Our approach to Independence – a four part series
St. Vincent and the Grenadines is now into its “Independence Month”, with activities organized to commemorate our 39th anniversary of that historic milestone. As tradition goes, 39th anniversaries are not considered special, with greater emphasis being placed on the rounded figure, the 40th. Yet, to focus only on 1979 would be a grave mistake in understanding the genesis of what led to our independence.
The roots go much deeper, in the spirited defence of our homeland by Chatoyer, the Callinago and Garifuna people, against European attacks on our sovereignty, the struggles against slavery and colonial rule and for self-determination and democracy. In the specific context, one also has to look into the lead-up to independence in 1979, especially in the year immediately proceeding. I have chosen that year, 1978, as the focus of a four-part series of articles hoping to clarify a number of issues which framed our approach to such a fundamental undertaking of responsibility.
This is, for me at least, critical to understanding all that has happened since then. This includes the still lingering lack of appreciation for independence and the attitude among some sectors of our population of trying to hang on to the coat-tails of an outdated system. How else does one explain their stubborn refusal to contemplate any justice system which does not have the Privy Council as its apex?
1978 –The Constitutional Conference
Monday, September 18, 1978, was another of the red-letter days in our country’s history. On that day, constitutional talks between the governments of St Vincent and the Grenadines and the United Kingdom, then still the colonial authority for our country, began in London to determine process, time and formal content of our attainment of independence. Those talks were based on a Resolution passed in our House of Assembly on March 23, 1978, authorising the then Labour Party government to proceed with such talks on our path to independence.
That resolution was passed after an acrimonious debate that went until late that night with members of the Opposition, divided between the People’s Political Party (PPP) of the late Ebeneezer Joshua and the James Mitchell-led New Democratic Party (NDP), providing spirited opposition. We could not agree even on lifting the yoke of colonialism from our backs and being able to settle our own differences among ourselves.
Joshua was still seething from his fall-out with the so-called Unity Government between the Labour party and the PPP and led a rabble-rousing bunch in a campaign under the slogan “No independence under Cato”. Sadly, the once proud leader of the anti-colonial struggle balked at the crucial moment, placing political expediency above principle.
The other half of the parliamentary opposition to independence was provided by Mitchell. His was not an outright backward “no” to independence as put forward by Joshua. Instead he raised several legal and constitutional issues in terms of procedure, but more importantly based his argument on the fact that SVG was “too small” to go it alone and that instead, we should go for an independent federation of Eastern Caribbean small island states, even possibly including Barbados.
That opposition set the scene for the degeneration in the discussion on independence, with the parliamentary opposition refusing to put the interests of the nation above their own quest to remove what had become an unpopular Labour party government. It was left to those political forces outside Parliament, the Democratic Freedom Movement (DFM), early advocates of political independence, and the more militant YULIMO group, to give backing to the cause of national independence.
YULIMO, with a leadership that included current Vincentian Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, President of the Caribbean Court of Justice Adrian Saunders, former Government Minister Mike Browne, the late trade unionist Caspar London, and myself among others, had strong disagreements with the narrow and selfish approach of the Labour government on such an important issue, as we shall see later in this series. Yet, so fundamental was the issue of our progression out of colonial rule that it did not bow to backward sentiments to oppose independence.
The narrow, opportunist positions of the parliamentary opposition led to a series of critical errors in boycotting the constitutional talks on independence, refusal to participate in a broad front to insist on a relevant and democratic constitution and a campaign to lift the consciousness of our people as to the meaning of independence and how it could benefit us.
It was nothing short of a betrayal of the aspirations of our people. Sadly, this was to be repeated three decades later when we had another glorious opportunity to chart our own constitutional course, but again let partisanship and backwardness mislead us into the fateful decision in the November 2009 referendum.
Part 2 – next week
Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.