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Reflections on the Proposed Constitution (part 2)

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I have followed the politics of this country for virtually all of my life. In fact, one of my earliest recollections is of the wild celebrations that ushered in the victory of the Eight Army in Barrouallie, a battle fought there between Samuel Eric Slater of the Eight Army/Workers Party and Edmund Joachim of McIntosh’s Labour Party. Their symbols were the dove and the bike (which, of course, I only knew later). There is a gap in my memory then until the late 1950s when as a final year Primary School student in Gomea I accompanied Alphonso Dennie on Wednesday nights to listen to Ebenezer Joshua’s oratorical flights.{{more}} In 1967, I closely observed the electoral contest, even riding one of the Joachim’s buses that transported voters to the polling booths. As a recent graduate of the St.Vincent Grammar School, I was expected to support the St.Vincent Labour Party, the professed symbol of middle class respectability over the party led by the man they dubbed ‘cucumber heel’ who had been the dominant politician since 1951. Of course, that very description carried its own subtle message. My only foray into active politics was in 1979 when I campaigned in Barrouallie for the UPM and a brief appearance in 1984 when as a student on holidays from my studies in Canada I was asked to address a political meeting in Barrouallie. I was also involved in the Committee led by Henry Williams that tried to design the blueprint for a peoples’ constitution and was treated with utter disrespect by the party in power.

I have since then continued to look at and evaluate Vincy politics paying particular attention to political culture. My concern in recent years, particularly since Independence, has been with the matter of governance. I have witnessed the political climate grow bitter and hostile as it has never been before. Politics was indeed bitter in the days of Cato and Joshua, but the bitterness vanished once the elections were over. Today we are in a ‘cold war’ type of environment. I have ‘seen’ the Opposition being bulldozed in parliament, the government using its numerical strength and perception/determination of what was (is) its power, to control things. Ministerial statements used as never before, sometimes to block the Opposition from discussing matters on the occasions when they are supposed to be granted certain privileges. R. MacGregor Dawson in his Democratic Government in Canada(1967) makes the following point that I wish to highlight: “But democratic government is more than a form of organization and more than cleverly designed machinery; it is also, as a Canadian Governor General …once said, ‘a spiritual testament’. It implies a number of vitally important beliefs and traditions which have been woven into the democratic fabric and have become quite inseparable from it…Among these are …a regard for the rights of both the majority and the various minority groups into which the people are divided. Thus while it is true that, generally speaking, the wishes of the majority must prevail and the minorities must willingly accept the decisions of the majority, it is equally true that the minority also have certain rights, and there must be a corresponding willingness by the majority to recognize these rights as guaranteed. The degree to which this “willingness” is displayed is one of the distinguishing marks of modern governments…”

I have said all of the above to make the point that politicians, once elected to office, assume a mantle of absolute power and authority as though the vote cast to ensure their ascendancy to ‘power’ gives them the right to do virtually anything until they face the polls again. It is as though the act of electing them to office means that you sanction anything which they propose to do, even things they might only have dreamt about. This is further compounded by a passive population that depends on government’s patronage and, therefore, finds itself powerless to act or say anything against those who hold the public’s purse. With this mindset coming out of a long experience of sitting in the audience viewing the political players on stage, words in a constitution by themselves mean little to me. What is important is how we understand those words and how we are prepared to act. My concern is with the political culture that influences how politicians behave and the peoples’ understanding of their rights and responsibilities and what government is all about. A constitution, regardless of how beautifully crafted it is, will not change the behaviour of our political actors and peoples’ expectations of them, even with an Office of Ombudsman. You would have to be living on Mars to expect that our new Constitution will change the attitude and behaviour of our politicians. There are those among us who believe that politicians are corrupt and will steal. What is important to them is how much comes down to them. It was Lord Acton who said that “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” One of the things that all politicians agree on is that those on the other side are corrupt. This is significant. To be corrupt is, of course, to be unprincipled. So while I like Chapter 2 of the proposed Constitution that is captioned “Guiding Principles of State Policy” I am also amused by it so I chuckle and say to myself how do unprincipled people deal with ‘guiding principles’ and I will have more to say later about the section on guiding principles.

There has been a lot of talk about how widely discussed and debated were the constitutional proposals. Let us be real. Some of the forums at which these discussions took place had relatively few people, with members of the Commission being at times embarrassed by the low turnout. Let me say, at this point, that I support the call for a postponement of the Referendum, even though it might be too late to pull back. It is however never too late to do something that is right. I believe that given the environment and our political culture, many if not most people would vote according to party and not on the merits or demerits of the Constitution. Yesterday a team from the Faculty of Law at Cave Hill was to have come to SVG to discuss the Caribbean Court of Justice, but had to postpone the exercise since they would rather not be caught up in the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ environment. They will, however, come again. I think that the kind of discussion about the Caribbean Court of Justice that had been proposed has been long overdue. Even though I understand the sentiments of those opposed to the CCJ as our final court of Appeal, I am an unrepentant supporter of the CCJ. The debate, however, needs to take place in a different kind of climate.

It would have been good since we now have a final draft of the Constitution that has been passed through parliament, to see a ‘bipartisan group’ take it and undertake a process of explaining it and educating the public about it outside of the ‘yes or no’ framework. But there seems to be some burning desire to get it over as quickly as possible. Constitutional reform is an important issue that should not be thwarted or subverted by this kind of haste at a very critical juncture in the process. Last week someone asked me whether he should vote yes or no. I told him that he first had to understand what he was voting for. If many others have this attitude then we are in for real ‘ole mas’. (To be continued)

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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