Never in my dreams! (THE BIG INTERVIEW)Governor General-designate Elliott Belgrave in a light-hearted mood as he reminisced on his boyhood days. (Nigel Browne)
Sun, May 27, 2012 - 8:00 AM
HE WAS KNOWN as one of Barbados’ toughest prosecutors ever – he left no stone unturned.
But never in his wildest imaginings did retired High Court judge Elliott Fitzroy Belgrave envisage becoming Barbados’ seventh Governor General, though he has been acting in the position since the retirement of Sir Clifford Husbands last October 31.
His elevation was announced by Prime Minister Freundel Stuart in the House of Assembly last Tuesday.
In an exclusive interview with NATION’s Associate Managing Editor Tim Slinger, Belgrave, who will be sworn in on Friday, talks about his childhood dream of becoming a lawyer, the philosophy that drove him, the tenets of his success and a refusal to enter the political arena.
On becoming Barbados’ newest Governor General, how do you feel?
Belgrave: I feel overjoyed and humbled at the responsibility that has been placed upon me. It’s a heavy responsibility and I am happy that it has come to me. I feel as excited now as I felt when I returned from England two days before Independence [November 30, 1966]. Now, everybody was excited by Independence. Well, when I returned, I was excited then about Barbados and its people as I am excited now.
To what do you attribute your success?
Belgrave: I reflect that hard work, diligence, commitment to duty, love of country, love of self and love of people have brought me here. You must be patriotic, hard-working; you must not take shortcuts and whatever is given to you, do it to the best of your ability.
I’ve been doing that for the last seven months since I was asked to act [as Governor General]. I never sat down and wondered when they are going to appoint me and why they haven’t appointed me. I got on with the job . . . . I gave it my best shot. I don’t assume a job that I don’t think I am competent for.
My upbringing fashioned me to where I am today. I was born in the country district [Boscobel, St Peter] with humble parents. I wasn’t born with any gold spoon in my mouth. We had to make do with what we could but we were proud. My parents were poor people. But we were honest, hard-working and law-abiding.
I don’t shun anybody, I don’t scorn anybody, I don’t feel that I am above anybody, but I don’t feel anybody is above me either, only God. I treat every man as a man. As long as you treat me with respect, you’re my man. I treat everybody with respect and that is important. You must respect people despite creed or colour – that is my philosophy.
I call a spade a spade and I try to follow the law, and with this job I have, I will follow the Constitution. Part of my work is on the advice of the Prime Minister. I haven’t been elected by anybody. Once I am advised to do anything, as long as it is within the law, I have to do it.
Did you think at any time during your career, you would have been considered for this illustrious position?
Belgrave: I never had the dream that I would be appointed to the top post in the country. To say so would be a big lie. I never had any ambitions other than be a hard-working man. I had ambitions to be a lawyer and that is why I did law.
I had ambitions once to be a Member of Parliament, but after I came back here [to Barbados] and I joined the public service, I realized that as a man with a family, I had to take care of my family and just couldn’t go into politics. In politics, you can’t guarantee anything, but when I work for the Government I am guaranteed payment to take care of my family. And that is why I never practised at the Bar. I was very, very careful.
I never did defence criminal law; I had promised never to use my skills in the interest of any criminal. I used what skills I had in the interest of the state and in the interest of justice. Of course, defending somebody is justice too, but I never intended to use my skill in that particular direction [defending criminals].
I enjoyed my job as a prosecutor, but I enjoyed being a judge better. And, of course, being Governor General is icing on the cake – that’s how I see it.
You will be remembered as one of the fiercest prosecutors in the law courts. Tell me about that part of your career and your experience later as a High Court judge. How does this blend with your elevation as Governor General?
Belgrave: I challenged everything as a prosecutor, but as a judge, it is . . . a different ball game, and what I am doing now is completely different as well.
Being a lawyer and a judge, it is [a] first class qualification for being Governor General. There are so many things you have to do as Governor General that require a knowledge of the law. If you haven’t got that, you would delay things seeking legal advice.
A lot of things come before you where you have to depend on the interpretation of statues and regulations and everything. If you look at it and could read and understand it, you haven’t got to run down the Attorney General or the Solicitor General.
Of course, there are things you would send to them to get an opinion but I haven’t come across anything of that nature to date. If there is something where the Governor General has to be a judge, well, you may want to get a legal opinion.
What’s your advice to those who may want to follow in your footsteps?
Belgrave: You have to be honourable and upright, that’s the main thing. Act honourably in all your undertakings. People must be able to look up to you – so that they can say that fellow is a gentleman, and mean it . . . . You must have a character. You must behave properly.
You can’t be a gambler, you can’t be a rum drinker. You can fire one or two if you want to, but not [to] excess. There must be some level of moderation in everything you do, always knowing that somebody is watching you. It depends on how you carry yourself and most important, how you treat people.
Given the challenges confronting our society, especially deviancy among the youth, what are some of the things you would recommend to bring the country back on track?
Belgrave: I think that somewhere along the line, we are a bit too soft. You know the old people used to say “spare the rod and spoil the child”. I don’t believe in brutality, but if you have a child and you don’t speak to that child and you are not training that child, the child would do as it likes. You have to train that child in the way you would like it to go. And if you yourself have a philosophy and you know what is right from wrong and you follow that, the child would follow you too.
People think that being firm is being brutal or callous. You need to know where you want to get and you must know how to get there. But you mustn’t try to get there by jumping over others or stepping on others. You must take your time.
You acted on several occasions as Governor General. Were you ever concerned about whether or not you would get the job officially?
Belgrave: The Prime Minister asked me if I would accept the job and I told him: “Thank you very much, sir.” He never asked me if I wanted the job, nor I never told him I wanted the job.
I am 81 now, but my brain is still working. My sight is good and I feel up to the job.
Away from official duties and the hustle and bustle of the job of Governor General, what are some of the favourite things you like to do away from the public glare?
Belgrave: I like to get up on mornings and read both newspapers, and then I do the crosswords, especially the difficult one in the NATION. If I don’t get out that one, I am miserable. Sometimes, it takes me 20 minutes, sometimes, it takes me half-an-hour. Sometimes, I can’t get it out at all and I feel very upset about that. I know once I can get out the crossword, my brain is working all right.
Do you see yourself as the perfect role model given your background, having been raised in humble circumstances, and as Barbadians would say, being “a country boy”?
Belgrave: It shows that in Barbados under the system we have, as long as you have a good education, you can rise from the bottom to the top. My story shows that that is no wanton boast. It doesn’t happen by guess or by luck, but by systematically working at it.
You mustn’t be unduly or overly ambitious. You mustn’t sit down and grumble and wonder why this is not happening. You have to deal with the hand you are dealt, the best you can.
I didn’t choose my parents. In those days, boys were boys – you would throw stones at birds, you would steal apples and mangoes and things like that. But then, you wouldn’t have to steal; people would give them to you.
People’s properties weren’t guarded around like we have them . . . now. I had to walk from Boscobel to Speightstown to go to the Parry School [before the Coleridge and Parry amalgamation]. Sometimes, you would “bum a lift” and sometimes, you would walk it; they didn’t have many cars in Boscobel around those days.
During the crop season, we would get a lift back home on board the sugar truck and sometimes, your parents would give you a bicycle. But during the war, you couldn’t get tyres for the bicycles. In those days, you had to pay to go to school.
What advice and [words of] wisdom would Barbados’ next Governor General give to those who would dream of stepping into your shoes?
Belgrave: Educate yourself! Education is the key. I did the LLB [law degree] at the London University, I did the Bar finals in England and when I was Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions, I was sent by the Government to Cambridge where I did a one-year course.
I did a degree in criminology and sociology and I went to several courses – drafting and constitutional courses.
I also read a lot of books, and since I retired, I read a lot of biographies of political leaders, present and past. Not only Barbados’ political leaders but those around the world – all the presidents of the United States, prime ministers of Britain.
You can only get knowledge by reading and forming your own opinion.
I am thankful for the time I spent in England – that was the best thing that ever happened to me. Going to Britain, studying there and working there is where I got my philosophy from. You can’t stay in Barbados alone; you have to be able to broaden your horizons.
How physically able is Barbados’ next Governor General at age 81?
Belgrave: I try to keep myself fit, especially now with a heavy schedule ahead of me. I use an exercise bicycle regularly and when I go to Government House, I will be able to keep fit by walking around the sprawling grounds.
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