The deification of Lester Bird

November 2012. On a crisp, windy day, Gaston Browne defeats Lester Bird – 213 to 180 – by a margin of 33 votes. In 66 years, no one outside the powerful Bird dynasty has ever led the Antigua Labour Party.

Mr Browne, young, ambitious and shrewd, becomes the first. In his victory speech just outside Gray’s Farm, Mr Browne pledged to “ensure the legacy of Lester Bird.”

June 2014. In the thick, warm air of Government House, Dame Louise Lake-Tack clenches her gilded ivory fan as Prime Minister Browne announces his 12-member ministerial Cabinet.

One after the other, the ministers take their oaths of office, allegiance and secrecy. Curiously missing from the proceedings is Lester Bird. Media reports indicate he is absent from the ceremony because of “ill health”(1). It is announced he is to be appointed senior minister.

July 2014. The Cabinet of Antigua & Barbuda approves the allocation of five personal staff to Lester Bird, a monthly expenditure of $16,908. Opposition members lambaste the allowance calling it “outrageous (2).” Mr Bird lashes back: “This is not politics,” he says, “This is nastiness. I got the second most votes in this election. The people spoke.”

November 2014. On a picturesque Caribbean day at the Sir Vivian Richards Cricket Stadium, Mr Bird receives Antigua & Barbuda’s highest national honor, becoming Sir Lester Bird – Knight of the Most Exalted Order of National Hero. The honour, it is announced, is bestowed in recognition of Mr Bird’s national contributions as a sportsman, lawyer and politician for almost 40 years. Glowing with pride, a smiling Sir Bird receives the sword seated atop a sturdy, ornate chair of gleaming scarlet leather.

When the sword was lifted from his shoulders, Lester Bird was whisked away from the realm of common Antiguan existence into a domain of legends, a pantheon of great national figures including his father, Sir V C Bird. In that moment, he became fixed in the fabric of our national history. He became, in a way, immortal.

In the transformation from mere mortal to hero, the past is left behind and history is often re-written and revised. Old rumors of cronyism, bitter intra-family conflicts and whispers of corruption are shed like molting skin. Shadows are given a new light and the eyes are re-directed to stare into places they had only glimpsed over before. And so we are asked to suspend our disbelief and to see the proud hero anew: Sir Lester the college sportsman, the distinguished legal practitioner. Sir Lester, no longer a politician, but a ‘parliamentarian’ and servant of the people for nearly 40 long, long years.

But no pope has ever deified a believer without reason. So it is that no leader lifts up a former rival without cause. The masses will, of course, be blinded by the pomp and circumstance of the deification. Even Mr Bird’s opponents will be stuck in a tableau of incredulity, shock registering across their dazed and confused faces. Even now, in their delirium, the hero’s opponents feed ‘Lester-mania’ with ill-conceived proclamations and petitions that invariably draw attention to the very man whose ascent they attempt to oppose. All around the country, in every parish, village and alley, the name of Lester Bird will ring.

The deified Mr Bird now finds himself in close association with heroic figures whose company eluded him when he was just a mere mortal. Lester and Dame Nellie, Lester and Sir Viv, Lester and Papa Bird – the last association being perhaps the most poignant for its Shakespearean overtones.

While the lovers and haters of the new Sir Lester battle for control of the public’s attention, a subtle shift, light as a touch, takes place beneath the hysteria of the national discourse. “Should Lester Bird be knighted?” has necessarily been replaced by the question “Is Lester Bird’s knighthood deserved?” The Antiguan and Barbudan public have been ushered rather quickly beyond the only real question of political significance: Why was Lester Bird chosen in the first place?

Everyone assumes that the decision to honour Lester Bird was made to appeal to a national audience. This is highly doubtful. Had Mr Browne wanted to appease Antigua’s peanut gallery, he could have chosen a far less polarising figure than Mr Bird. In the metaphorical sense, the anointment of Mr Bird can hardly be called an olive branch extended with the intention of uniting both sides of a deeply divided nation. It would appear that Mr Bird’s selection contained a message intended not for the national electorate but for a very, select, elite group of men and women – the 180 delegates Mr Bird commanded when he was deposed as leader of the ALP.

Through this deification, the young prime minister is signalling his intent to create his own lasting political legacy in Antigua & Barbuda. The inception of such a legacy will undoubtedly require that he gain the allegiance of the vast majority of the ALP delegates who did not support his rise to leadership, both to institutionalise his power within the party and to be able to engineer the next phase of his party’s evolution from a ‘Bird’ Party to a ‘Browne’ Party.

Mr Browne and his advisers have apparently not forgotten that his 2012 face-off with Lester Bird began as a 4-man leadership battle. Indeed, it would appear Mr Browne has learned that the quickest way to disarm his opponents is to praise them and flatter their supporters. And besides, there will be new Labour candidates to be selected, future elections and by-elections to contest. Best to consolidate power now rather than later.

Machiavelli once wrote that there was “nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.”

To be sure, history will remember the deification of Sir Lester Bird as a transition to the beginning of the Browne ‘Order’ in Antiguan and Barbudan politics. It will also be remembered as the moment Mr Browne learned a lesson that transcends the petty wrangling of red versus blue: in order to rebuild his country he must first finish rebuilding his party.

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