Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by this author are their own and do not represent the official position of the Barbados Today Inc.
by Ralph Jemmott
The passing of Sir Courtney Blackman has left another void in the intellectual culture of Barbados. Over the last two decades we have lost a number of what some call, “engaged intellectuals.”
These comprised persons such as Gladstone Holder, Richard Allsopp, Leonard St. Hill, Leonard Shorey, Oliver Jackman and Frances Chandler. They comprised a cadre of commentators to whom one could turn for informed, critical, balanced and objectively measured judgment, whether we agreed with them or not.
Today things are quite different. The discourse is led by the Brass Tacks ‘regular callers,’ Mr. P, Tall Boy, Alvin, Straker’s Tenantry, Rawle and the indefatigable Miss Undecided. The intelligentsia by and large have withdrawn from meaningful conversation.
In the April 1989 edition of ‘The New Bajan Magazine,’ Courtney Backman wrote a piece entitled 20-20 Vision. It was a follow-up to a December 1987 article in the same publication, titled “A new vision for a new age.”
In that earlier commentary, Blackman extolled the vision of Grantley Adams, Errol Barrow and Tom Adams. In the 1989 article Sir Courtney seemed to be saying that after Mr. Barrow’s passing, Barbadian leadership and Barbados itself suffered from what he saw as a lack of intellectual vision.
Blackman was big on ‘vision’ and he quoted King Solomon’s adage in the Book of Proverbs, that, “where there is no vision, the people perish.” What the former Central Bank Governor also observed was that all visions are limited by time.
In fact he claimed that one year into his second term, “the great man had grown weary and that like Grantley Adams 20 years earlier, he, (Barrow) had reached the limits of his vision.”
He asserted perhaps somewhat harshly that: “The vision which had sustained his earlier mission sufficed no longer, so that he could offer his victorious party no dynamic programme similar to that of 1961.”
He concluded that, “Barrow was obviously ailing, his efforts were feverish and his performance inconsistent and sometimes puzzling.”
Thus Blackman concluded that Lloyd Erskine Sandiford inherited what he called ‘an untidy legacy.’ Interestingly, Sir Courtney did not blame the post 1987 decline solely on Mr. Sandiford and Mr. Richard Haynes.
He saw it as reflecting a broader deficiency, what he termed, “a desolate intellectual landscape,” where there was “no comparable structure of intellectual ideas which might inform a new vision.”
Sir Courtney contended that: “Politicians do not usually think up visions for themselves. They are informed by the insights of contemporary economic, social and political thinkers.”
Thus the older Adams drew on the intellects of persons like Charles Duncan O’Neal, Clennel Wickham, Captain Cipriani and T.A. Marryshaw. Barrow drew his vision on the inspiration of the writings of the prominent New World Group, thinkers such as Norman Girvan, Lloyd Best, Owen Jefferson, Havelock Brewster, Clive Thomas and George Beckford.
Tom Adams, who Blackman considered the most intellectually gifted of Barbadian leaders, was more of a pragmatist. His vision was less ideologically oriented and more practically driven.
His was a vision of improvement, modernisation and institutional strengthening. Blackman wrote, “In 1986 the per capita income of Barbados overtook not only that of Greece and Ireland, but also that of two former imperial nations, Portugal and Spain.”
Barrow’s death left a avoid. Since as Sir Courtney stated, nature abhors a vacuum, into this “visionless void” rushed “many worthless and visionless issues.” The most “worthless and visionless” issue being the so-called race-talk about redressing historical grievances, that began to absorb so much of the country’s intellectual energies.
Much of this talk was emotive, non-constructive, ill-measured and foolish in the extreme. There was for example, dangerous talk of “swinging cudgels with malice.”
The Central Bank governor wrote: “The ugliest legacy of slavery must be the inferiority complex which propels some members of a black majority comprising 96 percent of the population and holding 100 percent of all cabinet and judicial positions to seek ‘historical redress’ against a four percent minority of whites.”
I have argued elsewhere that Sir Courtney overstated the case when he contended that Blacks in Barbados because they comprised a majority of the population, were also the de facto controllers of the economy.
A white minority dominating a small economy can act as a countervailing force against a black majority by virtue of its economic hegemony and its ability to influence the politics. This may be particularly true where white capital can be seen to influence monetary inflows into black politics.
The decline of the Barbadian economy between June 1987 and 1994 reflected more a lack of competent management than any absence of intellectual vision.
It became apparent that what had held the Democratic Labour Party together was the presence and force of Barrow’s personality. Once that was gone, the group began to fissure and things have never been quite the same.
Petty contention between ‘the second most powerful man in the country’ and the heir apparent did not help, as intellectual vision slid more and more into the background. Erskine Sandiford himself once that “Vision is vision and Action is action.”
There is some truth to this. Lofty vision is not always transportable into political praxis. It is sometimes more reflective of what the American Democratic strategist James Carville recently termed University “faculty lounge jargon” than anything applicable to real strategy.
In fact Sir Courtney admitted that for all its scholarly erudition, much of the socialist vision articulated by the New World group did not bear the fruits expected.
However, it is always problematic when there is neither vision nor competent practice. In the late 1980’s the Barbadian economy always subject to adverse external shocks and now requiring of expert direction, was less than well managed and the country ended up in the clutches of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) from which it escaped by the skin of its teeth.
Ralph Jemmott is a respected retired educator.