Are the Dems beginning to crack under the weight of an unpopular Government which has become a consistent target of strident criticism from almost every segment of the community, including many Democratic Labour Party (DLP) supporters?
There are a number of signs that suggest this may be the case. However, the one which really stands out is Prime Minister Freundel Stuart’s uncharacteristic outburst last weekend that put Sir Hilary Beckles, outgoing principal of the Cave Hill Campus of the University of the West Indies, at the receiving end of a severe tongue-lashing.
Previously, the most Sir Hilary would have received was the silent treatment which has been Stuart’s trademark response to critics.
What was Sir Hilary’s crime? Simply critiquing the new policy on tertiary education under which Barbadians began paying tuition fees to attend the UWI from last September, despite an assurance from Stuart that fully state-funded education would remain.
With Cave Hill enrolment subsequently taking a nosedive, Sir Hilary spoke of the new policy’s devastating impact on young people, especially women, many of whom have had either to abandon their studies, or may no longer be inclined to pursue university education because they lack the ability to pay. What is so wrong about stating this truth?
Before a partisan DLP audience, Stuart angrily accused Sir Hilary of wanting to run a rival government from Cave Hill.
“Barbados has one Government and I consider it most disrespectful and ungracious for any principal of the Cave Hill Campus of the University of the West Indies or any other principal of any other educational institution in Barbados to pose as an alternative government of Barbados,” Stuart posited.
Let’s carry the argument further. Are we to take it that from now on, if the Chamber of Commerce, for example, trade union movement, media, any other interest group or private individual dares to criticize any aspect of Government policy, they too will be accused of presenting themselves as an alternative government? It begs the question: is this the promise of the coming “Freundelian” republic?
Coming from a man with a background in logic, Stuart’s position is most baffling. It raises some additional questions. Is Stuart saying that Government policy is sacrosanct? Was this the articulation of a new doctrine of governmental infallibility going forward? If that’s the case, then it is fundamentally at odds with the finest traditions of democracy that encourage free and open discussion, especially on issues relating to public policy.
But do you realize what is particularly ironic about Stuart’s behaviour last Sunday? Here is a politician who roundly condemned former Prime Minister Owen Arthur in the last general election for launching similar personal attacks when he was in office, suggested he would adopt a gentle approach, and told Barbadians they should reject Arthur on these grounds and choose him.
“By their fruit,” Jesus reminds us, “you will recognize them.”
Often the utterances of politicians –– and I’ve been around them long enough to know –– are but a reflection of what is going on deep inside at an emotional and psychological level. Words, after all, are but a mirror of the soul. They convey our innermost thoughts and feelings. They are also a politician’s main tool.
If you carefully study a person’s words, you can learn a lot about how that person feels.
Politicians like to come across, especially in the presence of supporters, as being tough when confronted with challenge and adversity. However, in their private moments away from the cheering crowd and often in the presence of close advisors, they bare their souls, revealing disappointments, fears and insecurities.
Such moments reveal the vulnerability of politicians who are not the supermen and superwomen they sometimes would like people to believe, but fragile human beings like everybody else.
Running Barbados in the prevailing circumstances has to be really hard on the Dems, and Stuart in particular. Like everybody else, they too have emotional wants, including a basic need to feel accepted and appreciated. No one likes to feel despised and rejected, as the findings of the latest CADRES Poll suggest is happening with the Dems. Stuart’s outburst, therefore, seems to be the anguished reaction of a man who feels his back is against the wall.
Given his national and regional stature, Sir Hilary’s critique of current education policy obviously touched a raw nerve. I believe the Dems realize, deep inside, that they have made a grave mistake. After all, free education is what has always defined the DLP political brand and differentiated it from the Barbados Labour Party (BLP). With the destruction of free education, what the DLP now stands for has become somewhat blurred.
The tragedy for the Dems is that they are so out of favour with Barbadians that nothing they say or do seems to be good enough, except, of course, among diehard supporters for whom the party can do no wrong. The situation, however, is largely of their own making.
Had they engaged Barbadians in a meaningful way about issues affecting their lives in the present context of the economic adjustment, they could have won some public understanding.
In the same way that Stuart regards Sir Hilary’s comments as disrespectful, many Barbadians view his silence as not only disrespectful but also contemptuous. As a result, he squandered the tremendous goodwill which existed for the Dems and himself at the time of his elevation to the office of Prime Minister on the death of David Thompson. The relationship now with Barbadians is seriously fractured.
Stuart’s outburst, for me personally, was a sad spectacle. I genuinely wanted him to succeed as Prime Minister as a fellow “Philipeen” and Foundation old boy –– not to mention because too of our family ties, our shared love of Latin and literature, and our political schooling at the feet of Sir James Tudor.
I saw in Stuart certain qualities which, if highlighted and effectively marketed, could have transformed him into a great leader Barbadians would have embraced.
He cannot say I was unwilling to share my political expertise and counsel. However, a true strategist always knows, from reading the signs, when it is right to stay or leave. And so there came a time, just before the last general election, when I resolved not to be caught loitering on the Prime Ministerial premises after closing time.
It will take nothing short of a miracle to roll back the tide for the Dems. The odds are unfavourable but, sometimes in politics, miracles do occur. If nothing else, that slim possibility is sufficient reason for the Dems to keep hope alive.
(Reudon Eversley is a political strategist, strategic communication specialist and journalist. Email: [email protected])