Barbados is going through one of the messiest political maelstroms in living memory, if not in our post-war experience. It is now on an economic life-support machine. The DLP government is running around like a headless chicken, with its leader Freundel Stuart, arguably the worst premier/prime minister in our history struck dumb and unable to address the nation and incapable of sacking Chris Sinckler, the equally bad minister of finance. And at a time when the BLP Opposition, under its new leader, Mia Mottley, should be mercilessly hammering the government, the party is imploding in one of the most vicious and bitter internecine wars any political party in Barbados has ever seen.
In terms of damage, it is worse than the walk-out by Errol Barrow and his Young Turks to form the DLP, or of Richie Haynes and his supporters from the DLP to form the National Democratic Party. But I believe all these are symptoms of historic change. As most people will understand, history is not linear; it ebbs and flows, is volatile and calm, it can erupt like a volcano and be as reassuring as a moonlit night. The problem with adversarial politics is that it brings out the nasty side of people, the premium is to show the opponent is incapable, rather than to show that one on the contrary is more than capable. It is a feature of our hostile discursive culture, rubbishing opposing ideas, asking the adversary to justify his/her views, rather than putting forward positive alternatives and justifying one’s own recommendations. It is not unknown for opponents to resort to foul-mouthed, vulgar abuse as part of the process.
Ms Mottley’s recent call for an eminent persons committee, was rightly described by Arthur as a ‘gimmick’, what he did not do was to propose a viable alternative. To some people, an eminent group comprising of people of the calibre of ‘Professor’ Frank Alleyne, central bank governor De Lisle Worrell and a few well known names, may simply be kicking the can down the road. What are badly needed are new ideas, new approaches, new policies, a totally and radically transformative new paradigm, a new rescue plan for the nation. These are some of the new ideas, policies and approaches that should be coming from the BLP, its key advisers, its economic spokesman, Clyde Mascoll, and most particularly its senior economic guru and seasoned economic planner, Owen Arthur. This is their time, when they should be pounding the government, ideas and policies should be flooding out of Roebuck Street. Public meetings are in terms of educating the general public, but it must go beyond that to the formation of alternative policies.
The enormous problems facing Barbados are not just short-term cyclical business and economic ones, they are deeply structural, about our collapsing social, governance and decaying institutional frameworks. The rot started decades ago and continued to fester under BLP and DLP governments since constitutional independence without a word of caution from mainstream politicians, academics, the media, public intellectuals or rabble rousers. It was as if Barbadians were comfortable in a mess of their own making, fooling themselves that they were the best in the world: best educated, most competitive, punching above their weight and other self-deluding nonsense, or in the words of Marion Williams, we are a first world nation now. Nothing better illustrates this self-delusion than a regulator who allows some foreign-owned bank to smear the reputation of a local businessman without a word being said. As a nation, we prefer to play the man rather than the ball; we allow the principle to fall by the wayside. This is a classic example of the weakness of prescriptive financial regulations, a big rule book but the banks still drive a coach and horses through it. Even more scandalous is another foreign-owned bank offering loans to customers to invest in equities – a policy so ridiculous it should be a crime.
In the meantime, all the local commentariat has to talk about is what is allegedly motivating Arthur in his assault on the party leader.
Does the BLP have a president/chairman, others officers, a ruling committee, a rule book? In a party of lawyers why can’t they sort out this mess internally? What about issues of real importance: youth unemployment, the turf war between the police and customs, the collapse of our university, public transport, traffic congestion, the failure of management in our schools, housing, the health service, public servants not being paid on time, pensioners not getting their pensions on time, we can go on. What can the BLP do about these policy issues that it could not have done in 14 years of government?
On closer analysis, there is quite clearly an alignment of voices who are prepared to risk losing any forthcoming general election under an embattled Ms Mottley, than to remove a government that has lost its way. It is true, that there is a perception that Ms Mottley can be her own worst enemy, if true, this is not necessarily for the reasons her most vocal opponents – known and unknown – will have us believe. She is undoubtedly youthful and bright, confident with a very strong sense of her worth as a politician, which may cause a certain amount of resentment. Of course, Ms Mottley is a big ‘girl’ and if she cannot take the heat she should get out of the kitchen. The fundamental question for those of us on the sideline is: Is this childish bickering good for the nation? Does it provide the answers to our social and economic problems at this juncture in our history?
Although both the BLP and DLP have an over-riding social democratic politics, it is not sophisticated and finessed and the parties’ key strategists have not learned anything from political organisation in other reforming social democracies. Take, for example, the New Democrats, led by Bill Clinton, and New Labour, by Tony Blair, both of which used racist strategies (soft versions of Nixon’s 1970s Southern Strategy) to solicit white, working class and middle class voters, with an implicit message that they understand white working class pain about jobs, and middle class anger about taxation. It mistakingly assumes that Black and Asian voters in the UK, and Black and Hispanic voters in the US, have no real alternative but to vote Democrat or Labour.
In the muddy smear politics in which Barbados is mired, while the flood waters of economic failure are cascading down on us, we are missing the point that Ms Mottley indeed has a rather interesting background story. Not the one, however, that her political enemies want to talk about, but rather the one about how she got where she is in terms of her politics; what are her core beliefs, what kind of Barbados would she like to see, who are her key advisers? Some people believe that she has an open-ness to small, well-organised pressure groups which operate outside the formalities of democratic politics. Groups and businesses that operate like shadows in the night, subsidising preferred candidates here, doing the back office work there, and smiling and being nice when it suits them everywhere.
It is a politics that can only end in tears, on a personal level, or in the betrayal of traditional Barbadians who have invested heavily over the generation in the BLP in the hope that the party will lead them to the promised land of prosperity. If this is indeed the politics that her political enemies object to, and if it is an accurate perception, then it should form part of the public discussion. But character assassination by innuendo, the spreading of smut as a substitute for civilised debate and the crowding out of legitimate issues from public discourse, put us back in a primitive age we have long left.
Time will show that this bout of civil war in the BLP not only came at the worst time in the party’s modern history, but the loud mouths and muscle men and women now claiming the high ground will find themselves on the wrong side of history. The political issues that are central to Barbados are the issues so bitter to taste that people dear not say a word. While the economic mess – which started under the BLP government – will eventually be resolved one way or the other, the medium and long-term battles will be over our Barbadian-ness, who we are, who owns our precious island home, who should make key decisions about our collective futures. While we bicker and fight, the danger is that the New Barbadians are waiting quietly in the wings, master plan at hand, to take control. Somehow, deep in our collective hearts, there is a firm belief that Barbadian optimism will see us through. But is that good enough?
Sometimes it is necessary for party political bloodletting, it is necessary to clear the air and allow progressive forces to dominate. This internal BLP feud between the Arthurians and Mottleyites is not it, however. It is a humiliating showdown in which the personal has become political, in which personal pride and vengeance have become more important than the national interest. The fundamental problem with the BLP, especially now that it is facing an open goal of DLP government ineptitude, is that its ideological nakedness is exposed, there is no under girding of ideas, beliefs, or vision. In its place there has emerged a flawed intervention by former prime minister Arthur, with what can objectively be seen as juvenile interference, at best to preserve an imagined legacy, at worst for other unethical reasons. The one thing anyone who aspires to leadership should remember is that if they expect people under them to be loyal, then they too must demonstrate loyalty. Equally, if members of any political party or even the general public have even the commonest iota of decency, they should turn their backs on anyone who wants to cause trouble for trouble’s sake.
In every culture we dislike troublemakers, gossips, people who refuse to play by the rules, plotters, conspirators, disorder. In a political culture in which evangelising and character assassination carry a high premium, and facts and careful analysis become boring, it is not surprising that ordinary people think that politics is about personal abuse and shouting to the top of one’s voice. It is a culture that first gained root in the mid-1950s with those late-night platform meetings and has continued ever since, growing by leaps and bounds with every succeeding generation. Almost just as interesting is, in the political demography of this culture war, the inability of the politically astute to form a third party, based on the kinds of principles that they need and want. Until such time, what honest BLP members must ask themselves in the quiet of their own heads is if this undignified spat is worthy of the oldest political party in the nation.
In time, this unappealing fight between two people who ought to know better, will be seen in the light of day for what it is worth, given the socio-economic storm battering the nation. On reflection, we are playing with fire. Out of the Weimar republic and the 1930s recession which followed, came Hitler and Mussolini; out of the Greek economic problems post-2007/8, came the Golden Dawn Party; out of Britain’s incompetent Coalition government came UKIP; the US gave us the Tea Party.
History has a funny way of not delivering what people expect or hope for.