'I enjoy my job'
- Baroness Amos of Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Stabroek News
December 23, 2001

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw is set to visit Guyana in April next year for the UK Caribbean Forum. With him will be his Guyanese-born Junior Minister, Baroness Valerie Amos, the highest ranking black female politician in Britain and his 'Minister for the Caribbean.'

She talked to John Mair recently about UK/Caribbean relations among other things:

Baroness Amos: "As the Caribbean countries' best friend overseas we're alive to the key issues in the region, especially the impact of globalisation and the threats from drugs and crime and, more recently, the impact of the events of 11 September on Caribbean economies which is hitting tourism particularly badly. We are supporting the efforts of Caribbean governments, for example, by making sure the EU's new banana regime is as favourable as possible to the interests of the Caribbean and by lending major support to law enforcement and systems of administration of justice.

"We are also strengthening our relations with the Caribbean as a region, building on the meeting between the Prime Minister and Caribbean counterparts in July this year in Kingston, which I also attended. The Prime Minister expects to meet Caribbean leaders again in Australia in March at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting and this will lead into the key biennial meeting between the Caribbean and Britain the UK Caribbean Forum. This is being held in April next year in Guyana. Jack Straw and I will be there; it's an opportunity for us to exchange views with Caribbean ministers on key issues affecting the region and to build on our already extensive programme of co operation."

Today Baroness Amos is well up the political ladder with her appointment last June as the Parliamentary Under Secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

"I'm the Minister with responsibility for Sub Saharan Africa, the Caribbean, Britain's overseas territories, Britain's consular activity, Foreign Office personnel and Commonwealth coordination and I find my job extremely challenging and exciting. I am looking after areas of the world where Britain is able to make a significant contribution to changes in those countries. The Prime Minister in his speech to the Labour Party conference and in a recent speech on the occasion of the Lord Mayor's banquet made it absolutely clear that he saw Africa as an important priority for this Government in terms of forging a new partnership with African leaders which would lead to the development of the continent..."

JM: Was the recent Commonwealth team trip to Zimbabwe a success?

"The visit gave the Commonwealth team an opportunity to see what was happening on the ground. A whole range of people from civil society, independent media, human rights groups were given the opportunity to share their very real concerns with the visiting Commonwealth team. And as a result of the Abuja process, the UN have recently been in Zimbabwe looking at how to put together a land reform programme which is fair, transparent and based on respect for the rule of law. But ultimately only the Government of Zimbabwe can reverse Zimbabwe's decline into poverty, lawlessness and international isolation. Sadly there is little sign that that is what they really want to do."

The Baroness was entrusted with heading the UK delegation to the recent anti racism conference in South Africa.

JM: Darcus Howe described your position there as a 'white tool.' What's your reaction to that?

"Actually, the conference was about the contemporary evils of racism and xenophobia. And it did a lot of good work which didn't get reported, such as committing each country to drawing up a national action plan to combat racism in their own backyard. The conference was never going to solve the problems of racism and xenophobia overnight. But it was a step in the right direction in what remains a deeply sensitive issue for the international community. And the conference agreed very strong language on the evils of slavery and the slave trade - language which we supported. This Government has made it absolutely clear that we see slavery as an abhorrent practice and contemporary forms of slavery as a crime against humanity."

After the euphoric May Day Labour victory in 1997, Tony Blair soon set about reforming the House of Lords. Valerie Amos became a Baroness in August 1997 and nine months later she was made a government front-bench spokesman in the House of Lords initially on international development and social security and now on foreign affairs and international development.

JM: Is and was the House of Lords ready for a black woman peer?

"The House of Lords is an interesting place. There are still very few black and Asian peers so we are very visible. But there is an assumption in the House of Lords that once one is there, one will make a contribution. And people are treated with respect."

Baroness Amos spent the first years of her life on Wakenaam in the Essequibo. That has stayed with her:

"I was born in Guyana and grew up in Guyana until I was nine years old. It was extremely important to me to grow up in a country which was vibrant and dynamic, which had very close links to other parts of the world and where there was a very serious debate going on in my childhood about the relationship between Africa and the Caribbean. And whilst I was much too young to be involved in those kind of discussions, I do still recall intense political discussions which happened between my parents and their friends about the nature of identity, particularly given the differences which were occurring between Guyana's Asian community and Guyana's African community."

JM: Are you a Caribbean? An African? British? How do they relate to each other?

"I see myself as someone who is lucky enough to be able to identify with being British, Guyanese, Caribbean and African. I see myself as being part of a much wider diaspora and it would be difficult to say that any one part of that identity was more important than any other. All those cultures are a part of me and I'm very proud of that. I think that this has given me an advantage in that I'm able to relate to a number of different cultures and I feel very comfortable so doing."

As just plain Valerie Amos in the UK, she had a career in mediation and in quasi public service on the Boards of the Institute of Public Policy Research (a Blairite think tank) and the University College London Hospitals Trust. She has also sat on the board of the Hampstead Theatre.

She's trodden the well-recognised paths of working first in 'challenging' London boroughs like Lambeth and Hackney before assuming the mantle of the chief executive of the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) from 1989 to 1994. One of her officers at the EOC described her as "the best ever chief executive."

That was followed by own her own 'change' consultancy among whose clients was the government of post-apartheid South Africa. She advised them on public service reform, human rights and equality at work between 1995 and 1998. Her own life has been a series of changes:

JM: Is blackness important to you?

"Being black and being a woman has been an important element in the way I have developed over the years because there have been many situations where I have been not only the first black person, but the first black woman to be involved in those situations and so there have been many 'firsts.' To me being black is important in the sense that I think that as a multicultural, multiracial society it's important that we recognise that there are people who come from a range of different cultures who have an enormous contribution to make, or indeed that they have made to this society."

JM: How has it affected your political life?

"Being black has affected my political life in the sense that it is something that other people comment on and look at and see. And in the work that I do and in the countries in which I now work there is very often surprise that there are black ministers in the British Government and I think that there is an onus on us to make sure that people understand and appreciate that Britain has changed, is changing and that we are a multi ethnic society."

JM: Some shout 'sell out' and tokenism' to you. What is your reaction to that?

"I have never seen myself as a 'token.' I think that my success owes a great deal to hard work and the support of my family and friends and the wider community and I hope that people see it as a recognition of the contribution that black people have made and can make and continue to make to British society."

She has some sound advice for the up and coming Valerie Amos's.

"I'm always asked about what kind of advice would I give to others who are wanting to be in the kind of position that I'm in now. It's sometimes hard to give advice but I think that what I would say is that the things which have really benefited me and which have helped me along the way are firstly that I seized the opportunities which were made available to me and if something was offered, rather than thinking that I couldn't do it, I would assume that I could do it until I discovered that I couldn't.

"So I would always say, 'take the opportunities and use them'... I think that it is also important to know what one wants and how one might get there. I also think it's very important to know what the limits to that might be, and to be really clear about what it is that one wants out of life.

"And the last thing I would say is that it's really important that in doing something, to do it with enthusiasm really means that you have to believe in it. I work extremely hard but I don't at all regret the hours that I give to my job (1) because I enjoy it enormously and (2) because I think that the work that I'm doing can really make a difference.

"It is always useful to know one's history. I also think that it is important to be clear about the values and principles which underpin one's life. And be clear about where you want to be and how to get there."