“Friends Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears.
Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.”
~ William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
Towards the end of 2007, with the 2008 general election looming, I wrote the article Many Thanks, Mr Arthur. The article, a strong criticism of the Arthur administration, concluded, “You cannot put new wine into old wineskins. Mr Arthur has fought the good fight and has run his course and I think it is fitting for us to thank him for his stewardship. He is good to go home.”
Twelve years and three prime ministers later, I want to record my sincere gratitude to the Right Honourable Owen Seymour Arthur, the youngest and longest serving Prime Minister in the history of Barbados. I offer deepest condolences to his family, friends and to our nation.
At the time of penning my critique I didn’t know him but like every Bajan knew of him. Despite a diminutive stature, he bestrode our political landscape like a colossus overshadowing all others. I eventually would get to know and appreciate him; he even offered mentorship, but I knew my calling was to the constituency of Christ.
Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. Greatness was presented to Mr Arthur in 1994 when the Sandiford administration imploded, and he embraced it.
As a UWI-trained economist, he would capitalise on the fiscal stringency of the Sandiford administration and the windfall from the then new Value-Added Tax (VAT). Further, by leveraging a largely unknown tax agreement with Canada, he transformed the international business sector and Barbados became, behind the US and UK, the third highest destination for Canadian investment.
With the Barbadian economy finally standing on two strong legs and a robust global economy, Mr Arthur would match his economic stewardship with political acumen. With youthful vigour, he enacted populist policies including the urban and rural development programmes, the restoration of the eight per cent cut to public employees pay and prohibition of further cuts, calling for a graduate in every household and for a car in every garage.
These ‘bigfoot’ moves and others, including the Order of National Hero with the recognition of the genius of Sir Garfield Sobers, and an acknowledgement of his predecessor with a knighthood, would allow him to dominate the Barbados political landscape like no other. The emergence of “Owen-Dems” and his “politics of inclusion,” would near obliterate the DLP at the polls in 1999. An unprecedented outcome until recently.
Mr Arthur emulated the Right Excellent Errol Walton Barrow, defining him as “the most complete leader, and the most outstanding citizen Barbados has ever known.” He valiantly expounded Mr Barrow’s foreign policies towards regionalism and being a “friend of all and satellite of none.”
While at the Commonwealth Secretariat, I witnessed him put Barbados and small states on the map as he led the Commonwealth-World Bank Joint Task Force on Small States. With considerably less success, through no fault of his own, he would similarly attempt to push CARICOM beyond a common market to the Caribbean Single Market and Economy. He would forever be remembered for his rejection of the US Shiprider Agreement with his comment, “Sovereignty is not divisible. For us it was won after a long struggle by those who believe that ‘massa day done’.”
In his journey from humble origins to the very apex of success, Mr Arthur showed that anyone can influence their destiny. However, while some may appear masters of their fates, their summation is not to be found in the stars but themselves.
As the global and local economic situation deteriorated, Mr Arthur borrowed heavily, particularly locally, causing the debt-to-GDP ratio to soar. In 2008, faced with a global recession, the succeeding Thompson administration had little wiggle room. Lacking financial expertise and fiscal prudence, they were unable to avoid the slippery slope ahead. The rest, as they say, is history.
Mr Arthur, in my opinion, was Barrowesque also in his social vision and pragmatism. Regrettably, he lacked the social acuity that Mr Barrow possessed and he needed to traverse the highly stratified, harsh and oft impenetrable boundaries of Barbadian society. His social uncertainties would sometimes manifest themselves in undeserved rebukes.
Had Mr Arthur taken up the growth opportunity from the early offer of a place at Harvard University, his story may have been written and ended differently; but so perhaps would have ours.
Aware, particularly in Barbados, that bad news travels fastest and that “the evil that men do lives after them and the good is oft interred with their bones,” I sought to break with tradition to offer what thanks I could to him while he was still alive. Regrettably, my actions did not correlate with the Lord’s time. He fought the good fight.
Having boldly written his name on our history’s page, we can with all sincerity praise Mr Arthur for his service this “rock” that we, like he, so dearly loved. Let us pray for the repose of his soul and for those close to him, particularly his wife Julie and daughters Sabrina and Leah. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.
The Reverend Ambassador Guy Hewitt serves as a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida. He served as Barbados’ High Commissioner to the UK.