The Arthur effect
ON THE memorable morning of January 19, 2008, a mere four days after the electorate of Barbados swept from office the party he led, we heard a manifestly unambiguous statement from a man who only a few days before we called Prime Minister Owen Arthur.
He called himself “Citizen Owen Arthur”. It was his typically emphatic manner of publicly stepping out of our lives. And in the aftermath of the change of Government, many Barbadians breathed a sigh of relief.
“This effectively brings an end to my involvement in Barbados’ political affairs at the national and at the party level in a leadership capacity,” he declared, adding: “I have made a decision to lay down the mantle of leadership of the BLP [Barbados Labour Party].”
The Democratic Labour Party (DLP) had romped to a convincing victory by a 20-10 margin and Arthur acknowledged “it would be in the best interest of the party” and “the development of democracy in our country” if the transition to a new leadership in the BLP was made immediately.
So one can now reasonably ask: what is Owen Arthur doing at the helm of the BLP as it prepares to contest this 2012 (or 2013) election?
We do not have to look back very far. After that unprovoked concession and unprompted endorsement of Mia Mottley as the new BLP leader, Arthur was a rarely seen former Prime Minister who did not frequent meetings of the House of Assembly, whose debates he ridiculed as “poor-rakey”.
He seemed destined to spend his sunset years in an office provided for him at the Cave Hill Campus of the University of the West Indies where he researched and wrote.
Today he is the alternative choice as Prime Minister of Barbados on the eve of a general election that the public opinion polls in September suggested his party should win.
Arthur’s journey back to the limelight is a fascinating study of the politics of expediency.
It was a blood-spattered course that saw some colleagues of Opposition Leader Mia Mottley calculatedly withdraw their support of her in preference for Arthur, and insist that the wily politician resume his leadership of the BLP and care for a faltering Barbados economy at a time of public despair over drift in some sectors.
To effect a transfer of authority in the BLP, Arthur lent his support to The Fervent Four (MPs George Payne, Dale Marshall, Gline Clarke and Ronald Toppin) who secured the ouster of Mottley in an inner-party power tussle that threatened to split the party towards the end of 2009.
Now that Arthur is back in charge and the breach is said to be mended, we have to ask questions about his suitability to lead Barbados from 2013 onwards, critically examining his values, vision, commitment and achievements.
Arthur brings to voters a different set of personal qualities and political priorities from those of Prime Minister Freundel Stuart. Not all of them are particularly flattering.
He is a man of competence and undoubted passion to succeed, is an intense student of politics and a shrewd practitioner. But we have discovered his conduct is often not garbed in the seemly and refined tradition of politeness and decorum.
In addition, he has an astringently sour tongue and is remembered equally for the good he has done in service to this country as for a crude and often uncalled for public undressing of those whom he selectively chooses, be they deliberate political opponents or simply those who innocently drift across his path.
Yet he is a pledged patriot of Barbados, his 14 years in office as Prime Minister being among the most productive of any national chief executive, working with commitment to attain the pre-eminence he set his administration in three successive terms.
His Government achieved a strong economy, reduced unemployment, secured record amounts of foreign reserves, ushered in new levels of social and economic growth that reflected a gold standard performance. Also, his contribution to the Caribbean and the CARICOM?Single Market and Economy is undeniable.
His achievements fairly matched the expectations he encouraged Barbadians to strive for when he challenged the country to “go for the gold”. We knew what future he thought Barbados deserved, and he worked tirelessly for it.
On three occasions Barbadians overwhelmingly endorsed his leadership and vision, but when he sought a fourth approval, voters called a halt and he was rejected, following an unforgettable stint of unforgivable arrogance in the corridors of Government.
Will people recall those days of ranting and ridicule? Will they feel he had his chance already? Will they ask what more does he want to prove? Or, will they regard the country’s need of his proven leadership and economic skills as being so urgent and paramount that they are prepared to put his past personal failings aside.
We are faced with the choice of one who did not care to let the country get to know him or to engage us in dialogue, even while the economy slipped to junk bond status and the public cried out at the high cost of living, growing job losses and hardship; or one whom they know well, flaws and all, one who engaged and enraged us and has a good track record, whose commitment is beyond question, but whose demeanour has been a disappointment.
For instance, the public was disillusioned by the tough language Arthur used on his way to reclaiming leadership of the BLP. Mottley was on the receiving end of strictures usually reserved for bitter opponents. He said of her: “There is unacceptance and unacceptability of the present leader of the party.”
He told the media she was an ordinary member of the party with no special access to him, also saying: “Miss Mottley does not have to be me, but she has to make herself likeable; she has to be respected because people want to believe that their leaders are full of integrity . . . and she has to consider the use of power; and not be feared negatively (sic), but be understood as a person who can use power effectively.”
Arthur was buoyed by a public opinion poll (August 2009), conducted by CADRES, which showed he enjoyed the favourability of 49 per cent of those who wanted to see him lead the BLP again, while Mottley got a decent grade of 35 per cent.
Arthur once referred to the impact of that poll on their relationship, saying: “There has been an element of a strain after the Wickham poll . . . . Quite candidly, it has become more difficult after the publishing of the Wickham poll,” he admitted of their inability to get along with each other.
Truth is, Arthur had an opportunity to work with Mottley and assist her in leadership development and party strengthening. Instead, he allowed a scenario to be created where he could become beneficiary of a divided parliamentary group and be ushered back into the party’s leadership.
Arthur could also have declined the leadership offer and worked to keep Mottley in place, the party united and internal conflict avoided. Instead, he opted for a back-flip that landed him firmly at the head of the BLP once more, in time to lead them into an election against the DLP without the favoured David Thompson.
What then are the prospects? The most recent CADRES/NATION public opinion poll (September) does not show Arthur as enjoying overwhelming support. The numbers would suggest a lukewarm response from voters. As the preferred Prime Minister, he received 27.1 per cent support with Mottley at 25.9 per cent, representing a statistical dead heat and suggesting that his coat-tail is unlikely to be much longer than Mottley’s. (Prime Minister Freundel Stuart got 10.8 per cent support and Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler, 23.7 per cent.)
When asked if they were generally satisfied with the leadership of the BLP, 41.3 per cent said “yes” and a similar per cent said “no”. Only 17 per cent remained in the uncommitted column, telling me there are strong views for and against Arthur’s style of leadership.
Further, only 27.9 per cent said they were more likely to vote for the BLP with Arthur at the top, while 24.2 per cent were more unlikely, confirming the earlier statistic over satisfaction/dissatisfaction with his leadership.
When asked if they approved of his work as Opposition Leader, Arthur’s approval rating appeared good at 39.2 per cent, but disapproval turned up at 34.9 per cent.
It must be noted too that Mottley enjoys overwhelming credibility as preferred leader among uncommitted voters. She totalled 41 per cent, followed by Chris Sinckler at 26 per cent and Arthur only ten per cent. This clearly infers the BLP will ignore the Mottley factor to its detriment, both in this election and the future.
Psalm 118, in referring to Jesus, noted: “The stone which the builders rejected is now become the chief corner stone.” But it also went on to state: “This was the Lord’s doing; it is marvellous in our eyes.”
To coin a BLP slogan of the 1999 campaign, Arthur needs Mottley “now more than ever” because the polls suggest she is “marvellous” in the people’s eyes.
Notwithstanding all those numbers, Arthur is the person who is seen by his colleagues and a number of supporters as key if the BLP is to be regarded by a majority of voters as suitable to return to office after just a five-year hiatus. This stems from the economic magic that they believe Arthur will weave if re-elected, and his track record of navigating state affairs.
While recognizing this and relishing in it, it seems as though he is taking cognizance of his physical limitations as a man in his early 60s with 14 demanding years in office behind him. His public platform speeches have been shorter and measured, with Mottley carrying the brunt of major assignments.
In campaigning, he will be very dependent on Mottley’s energy, organization and insights. In formulating the party’s economic answers, he will look to the thinking and work of Clyde Mascoll for reassurance. The vision and direction will likely be his, but if the BLP is elected, he is likely to delegate far more than in the past.
In recent times his tone has been more conciliatory as he strives to sound like an elder statesman, choosing a path of counselling and advising as if he is aware not only of his own physical limitations, but of Barbadians’ guardedness over past public indiscretions.
So voters will be weighing in their minds – if Arthur is given a second chance to lead the country, a feat achieved only by Errol Barrow in 1986 – whether a new Arthur will emerge. Or will it be more of the same? Or will they feel that what Arthur might do for the country is still worth it?
Are the memories of Barbadians that short? Are they willing to forgive and forget? Will they feel that a return to Arthur is some type of admission of a mistake in 2008?
What has life in Opposition done to his perspective?
How mindful would he be of his legacy? Would he be prepared to take the tough decisions since he has little else to prove in politics?
When Arthur was criticized by Mascoll (then in the DLP) for his failure to restructure the economy in good times, he sidestepped the issue and ignored the opportunity to redirect Barbados’ priorities for a more sustainable future. Now that the two of them are on the same page, this is a challenge they have to confront.
In returning to the fore, Arthur has taken a calculated political risk.
Should he lose, his political reputation will be sullied forever; his legacy tarnished by a view that he was unnecessarily greedy.
Should Arthur lose, the BLP divisions will become even more apparent and the in-fighting more fierce.
Should Arthur lose, the BLP will find rebuilding that much more challenging.
Should Arthur lose, it will be thought that he robbed Mottley of her first golden opportunity and crucial years at the top.
Should Arthur lose, a weak DLP Government will enjoy a great reprieve and earn an opportunity to reclaim its historical favourability with a majority of the masses.
Should Arthur win, the history books will have much to analyze and all will be forgiven, if not forgotten, in his BLP and the wider country, especially if he is able to lead the country to more prosperous times.
It was Bob Dylan who wrote the words to the song made famous by Peter, Paul And Mary:
How many roads must a man walk down,Before you call him a man?How many seas must a white dove sail,Before she sleeps in the sand?How many times must the cannon balls fly,Before they’re forever banned?The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind, the election wind.
•Harold Hoyte is Editor Emeritus of the Nation Publishing Company.