Baroness Amos suggests regional action to sort out the impasse in Guyana
as she speaks to John Mair at Westminster
November 15, 2003
She is the first black woman in the British Cabinet and she is Guyanese born. In the last six months, the political career of Baroness Valerie Amos has gone into overdrive; first with her promotion to the Cabinet and appointment as Secretary of State for International Development in May and then, on the untimely death of the previous incumbent Lord Williams, elevation to the more senior Cabinet position of Leader of the House of Lords at the beginning of October. Six years ago, she was an unknown in politics toiling away in the vineyard of equal opportunities. Today she stands at the summit of public life, a tried and trusted lieutenant of Prime Minister Tony Blair.
We talked, in her first interview since becoming Leader of the Lords, beside the fire in her elegant office in the Palace of Westminster overlooking the River Thames. The oak panelling reflects the thousand years of history in the institution which has been evolving under the Blair administration from a largely hereditary Old Boys club to a more 'democratic' model. Lords are now chosen on merit and service, not by an accident of birth. Those changes can be seen visibly in Lady Amos assuming the Leader's office, Baroness (Patricia) Scotland, a fellow West Indian, speaking simultaneously at the government despatch box in the blue leather seated chamber with the Queen's throne at its head, and trooping through the voting lobbies some of the newly ennobled of many hues, Lords Alli and Ouseley being just two, both of Guyanese descent.
Lady Amos left Guyana when she was nine but still keeps in touch personally through family members and friends and in her chosen profession with its briefs; her most recent job at DFID and previously as a junior Minister in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office with special responsibilty for the Caribbean and Africa. She feels the pain of her homeland and its seemingly continual political instability; "Guyana is going through a very difficult time," she laments "I was very worried at the indiscriminate nature of the violence last year but I am pleased to see that has been reduced".
What has not been reduced and still stays hot is the Guyanese political temperature and the mistrust between the major ethnic groups and their political representatives. "It's good that the President and the Leader of the Opposition have started talking", she says, recognising that such dialogue is needed to resolve a situation where there has been a "total breakdown in trust and confidence". She and her government had attempted to get the major dramatis personae together at Wilton Park in the UK earlier this year for a round table conference. That had failed when the Government of Guyana declined their invite on the grounds of lack of time to prepare. But Baroness Amos has not been driven to despair by that failure. "In these processes timing is everything. You have to be patient."
Looking to the future, she foresees some role for a 'Witon Park Two' 'Confe-ence but one which is got together at a regional, West Indian, level rather than by the UK government. However well-intentioned, or naive, it was in designing Wilton Park, it faced criticism of being 'neo-colonialist' in wanting to engineer political peace in a sovereign state. Valerie Amos may be Guyanese born but she resolutely refuses to be prescriptive on any way out of the political impasse there. "I can't answer for the people of Guyana. That is up to the government and opposition. I can't say to the people of Guyana what the correct route is".
Her route to the top has been through public service of one sort or another. Equal Opportunities followed by a variety of jobs down the political food chain. But now she is not only at the political pinnacle but also at the apex of the so-called 'Guyanese Mafia' in Britain.
This non-pejorative term (first coined by this writer) has provided a useful journalistic shorthand and a now widely used moniker (even by the Prince of Wales) to track the progress of a group of first and second generation Guyanese who have cut a swathe through British public life. Lady Amos is in the House of Lords, so too Lords Ouseley and Alli, David Lammy is an MP and a junior minister in the Blair Government, Trevor Phillips the chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, Coleen Harris his Director of Communications, having just retired from serving the Prince of Wales as his Press Secretary and David Case has reached the sky and the rank of Air Commodore in the Royal Air Force.
The "Guyanese Mafia" may be a journalist's virtual dream but in reality Baroness Amos says it works. "You always know you can pick up the phone and somebody will be there" she says. This 'Mafia' interacts at a very informal level; the week before we spoke, Baroness Amos had attended Prince Charles' farewell party for Coleen Harris at Clarence House.
But this 'mafia' is munificent, "there is nothing regular about it" she says and membership is still open. Valerie Amos recognises her wider responsibilities as probably the best known Guyanese in the world
"I see they are proud of me and proud of Guyana" and she tries, as best she can, to satisfy the wishes of young Caribbean people for mentoring and shadowing schemes to help them follow in her footsteps.
Her generation was driven by the "immigrant desire to achieve" and "achieve through education and educational excellence at that". She fondly remembers bringing home to her parents in Kent a report of a 96% mark in History. Her father, a teacher, wanted to know where the other four per cent had gone! That yearning she felt bound all of the soi-disant 'Guyanese Mafia 'together. Whether their success would have been replicated should they and their families have stayed in Guyana and not emigrated was something, in her view, to which the answer would never be known.
Sadly one of the latent effects of any rise in public life is a rise in public curiosity. Within forty-eight hours of her being promoted to the Cabinet last May, at least one British newspaper had a team digging away at her past in Wakenaam, Essequibo. They failed to come up with much 'beef'. But her parents have also been approached repeatedly and asked to comment. When they refused their neighbours in Crayford, Kent were quizzed and asked to spill the beans on the 'Young Valerie'. This she found and finds "not acceptable. They are not members of the Cabinet. I am. I should take the flak". Close press interest has not, however, dampened Amos family pride with a party organised for each promotion by her sister. But, so rapid have recent elevations been that the Amos family is currently one celebratory party behind. Baroness Amos has carefully controlled her public utterances; this is one of her very rare interviews.
She has the reputation of being one of the most loyal lieutenants of the 'Blair Revolution' with direct access to the Prime Minister himself. This has been achieved through what some might see as excessive 'brown-nosing' by, for example, shuttling around trying to get African nations into line behind the US-UK invasion of Iraq earlier this year. That led to the resignation of the then DFID Secretary of Stare Clare Short and her replacement by none other than Valerie Amos. Her reputation is that of a solid hard working Minister if a touch over loyal. "I give my all to any job, I am completely focussed and in touch and never look over my shoulder at any new horizons", she claims. Certainly she does not feel lonely as the only black woman at the British Cabinet table. "It is very collegiate", she says, "I never thought I would end up in the Cabinet". She is rather more coy when asked if she has her eye on the main prize - the Prime Ministership. Instead, she says, she may have plateaued and this job may be her exit point from politics which she describes as a 'funny game'. Funny but one which she seems to have mastered
It is a world away from Wakenaam to Westminster. Yet this daughter of the Guyanese soil seems fully at home. Inside 'her chamber' they are debating a government bill on changes in the law. Few are in attendance. They veer towards the great, good and old .The scarcity lasts until a vote is called when like so many mice after cheese more than two hundred Lords appear out of the crevices of the Palace of Westminster to vote the Party Line. This time the government lost by two votes. Black women may be in a minority of three in this house but they currently rule the roost.
As always the journalistic shorthand writers are at work. Amos has been called the 'female Colin Powell'. She rejects this. "I am not a Colin Powell. I am the first Valerie Amos'.
Of that there is no doubt.