At the top of a winding street
in St George’s, capital of the Spice Isle of Grenada, sits the old
parliament building and High Court. The building is a metaphor for what was so cynical and wrong about John Prescott’s farewell “tour”
of the Caribbean. John Prescott didn’t come to Grenada. He spent
his time up north in Barbados, where Tony Blair stays with Cliff Richard
and Posh and Becks sun themselves at the Sandy Lane Hotel. Barbados
is very New Labour. Grenada very definitely is not. We are at the other
end of the Caribbean. A lot closer to Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela than
George Bush’s USA.
Down here in Grenada, the old
parliament chamber and court room are full of rubble. The roof is off.
The MPs’ seats and the High Court bench stick out sadly from under
the old roof tiles. The parliamentary system was, like the building
itself, carefully constructed by the British. The roof tiles, like the
common law legal system and the parliamentary democracy were ideas inspired
by Britain and built by the local community. When the ships docked at
the wharves of the prettiest town in the whole of the Caribbean, they
brought with them not only the roof tiles as ballast. They brought value
systems which struck a resonance as being fair and decent. Hurricane
Ivan in 2004 put paid to the structure of the building. Arguably, the
failure to deal with the pro-Soviet coup or to back the US/Caribbean
restoration of democracy here in 1983 damaged British influence in the
same way. However, John Prescott’s government hasn’t learnt the
lessons, and it has frankly done nothing to stop the moral drift in
our foreign policy over the past 10 years.
When I went to visit a government
minister in St George’s last week, the entrance to the Ministry had
large posters thanking US government agencies for their help in rebuilding
the schools badly damaged by Hurricane Ivan. The 100,000 Grenadans are
proud people, and they don’t want handouts. But they know they need
to bring in skilled contractors from outside after the storm damaged
90% of buildings on the island. And the help has not come from John
Prescott or Tony Blair. The US gave help with reconstructing schools
and other public buildings and of course the work is therefore not being
done by Taylor Woodrow or Balfour Beatty. The spanking new cricket stadium
for the recent Cricket World Cup was, believe it or not, built by the
Chinese. I repeat, the Chinese. I have nothing against Chinese
technology or skills, but what on earth do they know about cricket?
The answer is, I’m afraid, rather more than John Prescott or Tony
Blair or Overseas Development Minister Hillary Benn.
The fact is that the message
has gone out throughout the Caribbean that the British don’t really
care. We send some tourists, but apart from that we have subsided back
into a pre-Falklands reputation as a faded ex-power which is a very,
very long way away both geographically and politically.
This isn’t just sentimentality.
A cynic would say that when you need the support of sovereign countries
at the United Nations, you look first to your oldest friends. They should
be votes in the bag.
However, this government doesn’t
treat the Spice Island or its neighbours as our oldest friends. When
we talk about whaling in international forums, we forget the dependence
of small island states on the fishing industry. Then there is the
diplomatic representation. The six sovereign nations of the Eastern
Caribbean, with whom we have such long and deep cultural ties, have
only a single British High Commissioner between them. The High Commission
here is at the side of a Dutch insurance company and the nearest UK
diplomat lives (you guessed it) in Barbados.
Worst of all, when a friend
suffers badly and loses its homes and its schools, you are usually the
first in line to help. And there is no evidence whatsoever that Britain
has helped Grenada with the consequences of Ivan. The money of course
goes to Iraq, the Balkans and Afghanistan and elsewhere, despite the
fact that the whole of St George’s could probably be rebuilt from
scratch for the cost of keeping our troops in Basra for a day. John
Prescott wouldn’t be told any of this today because he’s hundreds of
miles away in Barbados playing croquet at Sandy Lane. Sending him here,
weeks before he surrenders what little power he ever had, is frankly
And why is the parliament and
court building a metaphor? Because, three years after the British-built
edifice was all but destroyed, the building is finally to be restored
and re-occupied by the MPs and the High Court judges. The cost of restoring
this modest building is probably about the same as the cost of flying
Mr Prescott and his entourage for his holiday in Barbados. However,
they have found someone else to help. The architects with the requisite
skills for restoring historic buildings such as St George’s parliament
and court have been found in Cuba. The embodiment of ideals of justice
and democracy given to this country by Westminster will be now be restored
not by John Prescott but by Fidel Castro.