In The Bahamas Ignorant Armies Clash by Night

- for The Punch – Issue 24 March 2011
by P. Anthony White

“ . . . we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”
Matthew Arnold, DOVER BEACH

This marks the second occasion upon which we have commended the Member of Parliament for Bamboo Town, Branville McCartney, in this space or another, for a display of integrity.

Earlier this week Mr. McCartney, who had been elected to the House of Assembly in May 2007 as a candidate for the Free National Movement, announced that he had resigned his membership with the governing party.

After the elections, in which the FNM was successful and became the government, Mr. McCartney was appointed a state minister, first for Tourism, and subsequently of Immigration. Early last year he resigned his cabinet post, citing an opined difference with the government with regard to policy, but nevertheless expressing his continued support for the FNM and the government.

Again on that occasion, in this space or another, we traced political history back to 1970 when the late Sir Cecil Wallace-Whitfield led seven other Progressive Liberal Party Members of Parliament in supporting a House of Assembly vote of no confidence in the PLP government and in prime minister Lynden Pindling.

At that time the Member of South Beach, the late Carlton Francis, a former headmaster and educator, who was Minister of Finance, on his feet in Parliament reminded the eight dissidents that “there is a path for honourable men to follow when they find they can no longer follow their leader.”

The eight, of course, voluntarily or not, went in a different political direction from their leader, and the result ultimately evolved into the Free National Movement, which served as the government of The Bahamas from 1992 until 2002, and has again been the government since 2007.

For the record, the eight had taken the honourable path suggested by Carlton Francis, and which he was himself eventually to follow when as a cabinet minister he disagreed with the PLP government’s plan and policy to extend casino gambling in The Bahamas.

Today it seems Branville McCartney has chosen to follow that honourable path by tendering his resignation from the FNM, just as he did when he resigned as a cabinet minister.

Twice in relevantly recent times that has happened in the opposition Progressive Liberal Party. That was the case when Malcolm Adderley resigned his Elizabeth House of Assembly seat, prompting an early 2010 bye-election which was won by the PLP’s Ryan Pinder.

It happened again last year when the PLP MP for Kennedy, Kenyatta Gibson, left the PLP and walked across the floor of the House, allying himself politically with the governing FNM.

That is the way things are done by honourable men and women, especially in critical times when political leaders need to be able to rely on their loyal members and supporters, and most especially when leaders need to count committed Parliamentary heads in matters such as the BTC debate now taking place in the House of Assembly.

Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham has already announced his principle that should the House of Assembly vote go against his government’s decision to sell 51 percent of the Bahamas Telecommunications Company to Cable and Wireless, he would consider that a vote of no confidence in his government, and will call early general elections.

We have been around, politically, and we are not certain, from where we sit, that all FNM MPs are acutely aware of the significance of what will take place as a result of the extent of their support of the BTC resolution and how they vote, or of the significance of what the prime minister said with regard to that vote.

Hubert Ingraham, none can afford to forget, especially not at this juncture, long ago proclaimed that he is a man who says what he means and means what he says, and has not yet to date gone back on that proclamation.

Back in 2001, when Mr. Ingraham took the decision that he was ready to step down from the FNM leadership, he caused the party to hold a special convention for the election of a leader-designate. Of the three principal candidates vying for that post – Tennyson Wells, Tommy Turnquest and Algernon Allen – Mr. Turnquest emerged as the winner.

There was a great deal of bitterness in parts of the political camp of the FNM, which was at the time still the government of The Bahamas. That bitterness, and sometimes outward criticism of the party’s leadership, coupled with the issue of the February 2002 Referendum, conspired wickedly to energise the opposition PLP to mount its biggest and most expensive and flambouyant election campaign ever.

The FNM government lost the February 2002 Referendum, and on the heels of that defeat, in the May 2002 general elections, to a great extent because of division and disgruntlement in the party, and not necessarily at the rank and file level, the FNM went into a lost the 2 May 2002 general elections.

Up through the years from time to time, both the Free National Movement and the Progressive Liberal Party have suffered the political pain of fracture in the ranks, fracture sometimes so severe that it erodes party strength and public support, none of which is politically healthy near election time.

We write often of the disastrous 1977 general elections, when the opposition was split completely in half. Many argue that a huge contributing feature in that split came about because in the Free National Movement a dispute arose about the party’s candidate for the South Long Island seat.

On the Cecil Wallace Whitfield side the preference of a candidate was Tennyson Wells, a Long Islander, whilst the Bay Street faction favoured another Long Islander from Mangrove Bush, James Knowles.

There was to be no compromise, yet the impending fracture in the party had to do with infinitely more than the candidacy for Long Island, nor, as others contended, did it involve any sinister attempt of the old Bay Street diehards to regain control of the opposition in the hopes of returning Bay Street to the government.

It had more to do with a clash of strong political personalities in the opposition. Although a forceful, fearless and charismatic individual, Cecil Vincent Wallace Whitfield was also doctrinaire and dogmatic. He believed – and perhaps he had every right to harbour such a belief – that the Free National Movement was his political baby and that was that.

Others in the party, some of them veteran and seasoned politicians, no doubt respected and admired him, but were not prepared to follow blindly. There were yet others who had in another place gone through that “One Man’s Dream” syndrome, and would not endure another running of the episode.

The upshot of it all was a split, with the FNM led by Wallace Whitfield and the new Bahamian Democratic Party headed by Kendal Isaacs. Yes, when came elections, in South Long Island James Knowles was the BDP’s candidate and Tennyson Wells carried the banner for the FNM.

The PLP was able to chalk up a massive win at the polls in that election, a victory rendered even more massive because of the political disarray in the opposition. Yet through wise and tolerant dialogue, the fracture could have been avoided.

If personalities had been prepared to come to the discussion table, checking their egos at the door, that 1977 elections need not have been so disastrous. There was no way even a combined opposition could have triumphed, but at least the fundamental political chord would have remained intact for the next confrontation.

There was the case in the Progressive Liberal Party leading up to the 1997 elections when the party altered the constitution to call a leadership convention to allow for the election of two co deputy leaders to serve under party leader the late Sir Lynden Pindling. The outcome was that Perry Christie and Dr. Bernard Nottage, both former ministers in the PLP government, were elected to those offices.

Following the 1997 election, however, Sir Lynden resigned both as party leader and as a Member of Parliament. There was the need for a new party leader. The candidates were Christie, Nottage, and Philip Galanis. Actually, after the first ballot Bernard Nottage polled more than Christie, but not the required 50 percent.

There had to be another ballot. Philip Galanis pulled out of the race, and Perry Christie sailed to victory. At the next PLP convention Nottage again ran for the leadership, This time Christie stumped him.

That did not go well with Bernard Nottage, who apparently felt that something had gone awry. He soon resigned from the PLP, and went on to establish the Coalition for Democratic Reform, where, in fact, he was joined by such as Phenton Neymour and Charles Maynard, both of whom are now FNM cabinet ministers.

No doubt again much pain and political fracture could have been avoided through consultation and open argument around the table, with egos checked at the door, and party generals and political middlemen kept at bay.

For years in The Bahamas far too often around the political executive table and in the trenches there is mindless warring which dilutes the organisation’s forward battle thrust, and especially at times when there is a desperate need for all hand on deck, and fully accountable.

The ancient writer Thucydides presented an account of a battle during the Peloponnesian War which occurred on a beach during the invasion of Sicily by the Athenians. That confrontation took place at night, and the attacking army became so disoriented that in the darkness some of the soldiers were actually killing each other.

There is a lesson there for politicians and political organisations who cannibalise inside their groups because they often confuse friend with foe, lashing out left and right, sometimes ignorantly, often with sinister deliberation, seldom pausing to ponder the possible effect on the cause at hand.

That has, over the many years, been the sad case in both the PLP and the FNM, both as government and as opposition.

Back in the 19th century, the English poet Matthew Arnold commented on such a situation, no doubt drawing on the battle account rendered by Thucydides centuries before, whilst honeymooning with his bride near Dover Beach, Kent in England, penned the classic poem, DOVER BEACH, some of the last lines of the final stanza which reads:

“Ah, love, let us be true
To one another . . . we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

Far too often in The Bahamas have political battles been lost because supposed allied soldiers war on darkling plains like ignorant armies clashing by night . . . for what it’s worth.

Happy Birth to former parliamentarians Frank Howard Watson and Kendal Wellington Nottage, both born on this date in 1940, a very good year.