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PEOPLE & THINGS: One year later . . .

Peter Wickham

PEOPLE & THINGS: One year later . . .

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Today marks one year since Barbados’ sixth Prime Minister David Thompson died in office and it is useful to reflect on the impact this event has had on our country’s politics.
Sadly, one of the more notable lessons that has been taught is the extent to which some of his antagonists are still willing to prostitute their humanity on a political altar for long enough to “dance” on the former Prime Minister’s grave.  
It is fortunate that there are very few Barbadians afflicted with this infirmity. However, these people still pollute some blogs and living rooms which speaks poorly about the nature of politics in this little country of ours.
Summarily, this crisis could be described colloquially as a “political hurricane” and while these disasters are largely unexpected, we can, with the benefit of hindsight, so structure our affairs that future storms would be less devastating.
One never speaks of the benefits of a person’s death, but a political reaction that helps us to better manage such a crisis in the future could be seen as a benefit, in much the same way that Americans often name legislation after the person whose tragedy highlighted the need for it.
In our case, it seems as though nothing will change and as each year passes, the nation and the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) will continue to only speak about the way in which Thompson’s passing has impacted negatively on that political institution and our country.
One of the most profound lessons that his passing has taught is that we as a nation, and the DLP as a political institution, have not developed the ability to pray for a leader’s recovery, while getting on with the business of our nation.
As such, the nation’s affairs essentially came to a standstill for close to one year while we were politically transfixed on the Prime Minister’s condition.
During this time, expressions of concern about the state of our economy, or suggestions that there was a need to act decisively in some political matters, were condemned as untimely and inappropriate while Thompson was battling an illness the nation was unfamiliar with weeks before he died.
This is perhaps a reflection of our political immaturity that we could not have adult conversations about the consequences of his passing while praying for his recovery.
One of the consequences of our protracted distraction was presented to us in graphic detail by Standard & Poor’s within days of his death in the form of a credit rating downgrade.
The downgrade was apparently caused by Government’s tardiness in addressing its deficit and to date, the acting Minister of Finance (at that time) is yet to explain the reasons the budgetary package that would have addressed this deficit was delayed until a new minister was identified.
The circumstances surrounding Thompson’s illness and death were peculiar since he was a relatively young man and while we often speak of uncertainty in politics, none of us would have contemplated this outcome.
It is also true to say that he himself could not have reasonably contemplated these developments and could therefore be excused for not addressing matters of his succession in a frank manner while he was alive in much the same way that Errol Barrow did just before his death.
Certainly, Barrow’s own brand of succession planning could be said to have left much to be desired. However, we nonetheless had the benefit of knowing his preference, which is something we can only guess about on this occasion.
The sad reality now is that one year after Thompson’s death and almost 30 years after the passing of Prime Ministers Tom Adams and Errol Barrow, there is no national discussion about the need to handle prime ministerial succession in a manner that is entirely more popular than is currently the case.
We therefore continue to invest heavily in a democratic machinery which selects a leader who reflects the confidence of the population. However, if he dies, his successor can be determined by 15 men sitting in a room, which seems unfortunate.
On both the political and economic sides, Thompson’s death caused us to lose both guidance and time to deal with pressing issues.
On the economic side, the loss was a national one. However, on the political side, the DLP has again lost the opportunity to demonstrate its capacity to govern developmentally instead of simply managing crises as it did following Barrow’s death.
Demonstrated developmental governance is the most profound deficiency on the DLP’s political resume at this time, as was explained in the two-part series entitled Political Rebranding (July 10 and 17, 2011).
The DLP will therefore face the electorate in January 2013 and be forced to explain its inability to implement several of its manifesto promises.
It is entirely possible that Barbadians will forgive the party (again) on account of the tragedy of Thompson’s passing and the severity of the global recession. However, the larger issue of what exactly the DLP stands for emerges yet again and will continue to be one of its major challenges.
Finally, Thompson’s passing has provided the opportunity for us to contrast two very different political management styles in relative proximity.
It also has introduced to our political lexicon a style of leadership that was previously unknown to us.
If readers would pardon the British comparison, Thompson’s administration was somewhat like Tony Blair’s which could be said to have been obsessed with spin.
Thompson communicated well and effectively with the population both socially and through the media. We saw two Cabinet reshuffles in relatively short order, post-Cabinet Press briefings, along with the peculiar “sight” of the Prime Minister on a radio and television call-in programmes.
One year later, things have changed drastically and the obsession with spin has given way to a complete absence of spin from the top.
Instead, all the spin now comes from the DLP’s “middle order”. One consequence is that this Prime Minister is rarely attacked on policy while his ministers frequently are.
It is left to be seen how well or badly this approach will work when the DLP faces the polls in 2013. However, it is clear that our polity has not learned much from the tragedy that happened one year ago.