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Thoughts at Independence 2010

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This week we celebrate our thirty first year of Independence at a time when our nation is facing tremendous challenges created by both internal and external factors. To add to this, the people of the nation are expecting at any time a call for them to go to the polls to elect a government of their choice. Like most other countries in the CARICOM region, we have been able to preserve our democratic form of government, something which has not happened in many ex-colonies of Britain.{{more}} Britain itself had to contend with a monarchical system of government and a society where class was a predominant feature in the early years of the evolution of the system. The early struggles between parliament and the monarchy produced a system where despite the fact that the parliament of Britain is really where power resides, the monarchy is of tremendous significance there. Here the monarch who is still technically our Head of State is somewhat remote from our consciousness. Gone are the days when we celebrated Empire Day, and as school children were treated to buns and ginger beer. It is also of significance that at the Referendum held last year both major parties were at one with the removal of the Monarch as Head of State but differed over the manner in which its replacement, the President, was to be selected.

The political system we have inherited is not perfect. It was designed for Britain and evolved to meet the conditions of that country. In our case it was imposed. The system with us has become quite personalised, attributed perhaps to our small size. Our politicians and political parties leave much to be desired and perhaps part of the problem is that some persons enter the political arena for the wrong reasons. It is not difficult to agree with George Lamming, “…that the political party as it operates is the source of public corruption. It is the major obstacle to any rational and serious debate about politics.” One can be critical of Lamming and ask what the options are, but what the noted Caribbean intellectual is putting emphasis on is “the political party as it operates.” (my emphasis) The suggestion here is that there just might be a different way of operating. The political culture of St.Vincent and the Caribbean is tied up with this, for what matters is our expectation of politicians and politics. Some of us expect the worst and, therefore, make every effort to milk the system for what it is worth. One, therefore, has to understand the cynicism that has crept into our politics. New political parties and politicians quite often appear on the scene promising the heavens but inevitably display the same tendencies that some of our people are wary about. So whom do you Trust?

It is my view that the fact that the system we inherited and have been calling our own does not play out in the same way it does in its place of origin is a result of a number of factors, one being the nature of our society and economy. It was created in a different society and economy. Ours is one where the government is in control. The private sector is small. This makes a difference because we depend greatly on government, not only for jobs but for a multiplicity of other things. Even the private sector, itself, falls prey to this for it, too, depends on the granting of licenses, on concessions, and so on. We have become locked into our party structure, so that sometimes it is easy to believe that persons are identifying more with their political parties than with their country. One sees it clearly at this time when the parties are locked into a battle to determine who will continue to hold the reins of government. We will take time off this week to fly our buntings, to wear national colours and to sing patriotic songs. We claim at this time to be Vincentians to our souls, but once the week has passed we move back to a different kind of persona and desecrate those souls. It is a serious matter, for he who holds the reins of power virtually carries all before him. And this is what the fight is about. Had there been a large and powerful private sector the situation will not be as serious and vicious because the options would be different. Our private sector is not the engine of growth. At times it is as if there is a battle between government and the private sector. Instead of being in a situation where they see themselves as partners in the development of a country, they become competitors and rivals. Government often has to take the blame since its view is largely that the private sector has to be beholden to it. It is as if it has to be a branch of government and do government’s bidding.

Then when we move to the level of the people, similar problems arise. It is as if there should be no independence of thought and action. Any attempt in this direction is seen as a threat and this leads to other things so that rival camps are formed, at first in the minds of some but inevitably being forced into a position where it becomes a reality. This is where size again matters. Our resources are limited and, therefore, have to be used creatively and to their full capacity. This means bringing the camps together, something we have been unable to do. Our airport should have been a national project drawing on all the resources, the creativity and goodwill of the people, but instead it becomes a project associated with a particular party, whose fortunes are seen as being tied up with its success. The whole system as it functions places limits on what we can accomplish. We have to find a different way, but then where do we start and how do we start? This has for long time been the major issue for which we have to find an answer. The answer is not in the cranium of any individual or group of individuals but has to come from a continuing interplay of ideas, from respect for each other and willingness by some to forgo power. Leadership has got to be more than power. What it means and how it relates to those it claims to lead are important.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.