BU shares the Jeff Cumberbatch Barbados Advocate column – Senior Lecturer in law at the University of the West Indies since 1983, a Columnist with the Barbados Advocate
Musings: Novel political realities
TWO recent events on the local partisan political scene would appear to lend some credence to the view that we are indeed living in a radically different era from that which obtained in the relatively recent past. Premier between these must be the reported appointment of former Barbados Labour Party Prime Minister, Mr. Owen Arthur MP [Ind. – St. Peter] as the chairman of Council of Economic Advisors to the current governing Democratic Labour Party administration. From one perspective, this engagement that has remained undisputed by either party in the public domain for what is now a substantial period, evidences a political maturity not hitherto seen in the local political culture, but one that is frequently observed in more mature democracies where the incentive to serve the national interest outweighs mere partisan alliance.
Thus, without forsaking their political allegiance to one group, some members of the political class find it possible, once requested, to serve willingly in an administration controlled by their political opponents.
This seems to be par for the course in the US where, from the earliest days of the Union, Presidents have appointed members of a party philosophy antithetical to his to serve in some rather significant posts. Current President Barack Obama, a Democrat, would seem to have outdone his predecessors in office in this context, having appointed no fewer than 17 Republicans to important political posts, ranging from Secretary of Defence (twice), through Chairman of the Federal Reserve, to Secretary of Transportation.
In less recent times, the Republican Robert McNamara served as Secretary of Defence in the Cabinets of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, both Democratic presidents. Remarkably, he had as company at one time or another in both Cabinets, his Republican Party colleagues; the Secretary of the Treasury, the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Advisor to the President!
Comparatively speaking, this would have been the local equivalent of appointing Mr. Arthur not merely as Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, but rather as either Minister of Home Affairs [National Security] or as Minister of Finance. The unlikelihood of such an event, even given the fact that Mr. Arthur is no longer aligned with the Opposition party in Parliament, might speak volumes about the brand of politics we practice locally. Indeed, there are unsurprising reports that this particular overture has not gone down well with some members of the DLP whom, one would think, would have little or nothing to lose in the entire affair. Ours, however, is a culture that champions rather the constancy of a party supporter truthfully to boast, “I is a BLP/DLP till ah dead.”
While the reality across the pond in the UK more closely approximates ours than that in the US, in 1931 when Ramsay McDonald became Prime Minister with the collapse of the Labour Government, his first Cabinet nonetheless included two Labourites as Chancellor of the Exchequer [Minister of Finance] and as Secretary of the then Dominions. To appreciate more keenly the enormity of this locally, try to wrap your minds around Mr. Chris Sinckler being asked to stay on as Finance Minister in an incoming BLP administration.
In light of the present peculiar political affiliation of Mr. Arthur, I would be loath to suggest that the proposed appointment is a happy harbinger of future bi-partisanship, although I am yet to be persuaded that this may not be “a consummation devoutly wished for” by the discerning electorate, given the most recent election results.
What it does seem to suggest more clearly, however, is that in much the same way that a former Prime Minister of Trinidad & Tobago has argued, “politics possesses a morality of its own”, it may be that it also bears its own internal logic, a form of reasoning that would permit the governing administration to appoint as a technical economic advisor one whom it has unflatteringly referred to on previous occasions as “yesterday’s man” and categorised as “past his sell-by date”. It is equally surprising that Mr. Arthur would deign to offer his skills as an economist to what he once considered “a bunch of wild boys” for them to dictate and enact policy from “a poor-rakey parliament”. Partisan politics is not at all a quick study for many.
The second event is no less ahistorical in the local political culture. I have often argued that the Shakespearean phrase “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” applies with most force to the post of an Opposition leader. Possessing none of the constitutional allurements that are available to a Prime Minister to reward faithful members or to withhold or even withdraw as punishment from the seemingly mutinous, the Opposition leader must tread a fine line between apparent authority and yet be ever solicitous of the loyalty of his or her members.
It may be that this task of management becomes even more onerous as a general election approaches, especially one in which that party sniffs a popular advantage. It is then that the leader must attempt publicly to maintain that delicate balance in what would have by then become transformed into a litmus test for national leadership.
In this context, what has become known as “the Agard affair” concerning the public nature of the current impasse among the sitting member of Parliament for the Christ Church West constituency, Dr. Maria Agard, Ms. Mia Mottley, Opposition Leader, and the members of the constituency branch executive, must present a thorny and novel problem for Ms. Mottley at this stage.
I am tempted to comment that its ultimate resolution is none of my business and, perhaps it is not but, as a keen student of the law relating to governance, I am intrigued by this imminent clash of local political convention, of the Constitutional text that recognises not parties but members only who do or do not support that member of the House of Assembly who, in the Governor General’s judgement is best able to command the confidence of a majority of members of the House, and of the provisions of the BLP constitution that stipulate, I imagine, a clear procedure for the selection (and possible de-selection as obtains elsewhere) of electoral candidates. I have not seen it.
To the extent that this last-mentioned document does not do so, the party might be forced either to apply some version of the doctrine of necessity to cater for this unforeseen eventuality or to pray in aid some binding convention hallowed by notoriety and long practice. Alas, either solution is likely to prove unsatisfactory to some. As they say, “Film at eleven.”