Former Prime Minister Freundel Stuart walked away from elective politics this past week with his personal integrity completely intact. His tenure as leader of the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) Government has been one where his honesty and uncompromising commitment to correctness and lawfulness has never been questioned. Still, Barbados’ political history will not be particularly kind to him.
Mr Stuart presided over his party’s darkest hour on May 24 when the DLP was punished across the length and breadth of Barbados with an unprecedented 30-0 rejection at the polls. He will be remembered as the political leader who ceded the St John fortress to the Opposition Barbados Labour Party (BLP) without even a whimper. In many ways, he will also be remembered as the reluctant prime minister, the self-confessed sleeping giant, who perhaps woke too spasmodically for the majority of the Barbadian electorate. Plenty of the DLP’s embers have been of his own creation but accelerant has been provided by both friend and foe.
Mr Stuart was thrust into the definitive limelight by the passing of his predecessor Mr David Thompson in October, 2010. But then he won his own narrow mandate in 2013. There has been a public perception from Mr Stuart’s days as parliamentary representative for St Philip South in the mid-1990s that he is very reticent. Whether true or false, some have even attributed a degree of sloth to him. His reluctance to take direct responsibility for the engine room that is the Ministry of Finance did nothing to dispel this belief in many quarters.
Unlike several large democracies and some not-so-democratic, where leaders can risk being emotionally detached from the electorate, our small regional democracies adore charismatic, easily accessible, highly visible and vocal leaders. Mr Stuart could not have been convicted of demonstrating these traits. His tenure as political leader coincided with a world recession and tough economic times for Barbados. Perhaps Mr Stuart could have taken the electorate more into his confidence, be a better communicator and use every medium available to engender confidence in Barbadians that there was light at the end of the recession tunnel. During the 2013 general election, he promised to be more engaging with the public but this proved to be the typical politician’s promise. The sewage problem on the south coast begged for greater communication from the DLP’s leader.
Late British leader Sir Winston Churchill once stated that for a nation to try to tax itself into prosperity was like a man standing in a bucket and trying to lift himself up by the handle. There is the belief among numerous Barbadians that increased taxation was the Stuart administration’s first, second and third option in the attempt to lift the country out of its economic morass. Of course, this was not true. Additional efforts in the tourism and agriculture sectors and cuts in public sector spending were among the other strategies. However, increased taxation and consistent downgrades were also part of the Barbadian reality. And after ten years, whatever the Stuart administration attempted to posit as evidence of inevitable recovery fact, was convincingly dismissed by the BLP as preposterous DLP fiction.
The BLP under the leadership of Prime Minister Mia Mottley ran a brilliant general election campaign filled with messages, merriment, media support and promises of manna – now ostensibly to be provided by an obese 30-member Cabinet. Conversely, the St John fiasco typified the DLP’s campaign confusion and the reality that the sleeping giant was indeed still snoring. Former Prime Minister Owen Arthur had suggested during the 2011 St John by-election that Mr Thompson’s widow, Mara Thompson, was a poor candidate to replace him and so it proved. Her selection by the DLP, in hindsight, was a kneejerk reaction to her husband’s passing. She should have perhaps turned the approach down but she accepted and proceeded to win 89.30 per cent of the votes cast. Seven years later the constituency was shown complete and shameful disrespect, firstly by Miss Thompson’s denial that she was quitting elective politics, and secondly by her 11th-hour decision to quit officially. St John deserved better. To be brutally frank, after 60 years of loyalty to the DLP, no candidate from that party merited a single vote. Some might argue that Mr George Pilgrim received 1598 votes too many.
Of course, Mr Stuart’s demise received open and covert fuel. In a depressed economy, the National Union of Public Workers’ (NUPW) insistence on a 23 per cent salary hike was palpably ridiculous. But yet there were work go-slows, marches, strikes and general pressure from an uncompromising NUPW. It will be interesting to see if the 23 per cent hike now suddenly looks ridiculous to the NUPW as well with the change of Government. The Hyatt hotel project on Bay Street would have provided jobs and stimulated the economy to some extent but it was frustrated by legal injunctions initiated by attorney David Comissiong. It will be interesting to see if the project or any other on Bay Street now suddenly looks feasible to Prime Minister Mottley’s cousin with the change of Government.
Perhaps, the Eager Eleven that supposedly never was, should have been. A change at the top might have brought a different approach and perspective to the DLP’s house that Mr Stuart supervised. Now that it is burnt, Barbadians will wait to see who is the phoenix that rises from the ashes to restore the edifice that founding father Errol Barrow originally built. A thriving democracy demands it.