A GUY'S VIEW: The Right Honourable Professor Owen Seymour Arthur
“Lives of great men all remind us, we can make our lives sublime, and, departing, leave behind us, footprints on the sands of time. – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
At the beginning of last week, former Prime Minister Owen Arthur passed from this mortal life. While we have heard stories about other places, what we know for certain is that he walked among us and we can see the contribution he made to the development of Barbados while on this side of life.
Owen Arthur was a fierce political foe. At times, his style was bruising and he took no prisoners. And he did not reserve the sword that was his tongue for persons in active politics. Journalists and others felt the weight of his politics and suffered at the edge of his tongue. Chances are, he made some lasting enemies.
He understood the nature of our adversarial system of politicking and he used it effectively. But there had to be something special about his character that those who got to see him up close observed. Beyond the partisan politics, he must have been a man of superior character.
I believe that he had a good relationship with former Prime Minister Stuart, although they were on different political sides. And I could not help but notice the many expressions of sorrow and condolences which were expressed by members of the Democratic Labour Party in that party’s private circles. No one trusts the word of a politician, but when private, unadvertised feelings are expressed, one can place some weight on them.
A friend reminded me that she sat in an Ordinary level economics class which Arthur taught, but which he was called away from before the course could be completed because then Prime Minister Adams called him to serve in Government. She did not share his politics but was impressed by him. Apparently, the impressions he made on people in those years stayed with them for a long time.
His beginnings were humble, that was common knowledge, and it was a fact that lent authenticity to his party of choice when it had been written off as the party of the rich and white. Arthur probably rescued that party and gave it a new lease on life.
I well recall strong Democratic Labour Party supporters deciding to vote for the Barbados Labour Party, only because they wanted to see Arthur succeed. When we turned up to work early one election morning, a man who is still a DLP supporter to this day said to me, “Mayersie, I went and vote for Arthur. I like how he start and I want to see where he going.” This was feasible because although he was the leader of the BLP, he was philosophically baptised in the DLP and never changed.
It was because of persons like my colleague that led to the development of what came to be called, Arthur Dems. He had clearly found the bridge over which all Barbadians felt comfortable crossing.
Owen Arthur’s down to earth demeanour was not artificial. As Prime Minister, he felt comfortable sitting on the grass under a tree at BET cricket ground on Saturday afternoons among his friends, many of whom had no claim to fame.
Others try to emulate him, but it is always clear that they are impressionists in search of some personal gain. With Arthur, it was not so. He was as you saw him.
His language was sometimes colourful, but that too was natural and not manufactured. His colour was not evidence of malice, but the expression of Barbadianisms with which all could identify, even if at the receiving end of one of his explosions.
His unique frankness earned him the rebuke of the most loyal foot soldiers of his party. His unwillingness to compromise his principles caused him to be pushed out of his party. But while he was in the party wilderness, he was probably neither alone nor lonely.
His management of the economy created the impression that an economist was needed to run the financial affairs of the country. This has never been true, of Barbados or anywhere else, but his grasp of the subject enabled him to communicate economic doctrines in a language that made the man in the corner shop believe that he could be a Minister of Finance as well.
I remember working with a man who was very good at what he did, but he could not explain it if you paid him. His lectures were painful and dull. But his skill was top notched. It seems that Arthur had both the know-how and the ability to communicate his skills verbally. This distinguished him among our leaders.
There are moments when I look for inspiration from those greater than me in an effort to express my thoughts. Now, the words of William Shakespeare come to mind as I search for the right words to contextualise the life and contribution of Owen Seymour Arthur. Given his origins and his achievements, these words seem appropriate: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”
Owen Arthur was not born great, at least not as our mortal eyes perceive greatness. Whether he achieved greatness or had it thrust upon him is open to debate. What is true is that he made a contribution to Barbados, regardless of his politics. He has now gone to join his fathers.
May he rest well.