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What makes a good politician


By Sir Arthur Foulkes


There are only 40 seats in our House of Assembly and some people believe that is too many for a country of only 300,000 people. If we were all living on one island, like Barbados, we could very well consider reducing that number.


But we are an archipelagic country with communities scattered on a score of major islands and many cays; and our constitution makes provision for that.


There are credible reports that the PLP Government is planning a redistribution of Family Island seats before the next election but it is unlikely that the number will go back to the all-time high of 49.


For those 40 or so seats there are hundreds of persons who want to offer. Some will no doubt run under the banner of small parties and some as independents, but most of them hope to be nominated by one of the two national parties.


Except for leadership contests, there is nothing that can place more strain on the unity of a political party than the process of candidate selection.


This was always a serious matter but in this age of rapid globalization and with more complex problems confronting even a small country like ours, both parties have a grave responsibility to manage this process so that it will provide voters with the best possible choices.


Both parties should take to heart the lesson of the last election when the PLP won by an unexpectedly big margin. The leadership of the PLP did not expect to win until quite late in the game and certainly not by such a margin.


So it appeared that in many cases they were not careful about some of their selections.


It has happened many times before that a party has put up an unsuitable candidate in a constituency it did not expect to win, and usually the result was as predicted. But sometimes the sacrificial lamb returns as a conquering hero.


The lesson is clear. The parties have a responsibility to put up qualified candidates in all constituencies, even the ones privately conceded to the opponent. The people deserve a decent choice and – who knows? – there might just be a surprise or two.


One balance a political party has to strike is between experienced hands and bright new prospects. A party is like a nation. One generation does not simply disappear overnight to allow the next generation to take its place.


That would destroy continuity and sacrifice the considerable benefits of experience. Generational change, like everything else, must be managed with sense.


The great challenge facing the parties is deciding who is qualified and who is not, because the mix of qualifications necessary for a productive political career is not always easy to determine.


There are some indispensable attributes, of course, and Miami Herald columnist Carlos Alberto Montaner listed some of them in a discussion about Panama’s presidential election.


Honesty and integrity are paramount, but prudence, good judgment and common sense are also indispensable. And a little humility does not hurt. But there are other things to look for.


In the present House of Assembly nearly all of the members have had exposure to higher education, formal or otherwise, and there are perhaps more university graduates than ever before. Yet, with a few exceptions, they can hardly be described as a lustrous lot.


So while higher education can be a most valuable tool, it alone does not qualify one for the political life. Many effective, indeed brilliant, political careers started without it.


Our sister Caribbean countries have produced some great political leaders who were also high academic achievers, such as Eric Williams and Norman Manley.


But there was also Alexander Bustamante who was challenged academically but nevertheless a brilliant political leader.


Here at home we have had our share of academically or professionally accomplished politicians, such as Stafford Sands and Lynden Pindling. But we have also had Milo Butler whose courage and dedication inspired more than one generation, and Roland Symonette whose shrewdness and doggedness took him to the top.


Good politicians come in all shapes and sizes and with many different talents. So perhaps it is best in the end to remember the old advice which that while we might not be able to define a thing, we will recognize it when we see it.


Two great attributes are the ability to relate to ordinary people while at the same time being able to pursue noble objectives. As US President Theodore Roosevelt put it almost a hundred years ago, a good politician must “possess the gifts of sympathy with plain people and of devotion to great ideals”.

An indispensable tool for relating to people and pursuing a vision is the ability to communicate. This has been the case throughout the centuries – from Cicero to Churchill to Clinton – and it is particularly true in a country like ours with a strong oral tradition.


Having regard to this tradition, it is mystifying and disappointing that so many members of the present House seem unable properly to read a speech much less to speak without reading.


It is interesting that two or three of the most effective speakers on the government side happen to be women, and one of them is particularly good at convincing her listeners that she believes what she is saying even when she is reading.


The representative for the 21st century must be, of all things, a generalist.


He must have a good knowledge of his own country and of the world around him. He must know that salt is produced at Inagua by evaporation, not mining, and he must know the difference between the WTO and the WHO.


He must be able to explain the world to his constituents and to explain his constituents to the world, especially those who come to invest and live among us.


But there is another requirement. It is commitment -- willingness to stay the course. Persons who are in for the full 15 rounds, as Garth Wright used to say, are the bone and marrow of any party.


Many are attracted by the perceived glamour of politics and soon fade away when the going gets tough. Some run, are defeated, then disappear. Clarence Bain called them fly-by-nights.


Some who are otherwise eminently qualified never commit but are content to stand on the sidelines and complain about the qualifications of those who do make that lifetime commitment.


Theodore Roosevelt spoke about them in his famous speech at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1910 when he railed against ivory tower critics and poured scorn on those whose intellectual aloofness would not allow them to accept contact with life’s realities.


So, said Mr. Roosevelt:


“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who know great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”


That is perhaps the most important quality to look for in a representative: the willingness to expose himself to scorn, abuse and betrayal and still stay in the arena, because he is committed to fight for a cause greater than himself.



Sir Arthur is the Bahamas' ambassador to China. A former High Commissioner to the United Kingdom and the European Union, he is a journalist, writer, political activist and was a delegate to the Bahamas Independence Conference in London in 1972.


Sir Arthur blogs at Bahamapundit 


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