Of Politics And Strange Bedfellows
The American essayist and journalist Charles Dudley Warner must have lived an interesting life. Not for the fact that he wrote so extensively; not for the fact that he was of puritan descent – the Puritans were English reformed protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries who sought to purify the Church of England from all Roman Catholic practices; but for the fact that he was a close friend of Mark Twain, with whom he collaborated on the novel, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, satirizing greed and political corruption in post-Civil War America. And we all know of the exciting adventures of Mark Twain!
It was Mr Warner who said that politics makes for strange bedfellows, a phrase that is so widely repeated today, and one which is an apt description for former Prime Minister Owen Arthur and Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler. More on this later.
The age of such unusual sleeping arrangements – the Oxford Dictionary describes a bedfellow as a person who shares a bed with another, although the second definition is a person or thing allied or closely connected with another – goes back centuries. However, one past example that caught our attention goes back only a few decades. It involves American politicians George Wallace and George McGovern.
Wallace, who served as Governor of the US state of Alabama at various times between 1963 and 1987, was a Southern populist and segregationist. McGovern, a senator, exemplified American liberalism and was involved in social issues, becoming the first director of the Food for Peace programme in 1961, where he oversaw the distribution of US surpluses to the needy abroad, and was instrumental in the creation of the United Nations World Food Programme.
The two couldn’t be any more different. Yet in 1972, they both ran in the same race for the Democratic Party nomination for president. Of this Canadian-American cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker would later write: “Economic libertarians and Christian evangelicals, united by their common enemy, are strange bedfellows in today’s Republican party, just as the two Georges – the archconservative Wallace and the uberliberal McGovern – found themselves in the same Democratic Party in 1972.”
Strange bedfellows, therefore, can be found anywhere and everywhere, including the political biology of today’s Barbados, particularly when desperation appears to be rising to the surface.
That former Prime Minister Owen Arthur has been approached to lead Government’s economic advisory team is nothing new. Barbados TODAY broke the story very early this month. But to hear Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler state publicly that he was willing to work with Arthur is quite a revelation. It was a dramatic flip, the tremors from which must have been felt right across the country.
Arthur had a contribution to make, he said, “and in the fullness of time we will be able to see how that contribution can be made.”
“Mr Arthur was a Prime Minister and Minister of Finance for 14 years. He’s been in politics for 40 years, 30 of those active, and his views are well known,” he added.
Sinckler neither confirmed nor denied that the former Prime Minister had been approached, however, there is no reason to doubt Arthur, who told Barbados TODAY that Sinckler was the one who approached him.
There is no need to speculate on Government’s motivation for turning to a man they spent nearly eight years deriding and demonizing, seeking his help to cure the economic malaise that has pervaded Barbados.
Arthur has shown very little respect for Sinckler’s abilities as the man in charge of the country’s finances and even less for Central Bank Governor Dr DeLisle Worrel, calling for both their heads on several occasions. One such occasion was in June 2011. After one of the many downgrades by Moody’s, the BLP leader at the time described Sinckler’s stewardship of the economy as “amateur hour” and called for his resignation, as well as that of Dr Worrell.
“I really believe someone has to be held accountable, and it is clear that this catastrophic failure reflects the failed policies of this minister of finance, and that the time has come to put an end to his amateur hour,” he said at the time. “Those responsible for the mess, the Minister of Finance and the Central Bank Governor, have to go,” Arthur said at the time.
On the other hand, both Prime Minister Freundel Stuart and Sinckler have made it clear in the past they didn’t need Arthur’s advice, holding him responsible for the current economic mess and contending that he had expired his “sell by” date. However, somewhere along the way, a bed has been calling and it seems they all are prepared to share it.
Of course, Arthur has been offering the Stuart administration economic advice for quite some time now. They might have been too proud to take it, but he has not been shy to give it.
For example, during debate in March on the 2015-2016 Estimates of Revenue and Expenditure, the former Prime Minister offered some advice on Government’s policies relating to the island’s burgeoning debt saying any future economic growth would be dwarfed by increased financial problems.
Arthur said the country’s annual debt service of $240 million was growing at a faster rate than the deficit, and that he remained skeptical of the administration’s ability to finance its programmes.
They refused it then, as they have done so many times before. But clearly things have changed.
Sinckler has sought to justify his sharp about-turn by arguing that in developed country like the United States former leaders were invited by sitting office holders to participate in panels and task forces. The key difference is these former leaders are no longer involved in active politics.
Despite all that he has said, by openly welcoming Arthur, Sinckler has tacitly admitted that his economic policies have not worked the way he would have liked and he needs the “expired” former Minister of Finance to bail him out. Strange bedfellows indeed.