by Larry Smith
"My name is Hubert Ingraham - I don't need nothing before that." - Hubert Ingraham, rejecting a possible knighthood on his retirement from public life
The first time Hubert Ingraham came across my radar (and I have met him only two or three times in the past 30 years) was in a lawyer friend's office when Ingraham was chairman of the Progressive Liberal Party.
My lawyer friend was engaged in a telephone argument with Ingraham over citizenship for Belongers, a hot button issue of the 1970s and 80s. The argument was of interest to me because my father was a Belonger - having been posted here in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War.
He married an out island commissioner's daughter on Harbour Island in 1944, and I was one of the babies produced in the boom years that followed the war. But my father had been denied his constitutional right to citizenship by the post-Independence PLP government.
The status of white "foreigners" was a huge issue in those days, for understandable but nonetheless objectionable reasons. But that's more than enough about me - this article is about Hubert Alexander Ingraham.
I clearly recall my exasperated lawyer friend telling Ingraham sarcastically that when the Free National Movement came to power they would revoke his citizenship retroactively. The prospect of such a government seemed almost laughable at the time, but the lawyer eventually became a prominent supporter of Ingraham - after he was kicked out of the PLP to become the first FNM prime minister.
An apprenticed lawyer himself, Ingraham had been picked as a rising star in the PLP by his mentor, Sir Lynden Pindling. In 1977 he was elected by his home constituency of Cooper's Town in North Abaco, and was named to the cabinet in 1982.
He was clearly on a trajectory in the party, but within two years he was fired by Pindling for taking a principled stand against government corruption revealed by the 1984 Commission of Inquiry. In 1986 he was expelled from the party, but managed to retain his Cooper's Town seat in the 1987 general election, running as an independent.
I first met Ingraham during this formative period, when he was trying to figure out what to do with his political life. It was no more than a brief greeting in a broad-based political meeting at his home. When two white guys walked in, Fred Mitchell (who at the time was on the outs with Pindling's PLP) moaned "oh no" in disgust - a treasured memory. Arthur Hanna was there too (he had resigned from the cabinet after 1984), but he cheerfully offered me a drink.
Listening to the views shuttling back and forth across the patio over the relative wisdom of forming a third political force or joining the existing opposition marked the zenith of my involvement in party politics, from that time to the present. It soon became clear that while Whitfield may have launched the much-hoped for political realignment when he walked out of the PLP in 1970, it would take Ingraham to complete it.
In his 1970 address to the PLP convention, Whitfield said "Let no man deceive himself that the same spirits which flared up in 1955 and thereafter will not flare up again." He was right. By 1990, the spirit of healthy dissent in the country was growing exponentially, even as Whitfield's own health deteriorated.
That spring, Ingraham made his choice. In early May he was nominated by Orville Turnquest and Maurice Moore for the leadership of the FNM and was elected unanimously. Sir Cecil lauded Ingraham's "rare qualities of courage, tenacity, vision and leadership", before succumbing to lung cancer in a Miami hospital on May 9. Two weeks later, Ingraham replaced him as leader of the opposition in parliament.
"I am your delivery boy," he told ecstatic FNM supporters, referring to Prime Minister Pindling's contemptuous effort to belittle him. "Delivering a message of hope for a better way - a way of truth, integrity and accountability in public affairs."
The rhetoric sounds a little over the top today, but only because of the changes Ingraham wrought after he came to power. And ever since 1992, the PLP have been trying to turn the tables on him - seething at the fact that he was able to upset their apple cart.
Like Whitfield, Ingraham accused the PLP of betraying its principles, and seeking to put in place "a more sinister system of social and economic enslavement" than the old UBP regime it had fought so hard against for years before winning the government.
Chief among the opposition's complaints at that time was the PLP's stranglehold on information - through direct control of Bahamas Information Services and ZNS, and indirect control of the Nassau Guardian, which was heavily influenced by lucrative government ad contracts. Only the Tribune stood in the way as an independent voice.
This became a big issue in the 1992 general election campaign, when the FNM found itself not only shut out of ZNS newscasts but unable to even buy airtime on the publicly-owned broadcasting station to present its views to the electorate. And to close the loop, Pindling and the PLP tried to criminalize overseas broadcasting by Bahamians to the Bahamas.
If the FNM were elected, Ingraham promised at the time, "we will begin to reconstruct every defective part of our society, but above all we will restore our democratic principles and institutions…I will do everything to shape a political culture and to influence a social environment which will ensure equal opportunity for every Bahamian. I will not discriminate."
In addition to the PLP's "Big Brother is watching you" authoritarian style, the country was running out of economic options due to corruption and mismanagement. Hotels were selling out, no foreign investment was coming in, and there were widespread fears of devaluation. Pindling didn't seem to notice - he made 17 overseas trips in 1992 alone.
Over the years, most Bahamians had tolerated the PLP's failings out of gratitude for Pindling's defeat of the hated Bay Street regime. But after a quarter century their patience was wearing thin. And on August 19, 1992 the FNM was swept to power in an election that was just as historic as the PLP victory over the UBP in 1967.
So it is perfectly fair to place Ingraham's role in confirming our two-party democracy on the same level as Pindling's achievement of majority rule.
One of the first things Ingraham did as prime minister was break ZNS' monopoly on broadcasting - licensing private radio stations for the first time in 1993, followed by the introduction of cable television in 1994, and creating a whole new industry. This was one of the most far-reaching policy decisions in Bahamian history.
After decisively turning around the economy in its first term - selling off government hotels, repealing the Immovable Property Act and facilitating Sol Kerzner's redevelopment of Paradise Island among other things - Ingraham and the FNM were rewarded with a landslide victory in the 1997 general election.
But after a decade in power the pendulum began to swing. Although no term limit had been legislated, Ingraham made good on his 1992 promise to demit office after 10 consecutive years and went back to his law practice. But such a leadership transition in a Bahamian political party had never been attempted before, and the FNM was decimated in the 2002 election.
So Ingraham was called back to lead the party into the 2007 election, which he won by a small margin. It was the first time that a sitting government had been turfed out after only a single term, and during good economic times as well.
Ingraham made this year's election a referendum on his leadership, but despite an enviable track record, he lost - and immediately resigned as party leader. Last week he tendered his resignation as an MP too.
Nathaniel Lewis put it this way in the Freeport News, "The FNM made the mistake of making the election about Hubert Ingraham's leadership versus the party's ideas. They placed the results of the election squarely on one man's shoulders as opposed to it being about the vision they had for the country...The PLP was able to capitalize on this greatly, by branding Ingraham as a heartless dictator."
By all accounts, Ingraham's reputation as a bulldozer, with the steel to get things done in our often shambolic system, is well-earned. But as one former FNM candidate told me, "it is not good enough any longer for people to know that the leader is effective at getting things done. They need to know why things have to be done a certain way, and they need to have their reasonable opinions taken into account. These public expectations have been raised by Ingraham himself."
The cavalier charge of 'dictator' is based on Ingraham's brusque and bull-headed style, which clearly offends some. But that is more of a personality trait than a governance policy. The supreme irony of media boss Wendall Jones excoriating the former prime minister for commenting on public affairs at his recent press conference is a clear case in point.
Jones, you will recall, was put in court not so long ago for non-payment of taxes and license fees, but that is hardly evidence of dictatorial tendencies on the part of Ingraham. On the other hand, Pindling and the PLP really were moving the Bahamas towards a totalitarian society - you can see those tendencies re-emerging among some party spokesmen today. And we doubt Jones will have to worry about court dates for the next five years.
Ingraham's greatest achievement was to unlock broadcasting, curb endemic victimization, and enable freedom of speech. In the process, he completed the realignment of Bahamian politics so that all sections of society could participate comfortably. In other words, the "rude, barefoot boy from Abaco" made it possible for both Wendall Jones and myself to comment on public affairs today.
It goes without saying that Hubert Ingraham should have the same opportunity. We look forward to his future interventions in public life.
As one insider told me recently, "Ingraham was able to deal with complex issues of race and economic disparity, and his role in confirming the two-party system was critical. He had a core belief in democracy and an ability to handle criticism without seeking to victimize those who attacked him. He was fair in trying to govern for everybody, and he was good at crafting pragmatic solutions to complex problems."
More importantly, he did not sell the country out to foreign gangsters - as both the old PLP and the UBP had done in their day. Ingraham left office with clean hands, and that in itself is a magnificent achievement.