the longest serving prime minister- ial incumbent at biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings until, in August 1991, ill-health compelled his retirement.
The two royal brothers were comparable in size and weight - at least 700lb between them for many years - but they were widely different in temperament, personality, intellect and style. Tu'ipelehake's more modest scholastic attainments can be attributed to Newington College, a Methodist secondary school in Sydney to which royal Tongan sons and those of the nobility were often sent; and to Gatton Agricultural College in Queensland. The brothers were both married, in a joint royal wedding ceremony, in 1947. From 1949 to 1951 Tu'ipelehake was governor of Vava'u, the northern of the three main groups of islands that make up Tonga, of which some 36 are permanently inhabited.
It is true that the younger prince had no pretensions to intellectual stature. Indeed, you could say that he spent all his life - not only in that respect - in the shadow of his elder brother, the King. Yet whereas the new King in 1965 was aloof - while deeply respected and inspiring awe as the pinnacle of Tongan rank - Tu'ipelehake was approachable, open, generous-hearted and jovial.
His laughter was huge, infectious and uncomplex. His warmth and humanity were that of his mother. In this way it was in Tu'ipelehake that she lived on in the perceptions of ordinary Tongans; for he too was loved by his people. And then there was his unexpected modesty - unexpected, that is, in one so well placed by birth and thus favoured at home and abroad. It never left him in spite of the preferments, the customary salutations, gifts and tributes - and limousines.
In 1966, he was appointed an honorary CBE in the Queen's Birthday List. We wrote from Fiji to congratulate him. He replied, using our Tongan names, to say that: " The award is very high indeed, yet it was a great surprise to me, as I cannot think of any accomplishment that I have done." Four years later Tonga, which had been a British protectorate since 1900, acquired full independence within the Commonwealth.
In February 1991, I called on Tu'ipelehake after a meeting of the Privy Council. He had presided as Prince Regent in the absence of the King, who was in New Zealand. He was seated across the floor in the great chair reserved for the head of state. On the wall above him, symbolically, was a large colour photograph of his elder brother in the full dress uniform of King and Commander in Chief.
The lines of strain on his face had deepened; the voice was high and faltering; the eyes wandered; the smile was pale and fleeting. But the warmth was still there. Afterwards, soldiers lifted him slowly and carefully from the chair. They steadied his slow, stick-aided progress to the entrance of the chamber and gently helped him into HM2, the black hearse-like limousine which waited outside.
Fatafehi Tu'ipelehake: born 7 January 1922; Governor of Vava'u 1949- 51; Prime Minister of Tonga 1965-91; Hon CBE 1966, Hon KBE 1977; married 1947 Princess Melenaite Topou Moheofo (died 1992; two sons, four daughters); died Auckland, New Zealand 10 April 1999.
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