Barbados is a society where the rich and poor conspire to fool themselves: the rich that they have no responsibility for the poor, the poor that they have a better standard of living than they really do. The reality is that Barbados is one society with two peoples, divided by their suspicion and mistrust of each other.
It is a society in which a university degree substitutes for real learning, real progress, a real decent standard of living has become an aspiration for all its people, even if an achievable one. However, mainly in the post-independence years, the rot has set in, politics has become the management of decline. But it was not always so. In the 1950s, Barbados had one of the highest standards of living in the Commonwealth, and thus in the world. By any measure, the worn out cliché about our punching above our weight was really true. Back then Singapore was a swamp that even Malaysia did not want, India was a giant slum, the whole of Latin America was bogged down with military repression and aggressive racism. We had escaped the stultifying austerity of post-war Britain, which only had its heavy industrial might to rescue it. We had sugar and tourism, but most of all a high-spirited people who believed in themselves.
The Founding Years:
Barbados emerged from the dark day so of the 1930s slump and the Second World War economically poor, but socially empowered and confident. Unlike much of Europe, in particular Southern Europe, there was not the hunger of Spain or Portugal, no military repression as in Greece, Spain and Portugal, it was not comatosed by its poverty, punch drunk by its isolation. Rather, it was so confident about itself that even the British colonisers, battered by the war, felt at ease granting the island internal self-government in 1961. As a nation it had a strong belief in its human capital, proud of its educational system, and frightfully ambitious, give that at the turn of the 1950s decade Europe, and more so Britain, was still bogged down with a long-lasting austerity. The nation was inspired: the 1958 Tourism Act kick-started the tourism industry. Before that we had the 1956 Hotel Aids Act and before that the 1955 Barbados Development Act.
We also had the building of the Deep Water Harbour, the extension of secondary and primary education and the reform of national scholarships through The Government Scholarships and Exhibitions Act of 1959, and the formation of the Transport Board and locating it on the site of the Old Combermere. But passing years have withered our memory. When Adams embarked on building the Deep Water Harbour, reclaiming the 90 acres of land between the mainland and Pelican Island, it was such in a progressive social policy initiative that few Barbadians realised the full extent of such a major capital project.
It was precisely at that moment, that historical juncture, that containerisation had begun, which was to transform the shipping of good between nations. Adams put Barbados at the cutting edge of commerce.
As a civil engineering project, few nations had even thought of, far less embarked on such a mammoth reclamation scheme. Now, it has been done on a bigger extent in Hong Kong, Dubai, Japan and other nations, but Barbados was there at the beginning.
For those who, for whatever reason, do not fully understand the social and economic significance of reclaiming that land, one only has to read the literature on the history of containerisation and its economic impact on global trade to realise how innovative was that development. Then, under pressure from Britain, the English-speaking Caribbean islands embarked on another trial of federation, having failed in the 1870s and 1920s, and once more they turned to Barbados for leadership.
At a time when the Caribbean had a collection of political and trade union leaders comparable to any in the world, people of the calibre of Eric Williams, Norman Manley, Bustamante, Capildeo, Bradshaw and others, they turned to Adams to lead the regional Labour Party, which formed the first and only federal government. That was not a compromise, it was the recognition of the man’s intellectual and political abilities, his leadership qualities. Sadly, by 1961, when the Deep Water Harbour was to be officially opened, it was Errol Barrow and the others of the mainly post-war generation of university-educated Young Turks, who had broken away from the BLP, formed the DLP, and grabbed government in 1961, who got the credit. (There are echoes of this arrogance in Sinckler’s recent dismissal of Arthur as being too old).
The same for the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, started under Grantley Adams’ BLP (Cunmnins, really), but opened under the new DLP government in 1963. Although Barbados was far from being in the dark ages when Barrow came to power in 1961 as has been pointed out, the first DLP government did introduce some radical Keynesian economic and far-sighted social policies, the most important of which to my mind was the historic decision to reduce the age of majority from twenty-one to eighteen.
For its time, that was such a radical departure from the conventional policy as usual, that few realised what a profound impact it would have on policy making, not only in Barbados and the wider Caribbean, but throughout the English-speaking world. The policy change was dynamic and reflected the purpose and intent of a government brimming with ideas and led by young men and women with the overall confidence to introduce post-war thinking to policy-making.
Analysis and Conclusion:
To fabricate a bogus celebratory history in which Barrow rules like the emperor of some Roman City-stat e is as disingenuous as anything said about our so-called blue-chip educational system under which 70 per cent of school leavers end their 11 years of compulsory statutory education, not only without any qualifications, but effectively functionally illiterate.
Post independence Barbados has not only lost its collective confidence, it has been surpassed by other neighbouring islands, as anyone who has recently visited St Lucia or the Bahamas would confirm. In Barbados there has never been a gilded age, a golden period of progress and unparallel growth. Everything has been incremental. But compared to now, even taking in to consideration the perfection of 20/20 vision, we were in a much better place.
We lived then in a society in which civil servants were outstanding members of society, men and women who gave leadership, which is now reflected in the naming of places and buildings in their memory. From the main civil service to the police, the public sector set an example to us all.
Adams was not perfect, far from it. He had his faults, the most damaging of which was his decision to represent Swaine, the plantation owner who shot the young black man because he though he was a monkey. His excuse for that unforgivable act was to hide behind the amoral practice of lawyers to adopt a so-called cab rank system – representing anyone without taking a moral view of their alleged offences. Many young lawyers now take a different view.
We now live in a society in which the public sector is a drain on taxpayers, a society that has lost its moral moorings which now has one of the highest rates of HIV/Aids and sexually transmitted diseases for under 25-year-old in the civilised world. A society in which no moral leadership comes from the church, civic leaders, politicians, one in which married people think it acceptable to have affairs, in which abortion is a form of birth control.
And, equally, a society in which people think it normal to live above their means, to indulge in family feuds over inheritance, where people defraud their children and parents as well as total strangers.
The weakness of this DLP government is that it was so surprised by its electoral victory that for a time it was hypnotised. It lacked boldness, innovation and vision – unlike the 1961 government. Instead of giving away social houses, it should have made it easier for people to become genuine homeowners, it should have reduced the age of majority from eighteen to sixteen, raise school-leaving to eighteen as part of wider education reforms, with a variety of options from the age of fourteen; it should have created a post office bank.
Further, it should have developed Culpepper Island, pedestrianize Broad Street during the day, introduced a traffic congestion management programme, reform the public sector, including the police and abolish the defence force. Taking cheap shots at Adams only exposes the poverty of thought of the chief architects of this historical revisionism and character assassination.
Both men were outstanding leaders, it is not either or.