Storm clouds gather over Trinidad

Darcus reflects on some of the problems facing Trinidad and Tobago and how the people are reacting

I am somewhere over the mid-Atlantic heading for the island state of Trinidad and Tobago. The charter flight is packed. A quarter of us, I reckon, are returnees going over to join the carnival celebrations. It's an annual trek. However, the overwhelming majority are British-born, British-bred and white. And they are making the pilgrimage to the sunny isle despite travel advice from the Foreign Office that Trinidad and Tobago is a dangerous destination.

A friend had called me before I left London and played to me, on his mobile phone, a recording of a radio phone-in programme alleging that I was responsible, in the NS and on Channel 4, for poisoning the minds of British politicians on Trinidadian issues. Little did the radio bigots know that the source of the Foreign Office advice was the UK high commission in Port of Spain.

The advisory says: "You should be aware of the global risk of indiscriminate terrorist attacks which could take place in public areas, including those frequented by foreigners. There were five separate bombings in Port of Spain between July and October 2005, in which a number of people were injured. Police are continuing their investigations into what looks to have been a series of domestically motivated actions." It then warns the tourist of rising levels of violent crime, especially shootings and kidnappings. A special warning is directed at those visiting during the World Cup cricket finals in March and April.

The radio presenter presumes I am responsible for grassing up Trinidadians and Tobagonians to the Foreign Office. I admit to making a couple of documentaries over the years in which I claimed not to be moved by national sentiment. However, the high commission accepts in its advisory that the information came from British nationals who visited the consulate for help and advice. As is the practice of diplomacy, these advisory documents are important for what they do not say - that in Trinidad passions are stirring that will inevitably lead to a social explosion.

The Trinidad government, in a headlong rush into industrialisation, has littered the west coast with heavy industries financed from abroad. Lakshmi Mittal has sunk his claws into the steel industry, ethanol plants abound and last year an emboldened government gave permission to the US-based Alcoa to construct a $1.5bn aluminium smelter. Concerns over carbon emissions, disfigured landscapes, the destruction of local agriculture and fishing were dismissed as namby-pamby Luddism and the prime minister announced that the smelter would go ahead.

But a skilful campaign was organised across the community, bearing the slogan "Smelt Patrick", Patrick being the first name of the prime minister. Oil workers, sugar workers, university students, schoolchildren and teachers came together to protest. Finally, in a victory for people power, the government caved in (although a new site for the smelter has since been proposed that is causing equal concern). Emboldened by this victory, the movement has shifted its focus to fighting crime and summoned workers and students in the south of the island to join them. The storm clouds are gathering.

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 the 12 February 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni v Shia

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When will the government take action to tackle the plight of circus animals?

Britain is lagging behind the rest of the world - and innocent animals are paying the price. 

It has been more than a year since the Prime Minister reiterated his commitment to passing legislation to impose a ban on the suffering of circus animals in England and Wales. How long does it take to get something done in Parliament?

I was an MP for more than two decades, so that’s a rhetorical question. I’m well aware that important issues like this one can drag on, but the continued lack of action to help stop the suffering of animals in circuses is indefensible.

Although the vast majority of the British public doesn’t want wild animals used in circuses (a public consultation on the issue found that more than 94 per cent of the public wanted to see a ban implemented and the Prime Minister promised to prohibit the practice by January 2015, no government bill on this issue was introduced during the last parliament.

A private member’s bill, introduced in 2013, was repeatedly blocked in the House of Commons by three MPs, so it needs a government bill to be laid if we are to have any hope of seeing this practice banned.

This colossal waste of time shames Britain, while all around the world, governments have been taking decisive action to stop the abuse of wild animals in circuses. Just last month, Catalonia’s Parliament overwhelmingly voted to ban it. While our own lawmakers dragged their feet, the Netherlands approved a ban that comes into effect later this year, as did Malta and Mexico. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, North America’s longest-running circus, has pledged to retire all the elephants it uses by 2018. Even in Iran, a country with precious few animal-welfare laws, 14 states have banned this archaic form of entertainment. Are we really lagging behind Iran?

The writing has long been on the wall. Only two English circuses are still clinging to this antiquated tradition of using wild animals, so implementing a ban would have very little bearing on businesses operating in England and Wales. But it would have a very positive impact on the animals still being exploited.

Every day that this legislation is delayed is another one of misery for the large wild animals, including tigers, being hauled around the country in circus wagons. Existing in cramped cages and denied everything that gives their lives meaning, animals become lethargic and depressed. Their spirits broken, many develop neurotic and abnormal behaviour, such as biting the bars of their cages and constantly pacing. It’s little wonder that such tormented creatures die far short of their natural life spans.

Watching a tiger jump through a fiery hoop may be entertaining to some, but we should all be aware of what it entails for the animal. UK laws require that animals be provided with a good quality of life, but the cruelty inherent in confining big, wild animals, who would roam miles in the wild, to small, cramped spaces and forcing them to engage in unnatural and confusing spectacles makes that impossible in circuses.

Those who agree with me can join PETA’s campaign to urge government to listen to the public and give such animals a chance to live as nature intended.


The Right Honourable Ann Widdecombe was an MP for 23 years and served as Shadow Home Secretary. She is a novelist, documentary maker and newspaper columnist.