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Constitutional Reform I (The historical roots)

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By the time you begin reading this column, the Parliamentary debate on the Constitution Bill 2009 will already be history as the House of Assembly will, as expected, have facilitated the passage of the Bill, paving the way for a national referendum on the issue. Since this article is written before that debate, it cannot comment on the level of debate, acrimony or partisanship displayed or whether reason has triumphed.{{more}}

What I can say is that on the eve of this debate, the public stance of the Opposition certainly bodes no good for subsequent national conversations on such an important issue. My worst fears have been realized as judging by comments from both Government and Opposition, we seem headed for not any value judgement on the merits or demerits of the Constitution itself, but an election-style “primer” for the general elections. Our best efforts at pioneering a participatory trail blazing approach to Constitution look likely to be sacrificed on the altar of political expediency, mired in partisanship and further clouded by some sterile intellectual and ideological puffs.

This is very painful for me. I belong to a post-World War II generation which had the early misfortune to be raised and schooled in the colonial era. The memories of poor, humble homes with a picture of Queen Elizabeth, the Royal Family or even Winston Churchill, prominently displayed, are still vivid. So too are those of the “Empire Day” holidays, complete with the brown paper bags of snacks handed out to compensate for forced participation in the parades to celebrate the “British Empire.” Even the noble attempts at forging Caribbean nationhood, via the West Indies Federation, saw us school children railroaded out in the hot sun to sing praises, not to Caribbean nation-builders, but to the colonial Governor, as we hoarsely echoed “We welcome you here, Lord Hailes” (Hailes being the colonial Governor).

We grew up singing “Long may she reign over us,” and “Rule Britannia” while in church, the infamous hymn. “All things Bright and Beautiful” reminded us that we were to keep to our stations since:

The rich man in his castle
The poor man at his gate
God made them high and lowly
And ordered their estate….

Given this background, it was no wonder that when reality began to catch up with my generation and the contradictions with colonial upbringing began to manifest themselves, the radicalization began to set in during the late sixties. By that time also, the proverbial “Chinese wall” that colonialism, using such restrictive practices as the banning of “prohibited publications” and “undesirable characters,” had built to insulate us from ideas of national identity and national liberation, had begun to crack. In seeped the “Black Power” and black nationalism ideologies to revive and strengthen the long-suppressed claims for national independence. True, those ideas were not then widespread or unanimously accepted but more and more the young generation gravitated in that direction.

One of our first reactions therefore was for the dismantling of colonial rule, that is being rid of an alien “Head of State” and control from abroad. Not surprisingly, this was coupled with the clamour for “an end to plantation slavery,” radical land reform in other words, allowing those thousands still trapped in serfdom on the estates of the day, to own land and be able to independently provide for themselves and their families. It is an experience that was shared by many others of my generation-just ask Hon. Arnhim Eustace Prime Minister Gonsalves, Oscar Allen, Dr. Adrian Fraser, Casper London, “Bassy” Alexander or Dr. Kenneth John, to name a few. Those experiences were to enrich those of younger generations such as that of Jomo Thomas.

That radicalization exploded in 1972 with the controversial visit of the British Princess Margaret. Queen Elizabeth had enjoyed a successful tour six years earlier with her loyal subjects eager to greet and wave, corralling thousands of school children to do the same. But 1972 was not 1966, and Princess Margaret’s reputation had become tainted with scandals about her behavior in the Mustique enclave. Bringing her here was considered an affront to the “radicals,” as Robert “Patches” Knights will testify. The protest about her visit was not just a “Black Power” protest; it was an anti-colonial, pro-independence statement.

Three years later, almost to the day, the then active political group YULIMO had the courage and foresight to stage an open public discussion on Independence for St. Vincent and the Grenadines, at a time when our still small middle class was largely petrified by the thought and the poorer classes still unaware of its possibilities. That trend continued to grow, leading to the formation of the National Independence Committee in 1979, led by the late, distinguished Henry Williams, championing a democratic, participatory approach to a new independence Constitution for our country.

Those are the roots of the making of a new, relevant home- made Constitution for St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Not in the head of any Ralph Gonslaves or Parnel Campbell but deeply rooted in the struggles of our own people and our better, yet rich experiences. Those who do not understand this history will naturally fail to comprehend why constitutional reform is not about Ralph, Arnhim, PR or some extraneous circumstances but a necessary stage in nation-building. That idea had its ultimate triumph in the unanimous approval by Parliament in October 2002 of the Motion, setting the process in train and establishing the Constitutional Review Commission (CRC) to spearhead it.

Seven years later, we are, for all kinds of reasons, more imagined or manufactured than real, baulking at moving forward, and in a tragic turn-around advocating a firm adherence to the colonial coat-tails rather than manufacture our own garments. We are in danger of negating our own history.

Part II- next week!

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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