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The march to independence

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The Struggle for a People’s Constitution

Even as our country marches into its 25th Independence Anniversary celebrations, the Constitutional Review Commission, established by Parliament last year, is finalizing preparations for a second round of public consultations on the Constitution of the land. At the same time, the Local Government Commission has embarked on its own interactions with the public to solicit views on the re-introduction of local government. {{more}}

Both processes have their bearing on our constitutional and political development and certainly their place in the evolution of democracy in St Vincent and the Grenadines. Whether they ought to be proceeding simultaneously is a matter of debate with some, including the Parliamentary Opposition which supports and participates in the constitutional review mechanisms, contending that the local government process should await the outcome of the broader, constitutional view.

Today I want to situate the re-visiting of our Constitution in the context of the 1978/79 march to independence. The run-up to October 27, 1979 was a far from smooth one and was characterized by intense political struggles over not just the procedures but over the question of independence itself. Given the failure of the political leadership post-Statehood (1969) to prepare the population for the next logical step along the road of neocolonialism, it is true to say that nine years afterwards, there was still significant reservations about the viability, and wisdom, of political independence for a tiny country like St Vincent and the Grenadines.

Those reservations, fears and misconceptions were fuelled by the anti-democratic trends displayed by the Labour Party Government of 1974-1979. A victim of self-deception that it was “the strongest government in the world,” that government, or at least leading individuals within it persisted in a series of outlandish and outlaw activities which alienated large segments of the population. Its political record, especially in relation to democratic decision-making, left it exposed to charges of ‘dictatorial behaviour.”

In a colonial society where dictatorship, republicanism, repression and exploitation, were all lumped together, any more move towards independence was bound to be viewed with skepticism. After all, there were among, a majority even, amongst us, which considered British rule a guarantee of democratic stability. Gairy’s erratic and often brutal rule in independent Grenada also helped to ring alarm bells about the value of proceeding to independent status.

So when the Milton Cato government on March 23, 1978 introduced debate in the House of Assembly on a Resolution to proceed to independence, the Parliamentary Opposition balked. To add fuel to fire, the Labour Government had only two weeks before put paid to the fallacy of a “Unity Government” by dismissing veteran politician Ebeneezer Joshua from the post of Minister of Trade. Joshua’s PPP was certainly unlikely to do anything to facilitate Cato’s progression to the post of Prime Minister especially when it was remembered that it was Cato, not the previously anti-colonial Joshua, who won the race for the first Premier, at Statehood in 1969.

The other faction of the Parliamentary Opposition, James Mitchell and his relatively new NDP, was also not only disposed to accommodating any pre-independence advances, but openly opposed it. Two fundamental reasons, were put forward. One, that given our limited size and resources, small countries like ours should seek independence within a unified, federal structure. – a claim that made sense, but did not match the political realities of the late seventies in the Eastern Caribbean. It is to Mr. Mitchell’s credit, however, that he maintained a consistency about Eastern Caribbean Unity.

The second reason for objection stemmed from the process itself although in opposing the high-handed and exclusive approach of the government, both Messrs Mitchell and Joshua, and their efforts, resorted to often very backward positions which objectively ended up opposing independence itself even if they began as opposition to Labour’s actions. It was that anti-democratic outlook and practice which was to result in an intense 18 months of political struggle which preceded the accession to independence. That same struggle gave birth to the emergence of a popular, democratic vehicle for constitution-making that, to the shame of our independence leaders, they not only tried to ignore and neglect but even to ridicule and restrict.

We shall examine that third phase next week.

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