The good news about Barbados' Owen Arthur

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

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SCHOLARSHIP on the contemporary political history of the Caribbean can benefit from the autobiographies, memoirs, papers and correspondence of political leaders, especially prime ministers.

This is a well developed and invaluable tradition in England and the United States, motivated in the former by an overweening sense of the importance of their history and the latter by the possibility of lucrative gains. Every former president has at least one book giving his version of history.

Mr Owen Arthur, the former three-term prime minister of Barbados has relinquished the role of Leader of the Opposition after his party narrowly lost the recent general election. Several aspects of this development are significant, starting with the smooth and quick manner in which the transition to a new opposition leader was made.

This is a tribute to all concerned and represents a timely passing of leadership to a younger but experienced leader, although Mr Arthur is by no means "old" in political terms. He will remain in parliament where he will continue to employ his renowned debating skills. Perhaps the best news is that he intends to write an autobiography which will be bifurcated between his growth to adulthood in Barbados and his formative years in Jamaica during the tumultuous decade 1971 to 1981. Even more important is that he will be compiling his papers and speeches made during his prime ministership.

In the Caribbean, it has become a fashionable act of narcissism and an ego booster to put out a book of speeches as has been done by Messrs Kenny Anthony, Ralph Gonsalves, James Mitchell (as well as an autobiography), Denzil Douglas, Said Musa and Lester Bird. Mr Lynden Pindling set out a "vision" in his own words. There are collections of speeches by Messrs Forbes Burnham and Cheddi Jagan. These tomes are intended for political promotion and can be useful, but what is really needed is some analytic insight and a recounting of details not available to the scholar or historian confined to newspaper reports. Hopefully on demitting office these leaders will give the public a fuller accounting in print. The advantage of ex-post collections is that the author has had time to reflect and can bring to bear the value of hindsight. Writing after retirement also has the advantage of the long view of a completed tenure.

There is no shortage of published speeches and articles by Mr Fidel Castro and a lengthy autobiography spoken to Mr Ignacio Romonet, plus a vast literature of unauthorised biographies.

We do not have such from Mr Norman Manley (not counting the snippet by Rex Nettleford) but considerable material on Sir Alexander Bustamante, including some of his published letters. Mr Michael Manley wrote several books providing an invaluable insight into his thinking. There are three biographies on Mr Manley, two of which were not written by a Jamaican and the third by someone who was not a close political associate.

There are biographies of Messrs Eric Williams and Donald Sangster, as well as Mr Hugh Shearer, thanks to the late Mr Hartley Neita. There is also a book on Sir Howard Cooke based on extensive interviews. There is a biography on Mr Edward Seaga and copious autobiographical volumes and collected papers by Mr Seaga himself. We look forward to the same from Jamaica's longest-serving prime minister, Mr P J Patterson.

And it is to be hoped that this will become a tradition in the Caribbean.




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