Darcus Howe watches monopoly at work in Barbados

How a former UK minister tried but failed to help his multinational bosses

There he was, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen - formerly the Right Honourable George Islay MacNeill Robertson, UK secretary of state for defence (1997-99) and secretary general of Nato (1999-2003) - on the front page of the Barbados Advocate. For a moment, I wondered if secret military installations had been discovered on this tiny island. What I had not realised is that, since he left Nato, Robertson has been executive deputy chairman of Cable & Wireless, which has a monopoly of telecommunications in Barbados.

The Barbados government is trying to bring that monopoly to an end and liberalise the local telecommunications industry. Up against a multinational, however, it is a little timid and stumbling.

Enter Robertson, the heavy roller, to enforce a memorandum of understanding between C&W and the government which concedes to C&W the power to increase rates locally, or, in bureaucratic language, "cost-oriented pricing".

But the final arbiter is a quango: the Fair Trading Commission of Barbados. The commission refused to rubber-stamp the memorandum and upheld its earlier decision to deny C&W Barbados any telephone-rate changes. Implicit in that decision was a rejection of C&W's claim that the domestic telephone service is not operating profitably. The government hoped the commission would get it off the hook of confronting such a powerful multinational and therefore tried to pressure its members to fall into line.

Five staff resigned, encouraged by mass dissatisfaction with "the unruly beast", as a local broadcaster called C&W. In bars and in taxis, on yellow buses and on the streets, Barbadians denounce C&W. The locals have been sweetened by a firm of Irish buccaneers, Digicel, which has offered a reduction in rates on the mobile market and says it will cut overseas call rates by 48 per cent. The price war is on and everything is up for grabs. Members of the West Indies cricket team, formerly sponsored by C&W, now wear the Digicel logo across their chests.

Robertson came, he spoke, but he did not conquer. In a last attempt to win public confidence, C&W has just launched a poster campaign about its goody-two-shoes community programme. Robertson was once an official of what is now the GMB union. Today, his motto should read: "The working class can kiss my arse. I've got the [deputy] chairman's job at last."

By Darcus Howe

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in Push here

2005-02-07