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The road to Independence

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Thirty years ago, on February 8, 1979, to be exact, the pre-independence House of Assembly formally approved a Resolution paving the way for the attainment of independence by St. Vincent and the Grenadines. The Resolution was a follow-up to a Constitutional Conference held in London in late 1978, at which both the colonial government of Britain and the then Labour Party government of SVG, led by the late Robert Milton Cato, agreed that our country should proceed towards achieving independent status.{{more}}

Many countries have had to fight bitterly to break out of colonial shackles and over the years, millions of people – in Africa, Asia, the western hemisphere (including the United States of America) – died in pursuit of that goal. Indeed, in the case of St.Vincent and the Grenadines, the Callinago/Garifuna people had put up brave resistance to colonial intrusion in a futile bid to preserve their freedom and the independence of their beloved homeland. They paid a high price for their gallant demonstration of patriotism, including exile and gross discrimination against those descendants still left in St. Vincent.

One would have thought, therefore, that Vincentians would have gleefully embraced the march towards independence with a commonality of purpose. Far from it! By a twist of fate, and politics, the historically anti-colonial Ebenezer Joshua now found himself in the Opposition, while Milton Cato’s Labour Party, long identified as reluctant anti-colonialists, was leading the independence march. Just four years before, in 1975, Labour’s most prominent spokesman Hudson Tannis, now deceased, speaking at a public discussion at the then UWI Extra-Mural Centre, had ruled out independence as an immediate option for SVG.

When Labour chose to move towards independence, therefore, there was far from national consensus on the process or even the goal itself. The narrow, partisan approach of the government of the day, and its refusal to mobilize the broad population around the issue of national sovereignty, brought in its wake much division and disquiet. Old prejudices and a lack of understanding of what independence really meant combined with local partisan politics to produce a highly volatile cocktail that saw the Parliamentary Opposition virtually opposing independence itself.

Fortunately, the progressive elements in the society, led by YULIMO (the Youlou United Liberation Movement, “Youlou” being the Callinago name for St. Vincent, promoted strongly by the late Eddy Griffith, among others), ARWEE of Diamond Village, and the anti-colonial democratic Freedom Movement, would have none of this recourse to backwardness. They spearheaded the mobilization of a broad coalition of civil society forces (trade unions, youth and community groups, women’s organizations etc) under thee umbrella of a National Independence Committee (NIC). Led by a well-respected local barrister, Mr. Henry Williams (God bless his soul), later himself to become Acting Governor-General of an independent SVG, the NIC set out to do what the government ought to have done – explain the significance of independence, educate the population on constitutional and political issues, and solicit their views on a new independence constitution.

Unfortunately, such an enlightened approach was not welcomed in official circles. Premier Cato even went so far overboard as to pour scorn and ridicule on the NIC, dismissing its leaders as “a bunch of nincompoops”. Efforts at constructive dialogue on the part of the NIC were spurned, and its far-reaching but very sensible constitutional proposals were largely ignored. Thirty years on, we are paying the price of this folly, having to expend scarce and valuable human and financial resources to revise the very Constitution which we allowed Britain to foist on us in 1979.

The Constitutional Review Commission (CRC), established by the last Parliament, has completed its work and submitted its Report to Parliament. It is expected that this year, a national referendum will be held permitting our people to either approve or reject the revised Constitution. It is interesting to take a look back at some of the NIC’s proposals from three decades ago, compare them with those of the CRC and contrast both with the provisions in our current Constitution. This I hope to do, “God spare” as we say, in this column from time to time.

However, let me conclude by touching briefly on the significance of the NIC and its work. That was an earth-shattering, historical development, both in terms of the broad range of forces it enveloped, as well as the importance of the subject matter. The process of engagement, too, was a model one. Never before had Vincentians had such an opportunity to engage in national dialogue on constitutional issues. Most of our people at the time had not even heard of, much more seen, a Constitution. Yet they responded magnificently to the challenge. If only the richness of that national dialogue could have been maintained over the years!

Finally, the example of the NIC was to prove a most valuable one for future mass democratic battles and the building of similar broad people’s coalition. Out of the 1978-’79 experience, the mass movement absorbed lessons enabling it to coalesce in 1981 in the National Committee in Defence of Democracy (NCDD) against the “Dread Bills”, and, almost two decades later in the Organization in Defence of Democracy (ODD). Those remain some of our finest hours.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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