In whose ‘national interest’?

EVERSLEY FilesWho should define and determine what constitutes the “national interest” of Barbados? Should the task be left entirely up to Government or, to be more specific, the partisan political directorate elected every five years to administer the business of Government?   Should the Opposition, as the Government-in-waiting, be involved and the Social Partnership, or should the “national interest” be determined strictly on the basis of a consensus informed by the collective wishes of the citizenry at large consulted periodically in the true spirit of democracy?

With Barbados at a crossroads, developmentally speaking, these questions are relevant to any serious discussion about the future –– specifically in relation to the kind of society we are seeking to develop, along with a relevant model of governance that takes into account changing needs, times and circumstances.

Listening to Barbadians over the past few years, in particular, it is quite clear most people are generally unhappy with the way things are going and are yearning for better. Better, however, will not come by simply complaining, which is a defining Barbadian characteristic, but through a genuine people’s movement lawfully crusading for meaningful political, economic and social reform.

Key objectives must include enhancing and broadening the scope of democracy beyond the current two-minute voting exercise every five years, so that it becomes more inclusive and participatory. Also, reforming Government so that it becomes more people-focused and practises openness, transparency and accountability instead of secrecy is fundamental.

The choice of what constitutes the “national interest”, as the topic of our discussion this week, was prompted by a statement made last weekend by Prime Minister Freundel Stuart, suggesting he has the option, using provisions under existing law, to quell current labour unrest in the “national interest”.

For the benefit of a wider national audience, Stuart did not spell out in detail what he means by “national interest”. Speaking to a partisan Democratic Labour Party (DLP) gathering, there was no pressing need to do so as the audience would have readily understood. “National interest”, to them, coincides with the DLP’s overriding political interest, which boils down to maintaining its hold on state power for as long as possible.

Even though current labour disputes are direct responses to specific issues, such as the termination by the Barbados Investment & Development Corporation (BIDC) of 13 employees, the real target of current worker displeasure is the Stuart Government. The irritants all stem from the adverse impact of public policy on people’s lives.

“I have not known any period in our post-Independence history, or our pre-Independence history, during my lifetime, where there has been these sustained attempts to create civil commotion here in Barbados,” Stuart told a fund-raiser held by the Christ Church West DLP constituency branch.

“We cannot afford to have our gains reversed by this kind of conduct. There is something called the national interest which should preponderate over any other kind of interests when the chips are down,” added Stuart, referring to the availability of the Public Order Act and, on a previous occasion, to Section 48 of the Constitution.

Given the suggestion that the unrest was an Opposition-inspired destabilization plot against the Government, it is no surprise that “civil commotion” was used to frame the issue. By pointing to the possibility of “a violent situation in which many people in a public space cause serious damage”, which is how the Cambridge Dictionary defines “civil commotion”, the Government has come up with a convenient justification for a crackdown.

To the rest of the country, however, such a possibility is remote as the protests so far have been peaceful and incident-free in keeping with the Barbadian character. This seeming over-reaction by Stuart, therefore, seems to be driven more by an inner discomfort that an escalation of the workers’ protests into a crippling national shutdown  will have serious political ramifications for his fragile and
unpopular administration.

Viewed against this backdrop, the “national interest” which he spoke about, becomes quite easy to define. Interestingly, “national interest” in this particular context bears an uncanny resemblance with what the 16th political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli called the “will of the prince” and the position of the 17th century French king Louis XIV, who defined “the state” as “himself”.

“L’état, c’est moi!”

The key point which Stuart overlooked, and is at the heart of the current labour unrest, is that the underlying cause is the severe hardships and pressures which his Government has imposed on the backs of Barbadians in the context of fiscal austerity, without meaningful consultation.

Compared with trade unions elsewhere in the Caribbean, which are known for their militancy, local trade unions have demonstrated a history of acting responsibly and only embark on strike action as a last resort. Obviously, the circumstances of recent years would have forced the unions to deviate from their traditional conciliatory approach, especially considering their cries of increasing
worker marginalization.

It is unlikely that Stuart, whose narrative in recent weeks has taken on a noticeably authoritarian tone, will agree to have any other than the DLP political directorate define what constitutes the “national interest”. This conclusion can be drawn from comments he made a year ago about the pre-eminence of a so-called Barbadian “political class” when the House of Assembly paid tribute to the late Barbados Labour Party (BLP) stalwart Lionel Craig.

He said: “There are always people around who believe that Barbados and some other countries in the Caribbean . . . would be better run, if not run by politicians . . . . There are still people who believe that civil society organizations or other criteria should be used to determine who presides over the destiny of the people . . . . We are not going to allow the democratic procedures for which we have fought . . . to be rolled back by elitists and by snobs.”

In Stuart’s estimation, the political class reigns. Long live the political class! The fundamental problem, however, is that ruling classes always give priority to promoting and emphasizing their interests. The “national interest” of the political class, the patricians of Barbados, will always be sharp variance with the “national interest” of the plebs, who happen to be the
rest of us.

The greatest human need, especially when the chips are down, is to know that people who matter care. Maya Angelou, the late American poet, brilliantly put it this way: “People will forget what you said; people will forget what you did but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

When historians write about this period in our history, the Stuart Government will be remembered as one which made Barbadians feel terrible. Barbadians have had to walk through the valley of the shadow of death in the last three years, but they had to fear evil because they did not sense the reassuring presence of the shepherd with his rod to comfort them.

That is the tragedy which has befallen this DLP administration that finds itself alienated from the people. Having lost the people’s favour, it resorts to using threatening language aimed at instilling fear in order to reassert its authority and control. When politicians become victims of their own arrogance, they inevitably pay a dear political price. The people always have the final say come election day.

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

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