Former Minister Zhivargo Laing’s Must Read On The Realties of Politics

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(First published in The Nassau Guardian  16 August 2017)

My time on the frontlines of politics was enormously exciting and instructive. Representing people in both Fort Charlotte and Marco City was an honor, even if challenging at times. Serving as a Cabinet minister in the areas of youth, sports, culture, education, economic development and finance was a unique experience that I shall always cherished. It filled me with both pride and humility to have served my country that way.

I learned many things while I was in politics. I learned that nothing is permanent, except permanent secretaries. I learned that people don’t vote for you; they vote for themselves through you. I learned that winning is only the start, and that governing is entirely more difficult. I learned that there is nothing romantic about governing and representing people; it is complex, difficult and frustrating. I learned that honor is more important than popularity, and if you have to choose between the two, choose honor. I learned that humility is a virtue. I learned that all politics is local, so no matter how lofty the heights to which you ascend, keep your feet firmly anchored on the ground. I learned that the powerful have feet of clay, so don’t be surprised when they show themselves flawed or frail. I learned that people need leadership and not pandering. And finally, I learned that unity is crucial to effective leadership and governing, but it is quite elusive. These are all profound lessons, and ones that I will never forget. However, the lessons I have learned since politics are equally or even more profound. There are five that I hold especially dear.

The first lesson I learned since politics is that knowing who you are apart from what you were is critical. There are some politicians who never seem to adjust to the fact that they are no longer holding the office they once held. Not being a prime minister, minister, senator, member of Parliament, ambassador or committee chairman, for them, amounts to not being anything. They crave the recognition of their former office, so much so that not being referred to as “the former minister” or the like is a real problem. Not having people acknowledge their presence in private or public is offensive for such a soul. Frankly, there should be certain regard for people who served in public life, especially if they served well. But if it does not come, craving it is only coddling suffering and shame. More importantly, it is important to dwell in your present self and live the truth of it. Besides, the fact that it is insanity to obsess with what one was, it is simply refreshing to be what you are at present.

The second lesson I learned is that 80 percent of the relationships you had in office were only because you were in office. People pursue their interests and align themselves with those who advance them. Politicians do this and those who are around them do this. There is no malice in this; it is human nature. However, there are politicians who believe that the relationships they have in office with people represent genuine relationships predicated on wanting nothing. That is simply naïve. Few relationships in politics are based on wanting nothing. When you are out of office, it will become clear that only about 20 percent of such relationships are authentic. This recognition helps the politician to appreciate that the scale of his or her network is narrow and that nurturing relationships should be done like mining gold – with care and precision. Authentic relationships in office are precious. Out of office they can be invaluable.

The third lesson I learned is that you never shed your partisan shade when out of office unless you carefully assert your existence separate and apart from your label over time. In a small country, political labels can be a challenge to life after politics. Whether in business or simply living in society, to have been a politician on one side or the other can prove an obstacle to moving forward productively. However, if one is careful not to define life outside of politics on the basis of life in politics, it is possible to reestablishment one’s non-political self over time. It does require the courage to be honest, fair and helpful. It also requires a willingness not to let blind fidelity to the party that you support guide your every utterance, conduct or aims.

The fourth lesson I learned is that value transcends political labels. People have their political preferences for sure, but they have a greater preference for that which helps them achieve the personal aims and objectives. As a former politician, if your expertise, skills or ideas are deemed valuable to people, businesses or organizations, they will seek them out, no matter their politics. It is therefore necessary for past, present and future politicians to establish a value in the world beyond the politics of their present moment. They must ensure that while they may earn a living while in politics, they can earn a living beyond politics.

The fifth lesson I learned is that the people who write your obituary are fraudsters. No one knows the future; and more importantly, no one knows your future. What is more important to your future than any pundit’s prophecy are the choices you make today and the aims you have for the future. What is clear is to preside over your present moment with awareness. Don’t live in your past or in your future, but in your present moment. Make the most of this moment for yourself, your family and your community. Forget the politics of it. If you are out, be out. If you get back in, get in but only then. Today, be fully about what you are about, seeking only to produce the results you desire. There is no more powerful moment for someone who was in an office than the present moment, because it is the only real moment any of us ever have.

Politics is a unique area of human life. It is the only place where legitimate coercive power dances with the will of people to choose who has that power. Anyone who has been in it knows its virtues and its vices; they know its highs and its lows. When you are in it, it is quite a ride, filled with ups and downs. When you are out, you are better off staying completely out, even if to observe, comment or advise from a distance. The lessons I learned in politics have been valuable, but the lessons I learned since are priceless.

  • ZhivargoLaing is a Bahamian economic consultant and former Cabinet minister who represented the Marco City constituency in the House of Assembly.