The Rt. Ex. Errol Barrow: Barbadian Statesman, Caribbean Visionary

Alicia Nicholls

January 21st of each year is the day that Barbadians celebrate Errol Barrow Day. Our first prime minister, the late Rt. Ex. Errol Walton Barrow is one of our ten national heroes and our beloved ‘Father of Independence’.  His stately portrait graces our fifty dollar bill, while a majestic bronze statue poised in his likeness commands the attention of those walking through Independence Square in Bridgetown.  On this Errol Barrow Day, I see it fitting to discuss the legacy of Mr. Barrow both in terms of his contribution to Barbados and to the Caribbean region.

It could be said that one testament of a politician’s greatness is when he or she is able to draw praise from both sides of the political aisle. Politicians and ordinary Barbadians, whether BLP or DLP, frequently speak of Mr. Barrow and his contribution to our country with the deep reverence one usually reserves for religious figures. Respect for Mr. Barrow goes far beyond these shores. In a tribute to Mr. Barrow included in the book “Speeches of Errol Barrow” edited by Yussuff Haniff, the Rt. Hon. Michael Manley, former Prime Minister of Jamaica, described Mr. Barrow poignantly as follows “[t]hat Errol Barrow was a deep, passionate and unwavering Barbadian is impatient of debate”. But Mr. Barrow was more than a politician.  He was a statesman and a visionary who saw it as the region’s birthright that the Caribbean should have a share in the world.

Mr. Barrow was born on January 21st, 1920 into a politically active family in the northern parish of St. Lucy. His uncle was the great champion of social justice, Dr. Charles Duncan O’Neale. His sister, Dame Ruth Nita Barrow, would later become our first female Governor-General and earn international acclaim as a nurse and champion of public health causes. Mr. Barrow served for seven years in the Royal Air Force in the UK, and pursued studies in Law. Upon his return to Barbados, Mr. Barrow joined the then incumbent Barbados Labour Party and served as a Member of Parliament before leading a group of disenchanted former BLP supporters in 1955 to form the Democratic Labour Party. In 1966, under Mr. Barrow’s leadership, Barbados moved from a mere British colony to an independent nation. Mr. Barrow’s sudden death in office from a heart attack in 1987 brought great outpourings of sorrow across the island for the man who Barbadians fondly remember as the ‘Dipper’.

I was born the year after Mr. Barrow died. But I feel no less passionate about our ‘Father of Independence’  than any other Barbadian who had had the privilege of watching him stroll into the House of Assembly ready to get on with the people’s business.  While I may not have had the privilege of hearing his dry wit or seeing him mingle unassumingly with the regular folk over ‘a bread and two’ and some mauby, I like many subsequent generations of Barbadians have benefited from the myriad of far-sighted economic and social welfare policies he instituted which have provided a pathway for economic and social mobility for the underprivileged and have set the foundation for the high standard of living and prosperity that Barbados today enjoys despite its small size and few natural resources. Thanks to Mr. Barrow, Barbadians benefit from free education from primary to tertiary level, free school meals, the National Insurance Scheme and countless other social safety nets. His foreign policy emphasized principles of regional and international comity but also a strong sense of sovereignty and independence encapsulated in his oft-quoted phrase “friends of all; satellites of none”.

Mr. Barrow enjoyed excellent relations and close friendships with his  regional contemporaries. This is not surprising. Mr. Barrow, along with regional greats like Norman and Michael Manley of Jamaica, Dr. Eric Williams of Trinidad & Tobago and Forbes Burnham of Guyana, just to name a few, belonged to a cadre of immediate post-colonial Caribbean leaders who were imbued with a sense of national pride, but also recognized that their countries’ economic survival required development within a regional framework.

Under Barrow, Barbados was one of the founding members of the Caribbean Free Trade Area (CARIFTA) in 1965 and its predecessor, the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) in 1973 which he described a la Neil Armstong as “a giant step for us all”. In Mr. Barrow’s speech “Towards a United Caribbean”, a statement made in the House of Assembly on June 19th 1973 on the establishment of CARICOM, Mr. Barrow celebrated the prospects of CARICOM and his vision for what its successful operation could do for Barbados and the region. In discussing the importance of CARICOM for Barbados, Mr. Barrow argued that “the Common Market should provide an opportunity for our industrial and agricultural sectors to leap forward”. He understood the potential of intra-regional trade to help reduce dependence on extra-regional imports and to promote the economic development of the region. It was during this era that several important instruments for the integration movement were either established or the groundwork for their establishment was laid, including the Common External Tariff and the Harmonisation of Fiscal Incentives Agreement.

However, for Mr. Barrow, the necessity of Caribbean integration went beyond the possible economic gains. In extolling the desirability of developing closer relationships among the countries of the anglophone Caribbean, he recognized the “need to protect our small communities from exploitation by undesirable influences”. Indeed, self-reliance was a strong theme underlying his vision for the region. His anti-colonial fervor is encapsulated in another oft-quoted saying of his “no loitering on colonial premises after closing time”. He strongly opposed the US invasion of Grenada while he was in opposition. He took a strong non-aligned stance during the Cold War, arguing that the Caribbean should be a ‘zone of peace’.  Mr. Barrow recognized that political sovereignty was of no moment if economic sovereignty were surrendered to foreign interests. Pushing for less dependence on developed countries, he criticised what he saw as a “mendicant mentality” in the region, arguing forcefully that begging from developed nations would not solve our problems.

While psychology was not one of Mr. Barrow’s professions, his speeches reveal his great thinking on the Caribbean psyche and its impact on the state of the region. Despairing over the slow process of regional integration, he spoke of the need to overcome our imbued sense of inadequacy if we are to progress as a region. He lamented that while Caribbean integration was a ‘fact of daily experience’, it was something that yet was not institutionalised. Indeed some of the reasons for the failings for Caribbean integration which he outlined in his speech ‘Caribbean Integration: The Reality and the Goal’ delivered to the CARICOM Heads of Governments Conference in Guyana in 1986 ring true today. To Barrow, one of the biggest shortcomings of the integration movement was the failure to communicate that the regional integration movement was more than trade. There was the need to better communicate the regional project to the peoples of the region, by emphasising the strong cultural ties which bind us, and educating them on “the meaning and purpose of all regional institutions”.

As a law student, I have sat in lectures and nodded emphatically when I listened to my lecturers speak passionately of the need for ‘Caribbeanising our legal systems’ and the role of the Caribbean Court of Justice in developing our Caribbean jurisprudence. However, back in 1986 Mr. Barrow had also spoken on the issue of Caribbeanising our legal systems in an address to the graduating class of the Sir Hugh Wooding Law School of the University of the West Indies St. Augustine in 1986.  Although confessing that he had initially supported the retention of the right of appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, Mr. Barrow acknowledged the tediousness of the appeal process to the JCPC and suggested that the region establish its own Court of Appeal. I am sure if Mr. Barrow were alive now he would be pleased that we now have the Caribbean Court of Justice which was established in 2001 and inaugurated in 2005. Unfortunately, while all CARICOM members have accepted the CCJ in its original jurisdiction, only three members (Barbados, Guyana and Belize) have made it their final court of appeal. Fortunately, the new Portia Simpson-led government in Jamaica has indicated that it will make the CCJ its final court of appeal.

It is impossible in one short blog post to do justice to Mr. Barrow’s legacy. While a proud Barbadian, Mr. Barrow also held a deep attachment to the region, an attachment which regrettably seems lacking in many of our regional leaders today. His speeches on Caribbean integration should, in my humble submission, be required reading for all Barbadian and Caribbean secondary school students doing social studies or history.  Though delivered more than twenty years ago, these teachings of self-reliance, regional self-confidence, unity and independence could be transposed to the current dispensation and still be relevant. Indeed, I believe they are needed now even more than ever.

Alicia Nicholls is a trade policy specialist and law student at the University of the West Indies. You can contact her here or follow her on Twitter at @LicyLaw

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