Owen Arthur: Footprints
Last week, Barbados lost one of its most illustrious sons, Owen Seymour Arthur, and all from his most ardent supporters to former political foes to academics to regional and international titans paid tribute to the indelible mark which he left upon this world.
Among his achievements now memorialized in tribute are his status as our longest-serving Prime Minister and also a masterful political tactician who institutionalized his ‘politics of inclusion’, by which he ensured his party’s high political fortune for many years due to the sheer breadth of talent and competent expertise unlocked not only within his party but also through that visionary political strategy. It is perhaps a most fitting homage to Mr Arthur’s economic brilliance that under his premiership, this country enjoyed its longest period of sustained economic growth. He also led a nation which consistently ranked in the upper echelons of the Human Development Index making it for a long spell, the most developed of developing nations.
One person recalled Shakespeare’s Cassius in saying that Mr Arthur bestrode this nation like a colossus.
But Mr Arthur was not tyrannical in the sense that Cassius conceived Caesar to be. Rather, his foremost philosophy aligned more closely with the rest of Cassius’ exhortation to Brutus – that the superiority of one over others is artificially contrived. Cassius asked Brutus on what basis was Caesar pedestalised above all men, when in truth he was like all other men. Mr Arthur often asked the people of Barbados and the wider Caribbean why should we say the names of larger nations more grandiosely than our own names, for on what basis are they inherently better than us?
Much has been made rightly of Arthur’s economic brilliance and political savvy, but in this writer’s view, one of his greatest contributions was his fervent belief in ourselves. In many ways therefore, Arthur’s life is bound up in ‘smallness’. A man of relatively ‘small’ stature, who came from the small, sleepy area of Rose Hill in rural St Peter, who rose to become Prime Minister of a small nation. But Mr Arthur’s mind was not small nor were the people he led. That is perhaps his greatest lesson to young people today.
We, young people, therefore, must fundamentally believe in ourselves and our own abilities, cognizant of the constraints of life, but equally undergirded by the importance of whatever it is we set about to do. For Mr Arthur, that meant being neither a deluded ideologue nor an unprincipled pragmatist, but rather balancing both principles and pragmatism. There were times when circumstance merited that he be seemingly intractable and resolute such as the opposition his government led to certain aspects of the US Shiprider Agreement. At other times, he understood the value of compromise and strategic retreat, such as the unfortunately abortive union with the OECS or republicanism, recognizing that in both instances the other parties simply were not ready.
Regardless of whichever point on the scale of pragmatism and principles Mr Arthur had to fall depending on the circumstance he remained committed to the ideal of building the best Barbados and playing the long game. His stance on various issues and his strategy illustrate to young people that great achievement, whether personal or for a wider cause, is not obtained in twenty overs in T20 cricket, but most often requires four innings.
Just as West Indians decades ago, delighted in the defeat of their former colonial master on the cricket field, Mr Arthur reminded his nation and the region of the feeling of standing up for oneself, when Windies cricket was waning and perhaps that feeling was also evanescing. With the aforementioned Shiprider Agreement, he won hard-fought for concessions from the Americans, an enviable feat for a relatively insignificant nation in the grand geopolitical scheme of life. To use religious allusion, he was the Rose Hill boy who stood up, slung his shot and won against the Goliath of the world.
The footprint which he leaves behind, therefore, is impressive and his service will stand as an aide-memoire to generations, present and future, of what is possible when life’s opportunities are grasped tightly with both hands, regardless of the circumstances of birth. When we remember Mr Arthur and his incredible footprint, let us reflect on the footprint which we can leave. He is gone, but we will not soon forget!