Lib Dem is a rebel with a cause
A year after fleeing riots in his homeland, a young political activist from British Guiana arrived in Grimsby. In the first of a new series profiling our ward councillors, Local Government Reporter Simon Faulkner speaks to the Liberal Democrat Andrew De Freitas.
"I WAS always a bit of a rebel", smiles Andrew De Freitas, recalling his childhood in the Caribbean colony of British Guiana.
"My father said 'this boy when he grows up is going to be a lawyer', because I was always prepared to argue on people's behalf."
It is a characteristic that defined his early years as a young councillor in Grimsby, where he saw himself as the scourge of the establishment.
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And he believes his ability to "tell it like it is" remains undimmed after 40 years in politics, including seven as council leader.
Andrew certainly ruffled a few feathers when he first got elected onto Grimsby Council in 1969.
The Liberal party candidate outraged sitting councillors by standing against and defeating Labour's Thomas Sleaman in the Humber ward.
Sleaman had just served as mayor and was a well-respected figure who was coming towards the end of his career. In those days taking on such a figure was not the done thing.
"The Conservatives didn't put a candidate up against him because they thought he would get in without any opposition."
However, Andrew had other ideas and once on the council, continued to show disdain towards such anti-democratic conventions.
A regular target for him was the alderman's bench – a now obsolete custom that saw experienced former councillors appointed, rather than elected, to the authority.
"That's something I campaigned against because they were not elected by the public. I used to have a go at them because I was still a bit of a rebel."
His lack of deference for his elders certainly won him few favours within the council.
"When I first got elected, the Labour party was so upset that they would not allow me to serve on any committee of the council. They treated me like I was an outsider."
Faced with such hostility, others may have thrown in the towel. But it only made Andrew more determined.
He believes his background was a major influence in that regard.
As a teenager he campaigned passionately against injustice in his native British Guiana.
It was precisely because of his involvement in politics that his family sent him to England in 1962 when violence escalated in his homeland.
Born in Georgetown, the capital of British Guiana in 1945, Andrew was the second of three children.
His father was an accountant for a timber company, while his mother stayed at home to look after the children.
The family lived in a wooden house, raised on stilts because of the frequent flooding, and Andrew attended a Roman Catholic school run by nuns.
But with his father unable to hold down a steady job, Andrew had to go out to work at 14 to support the family. He worked for two years at a large retail store called William Fogarty – "the equivalent of Harrods" – as an errand boy, office boy and ledger clerk, before getting a job with a firm of charted accountants.
He continued his education at night school, where he learnt about accountancy, economics and the British constitution.
He became involved in politics at the age of 15, joining a wing of the multi-racial political party United Force.
"It was slightly right wing", laughs the Lib Dem Andrew, acknowledging the irony. "It was campaigning against communism, of which there was a great fear at the time."
As a Guyanese of mainly Portuguese descent, Andrew belonged to one of the more privileged sections of the British colony's racially divided society, but nevertheless railed against the injustice of discrimination.
"There were a lot of what I would call unjust systems, where if you weren't white then you had a hell of a job getting on in life.
"There was a lot of discrimination against people of either black or East Indian extraction. It was so unfair and that's why I started campaigning."
But following the elections of 1961, the increasingly pro-Communist regime of prime minister Cheddi Jagan, became the target of protests conducted by rival political parties, including United Force.
As tensions grew, violence increased and the political situation became ever more unstable.
"It got very nasty and it was made worse by the involvement of the CIA. Half the commercial centre of Georgetown was destroyed by fire and there was a lot of looting. It was the first time I had experienced tear gas. It was very scary.
"Because of my connections, my mother thought that the best thing would be to get me out of the country.
"I had a British passport, because we were still a British colony, so she booked my passage to England."
While Andrew set sail for Britain, the rest of the family stayed in British Guiana, before emigrating to Canada a year later.
Three weeks after leaving Georgetown, Andrew stepped onto the platform at Waterloo Station, London, with just £10 and a suitcase in his possession.
"Getting off the train at Waterloo was a little bit shocking. There was a lot of ill feeling about immigrants coming from the Caribbean and there were people standing around with placards.
"There were lots of people at the train station. I don't think they were waiting to pick up passengers, they were waiting to see how many immigrants were coming. We felt like we were coming out of a zoo.
"Living in a colony we were probably more British than the British were – we would sing God Save The Queen in the cinema – so it was a bit of a shock to come to London and see notices in shops windows saying no West Indians."
Andrew lived with his mother's half-sister in Battersea for three weeks, before finding a bed-sit in Golders Green.
He got a job in the accounts department at the Scribbans-Kemp biscuit factory in Dollis Hill.
A year later, the factory closed down and production was moved to Grimsby.
The first thing that struck Andrew about his new home was the smell of fish.
"When you got on the bus you couldn't help but notice it. There were hundreds of people working with fish and your clothes would smell of the stuff. Sadly there's none of that now."
Two years later Kemps was sold to another company based in the north east and Andrew was asked to relocate.
But having now married and started a family, he chose to stay put.
Apart from a brief spell working in Saudia Arabia in the late 1970s, Andrew has remained in Grimsby ever since.
His career took him to McVeigh Transport and Torline, before he set up his own consultancy business, carrying out internal audits for various shipping and transport firms.
Andrew joined the Liberal Party in 1963, in large part due to his admiration for its leader Jo Grimond.
"I would say he is the best Prime Minister we never had. He had foresight and was ahead of his time."
He was first elected to Grimsby Council in 1969 at the age of 24, winning a seat in the Humber ward, which is today part of the East Marsh seat.
Standing on a pledge to improve the substandard housing stock in the neighbourhood, he took two weeks holiday to knock on every door in the ward.
Andrew served as a councillor in the ward for eight years, before leaving for the Middle East.
In 1981, shortly after his return to Grimsby, he was elected to a seat in the Central ward – later to become the Park ward which he still represents to this day.
When Andrew was first elected onto the council he was one of just two Liberal councillors.
The party's numbers gradually increased over the years, as it established itself as a serious alternative to the two main parties.
But its fortunes only really took off in North East Lincolnshire when it took a hat full of seats from the discredited Labour administration in the 2003 local election.
The Lib Dems formed a coalition with the Conservatives, with Andrew being appointed deputy leader, as the two parties worked to drag the authority out of the financial mire.
As if that wasn't challenging enough, shortly after the election Andrew was told he needed a quadruple heart bypass operation.
He was away from his desk for just four weeks.
"Some people thought I was crazy, but it would have been more stressful laid in bed at home worrying about what was going on.
"I do care about the place at the end of the day and it was an awful state of affairs that the authority had got itself into."
After the 2004 elections the Lib Dems became the largest party on the council and Andrew was named leader.
Such success must have seemed a long way off when he first got elected, but Andrew insists he always believed it was achievable.
"I thought it was possible but it was like trying to climb Mount Everest without oxygen.
"This area is not exactly a hotbed of liberalism."
But how did being leader sit with the self-styled political rebel?
"It certainly didn't go to my head. It's a very different situation to being in opposition. You are more scrutinised and more targeted. It was certainly an eye-opener but if the opportunity came along again then I wouldn't be afraid to take it on again.
"I could have earned more money stacking shelves at Tesco than being leader of the local authority, and had less stress, but I did it because I believe very passionately about helping the local community. I think that applies to all councillors."
As time went on, relations between the Lib Dems and the Tories became increasingly strained, and the coalition split in May 2009, with the Lib Dems taking charge of a minority administration.
Soon afterwards, Andrew came under pressure to resign over the council's disastrous decision to invest £7 million in Icelandic banks.
He survived a vote of no confidence by the narrowest of margins, and says the ordeal was the lowest point of his political career.
"It was very personal, and to this day I still find it difficult to understand why the Conservatives went behind the motion moved by the leader of the Labour group. It is something I'm not likely to forget."
Did he ever think of resigning?
"I thought about it, but that would have been like giving into the mob and I'm not one for doing that."
However, things did not get much easier for the Lib Dem leader. With his party now in national government its popularity nosedived, and the group suffered a wave of defections to Labour.
It is something that clearly still rankles, but Andrew is reluctant to discuss it.
"That's in the past now and I don't intend to go over it. Maybe they weren't Liberals in the first place."
In 2011 the Lib Dems lost yet more seats in the local election and the party lost control to Labour.
Although initially encouraged by the attitude of the new regime, Andrew fears there are signs that the "old arrogance" of previous Labour administrations is returning.
As for the Lib Dems, their fall has been as dramatic as their rise. Less than two years after they were in power, they have been reduced to just four councillors.
Now 67, Andrew has yet to decide whether he will stand for re-election in 2015.
"I will be 70 by then so maybe I will call it a day. Then again I may feel as if there are still things to fight for. The rebel in me may yet rise again."