The political and economic failure of Barbados is like a slow motion car crash which onlookers are powerless to do anything about. As we look on, we can see the economy heading for a reinforced wall like a speeding, driverless car; we observe our leading institutions collapsing like a pack of over-used cards, while the high priests and priestesses of society preach about the solidity of these very flawed institutions. It is like Armageddon, we run screaming to the captains of industry, but there is nothing they can do; we plead with our politicians, but they are not listening; we ask our professionals for help, but they are pre-occupied with feathering their own nests. Repeating the growing lists of failings may hurt, but that is not like the pain felt by the marginalised, the disadvantaged, the outcasts. Like the man left on the floor of the hospital for four hours without any attention, then only to have a kind soul throw a sheet over him; like the man who collapsed at the wheel of his vehicle, only to find that calls for an ambulance could not be met – while the so-called Defence Force has an abundance of ambulances. Like a government refusing to pay Mr Barrack, while still pretending that it can engage in big capital projects.
Death of a Dream:
I seem to pinpoint the historical juncture when this rot set in when we started Barbadianising all our top management and public sector positions, regardless of the quality of the talent to fill those positions. This runs from the quality of programming at CBC, the leadership of our secondary schools and the nature of decision-making in the public sector. The only explanation is the rise of a petit-bourgeois nationalism in the years since constitutional independence which, in many ways, is driving the nation back in to the dark days of neo-colonial rule. The dominant belief now is that, no matter which political party one belongs to or support, this Barbadianisation of public sector jobs is a social priority over and above the quality of the service we deliver to the long-suffering public. In many ways, the irony is that this retreat in to a self-protective nationalism is taking place while the island itself is giving way to new forms of Barbadian-ness. This weakness is in most part an outcome of a weak public intellectual movement, as a reflection of the wider ruling elite. It is a small elite which has found it intellectually and politically cosy not challenging each other and accepting a consensus which is not ideologically tested in any way.
It is clear that one of the failures of constitutional independence has been the inability to craft a new paradigm to define the new society. The nearest we got, in terms of intellectual depth and social awareness, and indeed clarity, was the essay written by Austin ‘Tom’ Clarke in the independence issue of New World magazine in which he analysed the social and cultural symbolism of the canal that divided Combermere and Harrison College. Many young readers may not understand the significance of the great divide, but that moss-filled elaborate gutter between what is now the Transport Board and Harrison College stands for everything there is not to like about social class in Barbados.
Another feature of our society that is taken for granted is the notion of the Westminster/Whitehall model. Of course, it is not true; ours is a flawed democracy in which we exchange a semi-authoritarianism for a vote every five years; it is a society that pays lip service to human rights, to being meritocracy, to equal rights. None of these important issues are debated and defined by the ordinary people, or in parliament. A good example of this failure of democracy was the decision by Barrow to disestablish the church – no discussion, no demand – in order to spite Ernest D. Mottley, the Mayor of Bridgetown. In doing so Barrow also destroyed a tier of government that had, and would have continued to, strengthened our democracy. Our bicameral parliament is also out of synch with the grand model of Westminster/Whitehall. Others societies that have taken the same model have moved on: Ireland (now voting to get rid of the Upper House), New Zealand, and, of course, Scandinavia.
Our major failing, especially in times of trouble, is the lack of a collective vision; of the kind of society we aspire to. At least the Americans have a dream, in Barbados, even our most audacious dream is more like a nightmare. Take for example, the great promise of constitutional independence was that we as citizens could shape the future of our nation ourselves. The unarticulated feature was that the traditional merchant class will dominate the business sector, while the African community, using its numerical dominance, will control the political. This has failed. There is an obligation too on the part of native white Barbadians to play an active role in elective, rather than just hide behind the canvas of business or whisper from the sidelines. At no time since constitutional independence have Barbadian politicians faced a battle of ideas, ideological differences have never crossed the boundaries of their inward-looking politics. The crudity of personality politics and the opportunism of expediency have always been the benchmarks of electability. Take the key issues, such as modernisation, the economic crisis, the bloated public payroll, education, the collapse of the criminal justice system – in none of these has there been opposing views, apart from the juvenile one of tuition fees. It is a politics that has drifted in to a comfort zone, with no energy, no passion, no commitment. In important areas that are crying out for clarity, such as the role of the state and its relations with individuals and firms, there is not a single word. Not even when the DLP government imposed charges on treatment at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, breaking a social compact that went back for generation, there was not a whisper from the Opposition, from health workers, nor from a representative group of patients. In time, the New Barbadians will push both communities to one side and take control. I say within 25 years, many others put the time span a bit shorter.
But what are we to make of a situation in which within 24 hours of independence the former colonial governor became our first governor general, in which our police force became as Royal Barbados Police Force, and admittedly three years earlier, our general hospital became the Queen Elizabeth Hospital. It was as if the pride of constitutional independence has passed us by.
Analysis and Conclusion:
There is no grand narrative of our island story, no social and cultural historical guide through the highways and byways that brought us to where wee are. All there is is a romanticism, a fairy tale that satisfies our thirst for a story with a happy ending, whether it is that we are terribly well educated, that we are the best cricketers in the world, that we punch above our weight – whatever it is we must perform above our station, our place in the cosmos. Of course, since we have failed to develop a coherent political culture, we often have to fall back on personal abuse and political tribalism to fill the vacuum. But a culture of factionalism has become part of our social and political DNA, an easy way of defining who we are and our place in the narrow universe of Barbadian-ness. We live in a society that has lost its humanity, its empathy for the down and out, the unfortunate, the maimed and the just unfortunate.
From 3000 miles away, it looks as if Barbados has lost its heart, that it is an every man and woman for her/his self society. It is a society in which kindness is now seen as a moral weakness, where friends and relatives steal from each other like bandits and think nothing is morally wrong with such behaviour. It is a society in which it appears as if the church – but not mosques, temples or synagogues – has most its moral authority, has failed to give moral direction to the rest of society.
This nonchalance is the reaction of a people who are tired, worn out, exhausted, not sure where they are going or where they came from. It is a politics, a social narrative, in which inherited assumptions are allowed to drift along by succeeding generations without as much as a sceptical question.
Take the folly of ‘free’ education: this 1960s mantra, said by Errol Barrow as a platform gimmick, has become a kind of creed, a central part of our belief system that is not challenged by one side or the other. One of our great intellectuals even called it a social contract; what nonsense.
At a time when we should be debating the kind of educational system we need, fast-tracking the brightest and best, and providing adequate remedial lessons for those who are slow and in danger of being left behind, we are bogged down in a juvenile row about tuition fees.
At a time when we should be moving towards upgrading the status of teachers to the highest professional level, we have public sector unions involved in ragamuffin rows about class room power.
At a time when we should be devolving power and decision-making to school heads, we have some petty jobsworth, in their cheap suits and nylon shirts telling heads not to speak to the press without prior approval.
A nation that spends millions of dollars on educating young men and women sits silently by as these young people are left idle and hopeless hanging out on the block while the few who managed to get jobs pontificate on how best to punish these young people. Some of us weep quietly inside when we see the quality of the people who aspire to be our leaders, when we see the parents and children of our contemporaries, when we see our home towns and villages and how they have declined, and know within our hearts that there are so many of us who can do lots better.
Barbados does not deserve this level of greed, selfishness, and incompetence; a once outstanding island-state, a people with great pride and decency, now lay helpless on the altar of a putrid, talentless middle class of our own making.
Let me finish on an issue which I think symbolises this moral decay: not a single one of our members of parliament, in these tough times, the toughest since independence and may be since the abolition of slavery, has volunteered to take a symbolic salary cut, even though most of them have second and third salaries. This tells us all we want to know about those who aspire to be our leaders.