The Freundel factorPrime Minister Freundel Stuart has earned the respect of many because he is a decent, responsible man. (FP)
By Harold Hoyte | Sun, October 28, 2012 - 1:03 PM
by HAROLD HOYTE
But how many ships do you reckon my presence to be worth?– Antigonus Gonatas
STUDENTS of ancient Greek history and Hellenic records, among whom I count Prime Minister Freundel Stuart, would be familiar with the authoritative figure Antigonus, a Macedonian general and provincial governor of Greater Phrygia from around 333 BC, and the one who established the Antigonid dynasty.
Antigonus is famous for making unique remarks, the above boast being one when, as a leader, he discovered that the enemy’s ships outnumbered his own as they approached the forces of Ptolemy in an historic naval battle. He was confident his presence added value in the absence of an adequate fleet.
So what is the presence of the Prime Minister worth in our impending general election? How many votes and how many seats will his presence be worth, particularly if his fleet (six first-timers and 14 who are defending their seats for the first time) proves inadequate?
In more straightforward language, what are the advantages of his leadership? And indeed, what are the disadvantages?
I start off in the conviction that ultimately all our general elections are about Barbados. That is the kernel of the contest. It is about the future that each party and each leader believes is best for Barbados. In making that assessment, I examine the qualities, commitment and achievements each party leader puts on the table for the electorate’s endorsement.
The Prime Minister takes into this election a number of fine personal attributes and unquestioned national commitment, but achievements that are less than impressive than those around him would want.
Stuart has earned the respect of many because he is a decent, responsible, tolerant man. He is regarded as a person of integrity and universality. Though his political career has been one of starts and stops, he has earned the reputation of one who, when he leaves politics, will retire, as the French say, le chevalier . . . sans reproche, or as from Latin, persona grata
Barbadians are confident that in their Prime Minister they have a man who is knowledgeable and articulate, capable but probably reluctant to go one-on-one with leaders anywhere. Stuart is well read in the classics and is able to draw on his wealth of ancient history, Greek and Latin knowledge to satisfy listeners he is learned – although he may not be able to persuade them he is sagacious and crafty enough to put this learning to maximum political effect.
He has a political style that is regarded as unorthodox. His does not fit into any of the defined approaches that have captivated Barbadians, be it the Errol Barrow bravado or the Tom Adams adventurism.
As a classical student, Stuart is unapologetically quaint, often struggling to bring the antiquity of his choice of language to offer clarity of ideas in a practical manner. But it must be said his style has its own appeal, if only at the level of discovery and entertainment for those who like big words.
I think Stuart shows dedication to the interest of Barbados and Barbadians. I am sure he has persisted with politics for that reason and not for personal aggrandizement. He entered politics with a progressive template, aligning himself with and indeed patterning himself after Dr Don Blackman, whose limited public life sojourn saw him articulate strong views on the direction where Barbados should be headed, question race and class contradictions, and challenge wealth distribution.
In recent years, Stuart has created some distance from those progressive views, his words and action suggesting a more tempered approach than Blackman was known to espouse.
He fervently believes in using his party’s opportunity in office to reorder the priorities of social justice and to look after those people at the bottom of the economic ladder.
Stuart has, however, not convinced me he has used his opportunity in office to great effect with respect to social transformation. Circumstances may not have been ideal, but neither his rhetoric nor his reality tells me he is on a trajectory that will fundamentally reorder the lives of those he entered into politics to look after.
He has not been the transformational, inspirational and visionary leader many of us who knew him at the outset of his career believed he was capable of becoming.
So he goes into this election for the first time as leader of the Democratic Labour Party (DLP), seeking his initial blessing, having been thrown into the supreme office as a result of an early and untimely interruption in the David Thompson dispensation.
He therefore also takes with him into the election certain empathy because he found himself holding an office he never openly canvassed for or sought and for which he never fully prepared himself.
In that sense he draws comparisons with Sir Harold St John and Sir Lloyd Sandiford, both of whom assumed national leadership at short notice because of the death of Prime Ministers. But history is unlikely to place Stuart’s performance at the top of that trio.
Stuart takes the experience of four personal general election campaigns into this one, albeit with mixed success.
These four electoral tests are as many as both Sandiford had when he took over from Errol Barrow and St John when he took over from Tom Adams.
The office of Prime Minister brings with it a certain authority and influence that offer benefit to Stuart’s personal electoral chances, as well as those candidates around his riding and possibly wider afield. It is referred to as a coat-tail.
Coat-tails can be both long and short. Length is determined by capacity to deliver candidates. The best example is in the United States where the president’s coat-tail in a year of presidential elections can often influence results in congressional contests, but in years of non-presidential elections, the impact is far less effective.
In Stuart’s case, the measurement of his coat-tail is decidedly short if we accept, as I do, the results of the most recent CADRES/Nation public opinion poll (September) when he placed fourth in the leadership stakes with popularity at just 11 per cent. Tom Adams used to say a successful leader had to be more popular than his party; if not, he was vulnerable.
Since Stuart is yet to earn the people’s selection and election as our political leader, we do not have much by which to measure his potential to safely deliver seats at the top of the ticket. What we do have is his one electoral win followed by one electoral loss; a switch of constituencies and one loss followed by one victory. By themselves these are not very compelling results.
And when we drill down to his actual numbers, the picture is not enhanced.
He entered politics in the 1994 general election and with a swing towards the Barbados Labour Party (BLP), he captured the safe DLP seat of St Philip South by a margin of just 81 votes over the BLP’s Philip Pilgrim.
In the following election, again when there was a massive swing towards the BLP, he lost to Anthony Wood by a margin of 1 195 votes. He abandoned the fiercely loyal Philippian people from among whom he sprung, and took up the challenge in St Michael South, a seat that is arguably not safe for either the DLP or the BLP, although more inclined to the former, even if by narrow margins.
There he lost to Noel Lynch in 2003, by a margin of just 116 votes. (In 1999 Lynch beat Sir Lloyd Sandiford by 963 votes.)
With a swing towards the DLP of six per cent in 2008, Stuart won easily over Lynch by 810 votes, doing better than the six per cent average DLP swing in that election – earning a swing of ten per cent.
It has to be noted that he did best among all the DLP St Michael candidates. This makes him comfortable, but not assured at a personal level in the way that other leaders like Sir Grantley Adams, Errol Barrow, Tom Adams, Owen Arthur and David Thompson dominated their ridings after their initial outing.
The numbers suggest Stuart’s short leadership coat-tail could prove to be less of an advantage for the Dems as is desirable at a time of a negative swing. We also know that 90 per cent of the people and at least 11 of his colleagues are concerned about his leadership style.
His often ridiculed obstinacy poses problem. Barbadians regard him as a man who takes far too long to act; and when he does, it is not as decisive as we have come to expect from our leaders.
I recall when he assumed the office of Attorney General in January 2008, one of the first things he told the public was that the St Joseph Hospital Inquiry Report was on his desk and once he read it, it would be shared. After eight months the details of that report were leaked to the Sunday Sun while the country vainly awaited Stuart’s release of it.
This type of recalcitrance has been repeated several times over in matters that required his attention when he became Prime Minister.
We all recall that he acted on the requirement to call a by-election in St John on the last day allowed by the law.
This obstinacy is exacerbated because he is not media-savvy. He does not enjoy the David Thompson comfort with the media and in Press conference settings. He rarely holds Press briefings, even after overseas jaunts, choosing on one occasion to give a lengthy, wide-ranging sole interview to a friendly senior member of the state-owned Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation for which he scored no points
Stuart’s leadership capacity remains largely untested, and when it was tested, he failed to assert his power. I refer to the well published Eager Eleven episode when a number of his colleagues sought to express, in a letter to him, their concern over perceived weakness in his leadership style. This issue begged for a strong response that would have sent a clear message as to who was boss.
Except for the promotion of overlooked St Lucy MP Denis Kellman to the Cabinet of Barbados, Stuart did nothing to create his own team of ministers and ministries, choosing rather to content himself with Thompson’s choices.
Even when it came to selecting personal staff, Stuart made few changes, suggesting he never accumulated his own individual aides and advisers as anyone as senior as he is in politics should have enlisted.
Stuart has been reluctant to take a substantial portfolio as Prime Minister, the first leader to avoid the hard work of a demanding ministry. His portfolios are the Civil Service, National Security and more recently the Urban Development Commission.
He seems happy to attend selective functions and to speak to chosen social groups, particularly Barbadians in the diaspora, without engaging wider Barbados on the nuts and bolts of managing our country. (He has had fewer Press conferences than any other Prime Minister in any two-year span.)
Any comments made by him on major national issues have been in the nature of responses to questions and afterthoughts, lacking the deliberateness or purposefulness that these challenging times demand of leaders.
We are therefore yet to discover what there is for us to know about our Prime Minister. While he acted in silence during Thompson’s illness, I gave him the benefit of the doubt, saying he would equip himself once he was no longer simply deputizing.
That time came and went, and Stuart never stamped his authority on the office or signalled what would be fresh about our new Prime Minister.
He was so nonchalant we wondered if he even enjoyed the office and appreciated his unique opportunity afforded by fate.
So we are about to go into a general election, and he is seeking the blessing of the people without telling us about or selling us his brand of leadership and his kind of Barbados. He has fallen short of sharing his vision and advising us how he would work to rescue Barbados. He has done little besides assuring us we could be a lot worse off, an inexperienced benefit hidden behind an unknown harm.
Stuart, although a candidate in no fewer than four general elections, has never been at the centre of DLP strategic or tactical planning, meaning he will learn a lot in the coming weeks. This may explain why he describes himself as a sleeping giant, now aroused.
His waking hours will therefore be full of surprises as the campaign unfolds. I trust that he does not have one of those recorded Antigonus experiences of Greek history.
For we are reminded of Antigonus’ euphemistic explanation for his decision to run away from a powerful enemy. Denying that he fled from battle, he delivered an explanation in language which Stuart would find attractive: “I betook myself to an advantage that lay behind me.”
• Harold Hoyte is Editor Emeritus of the Nation Publishing Company.
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