Barbados’ transition from a constitutional monarchy to a parliamentary republic has rekindled a decades-old discussion about the legacy of the country’s first prime minister and the father of independence, The Right Excellent Errol Walton Barrow.
At a superficial level, a fierce debate is raging about whether the timing of the highly touted transition, on the eve of Independence, was deliberately intended to somehow tamper with Barrow’s legacy.
In an attempt to provide total clarity, Prime Minister Mia Mottley has promised that far from trying to erase Barrow’s legacy, her administration’s intention is to complete it.
“We are trying to finish what [Barrow] would have wanted to finish if circumstances allowed him in 1966,” she said.
There is, however, a deeper discussion to be had about the extent to which the events around November 30, 2021 truly represent the completion of Barrow’s legacy, particularly his famous warnings about loitering on colonial premises.
Retired Professor Pedro Welch, a celebrated historian, explained that Barrow emerged at a period in which Barbadians were in need of more wide-ranging social reforms than existed during the tenure of Sir Grantley Adams as Barbados’ premier.
And, with the newly founded Democratic Labour Party (DLP), Barrow immediately led the country to independence with a system that introduced a fully democratised system of education, improved healthcare systems, and the introduction of a comprehensive social security scheme.
“My understanding of the legacy is that Errol Barrow was a visionary who put in place structures and systems that have positioned Barbados to be where it is,” said Professor Welch.
“When we received the designation as the number one developing country in the world, not under his administration but later, it was really built on what he had put in place. I am thinking immediately of such things as the expansion of secondary education to the masses. Before that time, many of the persons who attended secondary schools probably would not have been able to attend the better placed secondary schools and many of them would have left secondary schools probably at about age 14 or 15. Things changed,” the historian declared.
The prioritisation of social and economic development ushered in a new Barbadian middle class.
This has led many to wonder why the political leader’s spirit of self-determination never led him to fully immerse the country in the republican experience, especially given the British monarch’s legacy of oppression in the country.
“Basically, most people do not read our history carefully. The fact is that Errol Barrow understood that the public of Barbados were not yet fully able to make the transition that would come later,” Professor Welch explained.
“He knew that it would take a process of education and development. When he made the point that we should not loiter on the colonial premises anymore, he was really speaking about a vision for the future, and when he asked the question, ‘what kind of mirror image we have for our lives?’, he was really speaking very loudly of a vision for change.
“There are some people who might think that he took us only so far and no further. The fact, however, remains that if you look at the Constitution of Barbados, the Independence Order… it had, embedded within it, a place for what I may call parliamentary supremacy,” the academic said.
It was this doctrine of parliamentary supremacy, Professor Welch said, that has allowed PM Mottley to make the necessary transition, with a two-thirds majority in Parliament.
“That’s why we did not need a referendum to go towards republican status. And whilst a referendum would have been useful, and I honestly think it would have been very useful to gauge the public’s view, the fact remains that Errol Walton Barrow put in place the mechanisms that we use today. The mechanisms that led us to make the change to the Governor General’s designation, all of that was built, in principle, on what Errol Barrow gave us in 1996,” he contended.
“I would think that were he alive, this transition would not have caught him back-footed. He would have embraced this. The very movements towards [the Caribbean Community] CARICOM, after [the Caribbean Free Trade Area] CARIFTA, demonstrated that he was willing to push the boundaries of our then existence and push us toward greater things. I have absolutely no doubt that were he alive, he would embrace change. The only thing I think he would have insisted on is a greater involvement of the public of Barbados in the discussions leading toward the change,” added Welch.
He was also adamant that the republic transition is “absolutely not” the culmination or end product of Barrow’s legacy. On the contrary, the historian explained that with much-needed constitutional reforms and governance structures still lingering, there was still a lot of work to be done.
“In fact, I believe that the result of our last election…in which the Democratic Labour Party only won two seats and the one where the BLP [Barbados Labour Party] was limited to three seats in Parliament, that tells us that we need a system of proportional representation of some kind and there are ways of doing it,” Welch declared.
“We need a system where every single political party will have a stake and a share in our governance and the people, by extension, would have a stake in our governance as well. So, I do not believe that the promulgation of a republic is the end of anything. I think it is really just the start of an evolutionary process that I expect will continue in the future,” he concluded.
This article appears in the November 29 edition of the Independence publication. Read the full publication here