Right across the political divide, indeed through its temporary obliteration, Barbadians at home and abroad, critic and supporter, tribal friend and foe, have been forced cruelly to reckon with loss in what has become for many Barbados our annus horribilis.
It there is a year that Fate itself would choose to rob us of an incisive intellect, dedicated public servant, pragmatic optimist and passionate and determined statesman it would be AD 2020.
For great loss is what we must contend with. The biblical mandate is three score years and ten but only now was Owen Seymour Arthur set to enter yet another dimension of his invaluable life – composing his experiences into memories.
Not for the first time, Barbados has been deprived of the memoirs of a great Barbadian statesman. This is not the expectation of the salacious tell-all but of a much-awaited tome on leadership in straitened circumstances, stewardship of a tiny economic space and the long struggle for dignity and equity for the descendants of the enslaved, the proverbial common Barbadian man and woman.
If economics is the study of scarcity then there could be no better craft for which a great leader’s mind was prepared. In so doing, he bucked trends and blazed trails all in the quest to reinforce the bedrock for the sustainability of the Barbadian Way. He did not invent it but he secured it. He did not have the gifts of poetic oratory yet he governed in a quintessentially Barbadian prose.
Across the Caribbean, the constituency strongholds of prime ministers are notorious for their penury and neglect but this son of St Peter transformed his northern parish from provincial backwater to modern hub of heritage and tourism, where modern infrastructure, improved public services and better quality of life are now benchmarks for constituency politics.
He took an electorally moribund political party, steeped in tradition and image of patrician wealth, where the privilege of birth and station conferred untold benefits and enforced rigid exclusion – a legacy of its absorption of the Barbados National Party and its Conservative Party forebears – into the party of majority as of May 2018.
He showed how tiny states could make a way where there is no way, and studied not only their management but their value to the world.
He created a regional economic space against the nihilism and pessimism of suspicious fellow CARICOM nationals.
He embraced the pathology of the iconic Father of the Nation – the leader of the party opposite – and cemented his place in history as the colossus with a common touch after the fashion of Errol Barrow.
In the coming days, many will ask what is Owen Arthur’s legacy?
Will it be schools or hospitals or ports or government buildings?
Perhaps it will be a vibrant, living path to governing that shows what great things small states can accomplish. A small island need not mean a population of small minds but it can illuminate the beauty of humility, and sense and sensibility, of making a way in the big world.
His will also be the legacy of the courage of conviction that ultimately eschewed tribalism, party favours, and the cover of colours.
Did he get things wrong? Yes, spectacularly so? Was he always and every day a champion of justice? No. But no one who loses a parent lionises his or her greatness and ignores the lessons learnt of how to be different and better. He would want us to be better.
Still, no mean achievement in a Barbados where class, race and hide-bound tradition have interposed themselves between birth and achievement. He did more than anyone in the modern era to wreck those barriers.
His decision to end his political life as an Independent is an object lesson in the value of knowing that no one party holds all the answers. His departure is fully embraced in the Barbados that Barrow created. The Constitution of Barbados does not recognise political parties, the tribes. Neither did he, apparently. And this is a good thing. It is a lesson for all who follow him to learn.
The fate of the DLP can be the BLP’s some day, too. The party is not what is paramount. The people of Barbados are. Owen Arthur saw to that.
There was still so much more this humble shopkeeper’s son from Benn Hill had to offer a nation, region, Commonwealth and globe.
There was still so much to learn from him on the fiscal management of a small island nation.
And just as how evolved from long-suffering opposition parliamentarian to iconic statesman, so has our nation – from a self-regarding, self-important outcrop of mid-Atlantic rock into a nation full of promise and purpose.
Would that we had more time with him.
Farewell, Owen Seymour Arthur.
Requiescat in pace.