Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author(s) do not represent the official position of Barbados TODAY.
By Ralph Jemmott
Barbados is by most markers a functioning liberal democratic polity. It cannot, by any rational standard of critique, be considered a Fascist state, an authoritarian state, an oligarchy or plutocracy or a theocracy. It is by no means a perfect democracy, but no polity on God’s good earth run by human beings can ever be considered perfect. Maybe we should be reminded of the warning not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. In his 2002 publication Caribbean Constitutional Reform: Rethinking the West Indian Polity, the late Simeon C. R. McIntosh wrote: “Today Barbados is the most stable parliamentary democracy in the Commonwealth Caribbean. It boasts the longest tradition of parliamentary government of the Westminster model.”
The tradition of the Barbadian parliamentary government dates back to 1639, when the then Governor Hawley called for the election of burgesses for a General Assembly to represent a very limited number of enfranchised persons on the island. Two years later, in 1641, that Assembly was afforded the right to initiate legislation, making it a representative body notwithstanding its highly oligarchical character. The truly democratic character in Barbadian political life only goes back to the Franchise Act of 1950, which was issued in universal adult suffrage. It should be remembered that in the latter sense, Britain itself only became a true democracy in 1928 when it acquired universal suffrage.
Since we took charge of our own internal governance in November 1966, Barbados has held firmly to the central tenets of liberal democratic ideals and praxis. This has afforded us many of the practices of which we can be justly proud. My assumption is that one supports the liberal democratic ideals of individual liberty, equality under the law, and social justice. Maybe there are some who don’t.
Barbadians can boast of:
1. Free and fair elections within a multi-party structure that have produced peaceful, seamless transfers of government following every election. This may have been due to a relatively high level of political morality in general and to the integrity of Barbados’ political leadership more specifically. In contrast, since independence in 1960, Nigeria has spent over 27 years under some form of military rule.
2. Significantly, Barbados has stuck to the constitutional guarantee of the separation of the three arms of government, the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary. In Barbados, it might be fair to say that the Law underpins the regulative institutions of human society.
3. Generally speaking, within the confines of Law, freedoms of expression, of association and of assembly have been respected. As far as one knows, there are no prisoners of conscience in Dodds’ penitentiary. While the laws relating to libel are seen as comparatively constricting, they exist to protect the individual from criminal slander. Generally speaking, for better or for worse, the local press tends to exercise an appreciably high level of self-censorship. It is difficult to say whether this is due primarily to the stringency of the libel laws or the Barbadian natural tendency to caution and moderation.
An American statesman speaking of the United States once stated that “we must make better the ‘promise’ of our democracy by making better the ‘practice’ of our democracy.” Liberal democracy is fundamentally about two things. It is about the active participation of the governed in their own governance and the accountability of those who govern to the populace who elected them.
By both measures, the practice of Barbadian and by extension Caribbean democracies fall short of the full promise of constitutional liberalism. Much is said about participatory democracy, but much of the talk is little more than ‘fluff.’ Most politicians seem not to really want active popular participation and, by and large, the people themselves don’t demand it. The result is a perpetuation of what West Indian scholars used to call ‘the hero and the crowd syndrome.’ Any attempt at constitutional reform must be premised on the objective of improving the practice of our democracy.
In Barbados, people complain about not seeing their parliamentary representative between elections or that when they call the representative’s office, they have to speak to a surrogate. Members of Parliament often claim to welcome transparency and accountability, but shy away from both if it does not suit the particular government’s interests. Freedom of information and the citizen’s right to know are things more honoured in the breach than in the observance. As a result, so much remains hidden in the shadows and, as a consequence, given the virology of social media, rumours spread like a cane fire. One example. As the government prepared to buy more electric buses, is it true that a number of the first imports have broken down and if so with what consequences? They were bought with taxpayers’ money and we, the hard-pressed taxpayers, have every right to know.
One significant deficit in our democracy is a fault in financial accountability. Referencing the 2019 Public Finance Management Act, Independent Senator Crystal Drakes recently pointed to the necessity for an annual account of the operations and financial management of all central government and related state agencies. There have been indications of an absence of consistent and timely annual reports by both administrations that have formed Barbados’ government, but few seem to really care.
One is not sure whether it is the fact that the present government twice won 30 to 0 victories at the poll, but there seems to be a growing lack of transparency in our governance. The absence of transparency is not new and not confined to the present administration. Could it be that having won two successive and convincing victories, the present BLP Government has come to think that it can ignore criticism or seek to silence any semblance of dissent? The tenor of the discourse by government senators over the 2023 Appropriation Bill left much to be desired, if we seriously want to ameliorate the promise and the practice of our democracy. But there are those among us who believe that having been given a sinecure, they must defend it to the death.
The voter turnout in the last election was very low and although the DLP won no seats, it garnered a significant portion of the popular vote. The results of the last election were not for our comfort and must be corrected. The BLP and its supporters must not be led to believe that they now own the post-colonial plantation and the majority of Negroes on it.
Ralph Jemmott is a retired educator and regular contributor on social issues.