GUEST COLUMN: The main concept of democracy
I was alarmed and concerned that the esteemed Dr Tennyson Joseph chose to ask 375 Years Of What? in his latest addition (published in the March 11, 2014 edition of the DAILY NATION) to his popular and always well received column All Ah We Is One.
He went on to describe the notion of 375 years of continuous democratic exercise as a fallacy, and later sought to justify his claim. Where the esteemed academic fell into error, I believe, was in describing democracy as universal adult suffrage, which – to most – is the principal element of the democratic exercise that we enjoy today.
The term democracy cannot be seen in such a narrow and simplistic way. If one would view it that way, not only does it become misleading, it also diminishes the struggles of many who rose from the colonial rule and made significant contributions to the society in which they lived.
Democracy in its infancy simply meant that persons who met certain legal requirements were allowed to vote for those whom they wished to represent them.
This continues to be the fundamental concept of democracy. Universal adult suffrage is what gave all persons who attained the age of 18 access to this process – it is not the process itself.
At the time of the establishment of our Parliament, democracy was not as evolved as it is today – it was in its infancy. There were two prevailing styles of government: theocracies and monarchies.
To have a system where persons who were not clerics or royals determine their ruler was in and of itself revolutionary. Today it is not as evolved as it will be in another 375 years.
That does not mean we do not enjoy democracy here and now. To judge and compare the democracy which existed then by our understanding of what it ought to be and what it is right now is ultimately an exercise in futility and, as my good friend Roger would say, you are “setting up a straw man only to shoot him down”.
Dear Doctor, as societies mature, notwithstanding their being “new”, as you so delicately put it, they come to terms with their past struggles.
Therefore, it is of note, and it is not coincidental, that four of our National Heroes made their most significant contributions to defining and imagining our statehood in the very hallowed halls which you describe as a vestige of colonial rule that ought not be celebrated.
Surely the Herculean efforts of the Right Excellent Samuel Jackman Prescod, the Right Excellent Charles Duncan O’Neal, the Right Excellent Grantley Adams and the Right Excellent Errol Walton Barrow cannot be relegated to merely being a part of colonial relic which has long passed its relevance in a post-Independent society.
Indeed, another National Hero, the Right Excellent Garfield St Auburn Sobers, was elevated to his dignity and status through his efforts in cricket, a sport that has been played in much the same form as it was when invented some 500 years ago in Kent, Sussex and Surrey.
Should our people disengage from that vestige of colonial rule as well? Are Historic Bridgetown and its Garrison worthy of celebration in your view? Or are they tainted by the fact that their very presence was because of colonial rule. Are these symbols a “sad spectacle of a black majority paying homage to white supremacy”?
It is beyond me to imagine what or how Barbados would be without these symbols or structures. Such intellectual heavy lifting I will happily leave to those more versed in such areas of endeavour.
However, I do know a bit about Barbadian people and people generally. The society, any society, offers up what it considers to be worthy of celebration. You only need witness the enthusiasts who assemble each year to witness its opening sessions and the laying of the Budget and Estimates to know what it means to Barbadians.
I am not certain whether anyone, including myself, can say to Barbadians that they are mistaken in celebrating any part of their society. I would not say that to any other person of any other nationality.
To denigrate and diminish the very beliefs of a people is to strike at the very heart of that society.
Like cricket, the Parliament – and its process, whatever that might have been from time to time – was and continues to be the forum where we have engaged in conflict in an orderly and civil fashion.
Much like cricket, it is from these conflicts that we have defined ourselves and enunciated our existence from the early days when opportunities were more limited up until present day. We have not done so because of colonial rule [or the plantocracy if you will] but, rather, in spite of it.
To relegate our celebration of 375 years of parliamentary democratic rule to an acceptance of a particular narrative would be counterproductive for a society seeking integration, harmony and progress in its ultimate achievement of “healing”.
In any event it would be more constructive to look at our historical development as a discourse not a narrative to be accepted or rejected. A discourse where we get to speak back and signify who and what we are.
This article by Brian Barrow, who is an attorney at law, was submitted as a letter to the Editor.