REMEMBERING BREE: Illustrious career
He never was, and never will be, a political strategist. It is not in his nature to be sufficiently devious for that. – Peter Morgan, former Democratic Labour Party Cabinet Minister, August, 1993.
POLITICIANS are seldom that candid in their assessments of each other when they are alive.
But Morgan, like so many others, admired Sir Harold St John’s honesty, ability, and as he later noted, “his statesmanlike qualities” in his mature years.
Still, it was a recognition that like most of us, Sir Harold too, had an Achilles heel – in an arena notorious for duplicity and gamesmanship, he was not “sufficiently devious”.
That may partially help to explain why in the 37 years between when he was first elected to the House of Assembly in 1966 and 2003 when he retired, Sir Harold, or “Bree”, as he was familiarly known, was twice dropped by the electorate in parts of Christ Church where he was otherwise well respected.
It may also go some way toward explaining why, despite his obvious and widely admired skills when he served in the Tom Adams Cabinet, he was never allowed to settle as political leader of the Barbados Labour Party (BLP) or as Prime Minister of Barbados – serving nine and 13 months respectively.
What it does not explain is why, despite those most painful political pricks, he persisted in offering himself for public service not only to assist in the development of a country which he seemed to love more than it loved him, but also in the furtherance of the ever elusive integration of Caribbean countries.
He was, though, an unrepentant regionalist, and for former Cabinet colleague, Dr Richard (Johnny) Cheltenham, who saw many outstanding men in public life, he was “the most devoted patriot, the most committed of them all . . .”.
Forthright, perhaps even blunt, he was not one to mince words – for supporters or adversaries – and an intensely private man who was loathe to discuss his problems, personal or political, with either his colleagues or close friends.
Born August 16, 1931, in his beloved parish of Christ Church, Harold Bernard St John was educated at Boys’ Foundation School and then Harrison College.
He later studied for the LLB at the University College of London, and was admitted to the Inner Temple in 1954 before returning home to private legal practice – taking “silk”, that is, becoming a Queen’s Counsel (QC) in 1969 – and jumping into the thick of politics at the local, national and regional levels.
Sir Harold, or Bernard, as he was then known, cut his “eye teeth” in the Local Government system, serving as chairman of the Southern District Council, before its abolition in 1967.
In 1959, he joined the Barbados Labour Party (BLP) and served in the first Senate of Barbados (1964-1966) which had replaced the Legislative Council as the island moved towards greater internal self-government.
One of his two major political disappointments came in 1971 after he had served his first five-year term in the House of Assembly. He had taken over the leadership of the BLP in the waning months of 1970 after Sir Grantley Adams resigned.
And though some wanted Sir Grantley’s son, Tom, to oppose the still popular Errol Barrow in the first single-member election, “Bree” led the Bees to a controversial defeat, losing his own seat to a popular civil servant from the parish as well, Anderson “Peanuts” Morrison.
It was a scenario that would be repeated in the 1986 general election, when he also lost to another well-respected but underrated Christ Church figure, trade unionist Robert (Bobby) Morris.
His tendency towards aloofness, which some took for arrogance, and internal party politics, were among the reasons advanced in 1971.
A preoccupation with keeping the BLP leadership that had been wrested from him but not returned (as his followers expected in 1976 when the party swept the polls), plus the raging unpopularity of the Adams Administration, topped the list of factors for the 1986 loss.
Outwardly, he seemed to take the defeats in stride, expressing gratitude at his retirement for the constituents’ faithfulness at times and at others when they felt it “necessary to discipline me”.
“But I think that I have earned their respect because of the fact that, notwithstanding being disciplined, it never stopped me from coming back and never stopped them from changing their mind.”
In between time, he served as a member of the Senate and in 1991 returned to the House in the newly created Christ Church South seat.
Knighted in the 1994 Independence Honours List (KA), his only comment was typical: “I regard this as an honour as a politician with over 30 years in politics, especially at this particular time when politicians seem to enjoy so little credence in the public’s eye.”
This was in the aftermath of the Sandiford Administration’s infamous collapse following the historic no-confidence motion and the BLP’s subsequent return to office.
Sir Harold’s life revolved around family, the law and politics to which he was attracted by the Federal exercise. But he was also an enterprising businessman, whose involvement with the re-development of Oistins as a shopping and entertainment centre as well as a residential area, has not been as widely chronicled.
If there is one way his successors could further honour Sir Harold, it would be to ensure that Barbados’ long parliamentary tradition which was cemented in 1651 in Oistins, continues – without the deviousness.
This article was published March 1, 2004.