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On ethics and politics

EVERSLEY FilesAs a former avid student of Latin at Boys’ Foundation School, Prime Minister Freundel Stuart demonstrates a passionate and abiding interest in the classical literature of ancient Rome. His frequent reference to and occasional use of witty quotes from such works, to reinforce points in public debate, have contributed to creating a perception of him as an erudite man.

Stuart seems to have a fascination with Ciceronian writing. In the run-up to the last general election, a little red book with the text juxtaposed in both English and Latin, and known by its original Latin title Commentariolum Petitionis but bearing the English title How To Win An Election, captured his imagination.

Fascinated by the contents, he asked me one day if I was familiar with the book, obviously aware that I too had distinguished myself as a Latin student at Foundation and shared a similar passion for politics. In the late 1970s to early 1980s, both of us had sat together on more than one occasion at Beulah, St Philip, at the feet of the late political master Sir James Tudor.

Commentariolum was written by Quintus Tullius Cicero, offering advice to his famous brother Marcus Tullius Cicero, who was a candidate in the election of 64 BCE for the top state office of Roman Consul. Marcus was considered an underdog because he was an outsider with no strong ties to the establishment. Amazingly, Quintus’ advice worked and Marcus went on to score an upset victory that stunned Rome.

Immortalized as the greatest orator of ancient Rome, Marcus was also a prolific writer of books dealing mainly with politics and philosophy. Knowing of Stuart’s passion for reading from my teenage years when I would often see him in Six Roads, St Philip, with a book in hand or under his arm, I believe he may have also read De Officiis (On Obligations Or Duties),  penned by Marcus in 44 BCE following the assassination of Julius Caesar.

If he did, then I have reason to be disappointed in the stance he took in the House of Assembly last week in defence of embattled Speaker Michael Carrington. In contrast with Commentariolum, which puts forward a strategy for winning an election, De Officiis presents principles of behaviour for aspiring politicians.

It explores, among other things, the tensions between honourable conduct and expediency in public life, and also the right and wrong ways of attaining political leadership. This book was highly influential in the formation of ethical values in Western civilization and, if I had my way, would be required reading for every politician seeking election to public office.

“Today, when corruption and conflict in political life are the focus of so much public attention, On Obligations is still the foremost guide to good conduct,” reads the cover of a new edition published by Oxford University Press.

I am disappointed in Stuart’s stance for another reason. The ruling DLP used commitment to high ethical standards as the basis of a strong case for re-election in the 2013 general election. Indeed, Stuart was presented, subliminally in DLP campaign messages, as the right choice for Prime Minister because he stood for ethics in politics.

House Speaker Michael Carrington (left) and Prime Minister Freundel Stuart (right).

House Speaker Michael Carrington (left).  Prime Minister Freundel Stuart (right).

Carrington has not been charged with any criminal offence. He has only been the subject of an unfavourable court ruling. It is also true that the issue, which has prompted calls for him to step down, does not relate to his public office but his private, professional capacity as a lawyer working for a client. The average person, however, is unlikely to make the separation. Unfortunately, that’s how human nature is.

There’s a well-known saying, dating back to ancient Rome, that “Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion”. It means that persons in public life, especially those holding positions of trust, should so manage their private and other affairs that no one should have, even the slightest reason, to have suspicions about them.

This view has had significant influence on governance in Western democracies, some with parliaments much younger than ours, where there are numerous instances where politicians have had to step down on the slightest suspicion of misconduct, especially if ethical questions are raised.

Contrary to what the DLP would have us believe, the calls for Carrington to step down –– even if temporarily, pending the outcome of a matter referred to the Committee of Privileges –– go way beyond the considerations of domestic partisan politics. As I see it, the calls reflect the growing influence of globalization on Barbadian thinking as a result of repeated exposure to foreign values and practices, mostly via the mass media.

To most people, globalization is primarily seen as an economic phenomenon bringing countries closer together through trade, investment and other economic activities. The reach of globalization, however, extends much wider. It is also about culture, or more precisely the homogenization of culture, where countries are adopting similar values, principles, and ways of doing things in relation to politics, business and other aspects of life.

Stuart’s robust defence of Carrington on strictly legal and parliamentary procedural grounds shows a disregard for these global developments which are clearly influencing Barbadians to demand greater transparency and accountability from public officials, especially elected representatives. While an issue can sometimes stand on legal grounds, being legally right does not always mean it is ethically right.

Sometimes, as Mr Bumble puts it in the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist, “the law is an ass”. Ethics, in my view, have an inherent superiority over laws. While laws have always been determined by a minority to govern the majority and have to be enforced, ethics are rules of conduct willingly accepted and followed with little question by society as a whole.

Stuart may be unwilling to accept it, but his stance, which seems to have been driven more by DLP political reality, has eroded what he stood for in the eyes of many Barbadians –– namely, an ethical politics. Just as he claimed there will be no fallout for the DLP, he probably sees none for himself as well. It would have been better had he remained quiet.

Public debate of the Carrington issue suggests that a fundamental shift in Barbadian attitudes towards politicians is taking place. Whereas Barbadians previously often turned a blind eye to the shortcomings of politicians, it seems they are more inclined now to hold them to higher standards of conduct.

At least, for me, that is a welcome and encouraging sign of a maturing democracy that augurs well for a better Barbados in the future.

(Reudon Eversley is a political strategist, strategic communication specialist and journalist.

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