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Opposed to independence, against constitutional reform

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Next Tuesday (Oct 27th), St. Vincent and the Grenadines celebrates its 30th anniversary as an independent nation (in modern times, since it was in that state before the advent of colonialism). It ought to be an occasion when the nation gels in unity, looking forward to the future with hope and confidence. We ought to be sitting down together, assessing our achievements, examining our failures and resolving to learn from them as we progress with the passage of time.{{more}} We are on the verge of making perhaps our most monumental decision of the past three decades in deciding on our constitutional future in the referendum set for November 25th.

Sadly, our thirtieth birthday does not meet us in that state of unity in exercising our collective will. That same major undertaking, constitutional reform, has become an excuse for further division, rather than a ringing endorsement of our nationhood, and the pettiness and political partisanship which has plagued our progressive development, cast a shadow on what ought to be national celebration. It is even more tragic considering that our nation was born amidst such political strife. That means that in 30 years of our existence as an independent nation, we have not been able to overcome the deformities suffered at our birth and to learn how to conquer the limitations of our past.

Independence 1979 took place with the nation reeling from disasters of both the natural (the eruption of the Soufriere volcano) and man-made (the row over the path to independence and the process of constitution-making) types. Rather than help to bring our people together with pride and confidence, we entered independence as politically divided as can be, with both the Parliamentary and extra-Parliamentary opposition strongly disapproving of the approach to such a milestone by the Labour Party government of the day. That was our political reality three decades ago.

Amazingly, 30 years later, one of the political personalities involved in the controversies around independence has re-surfaced, in a familiar oppositionist role. Former Prime Minister Sir James Mitchell, an Opposition Parliamentarian in 1979 and then leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP), had opposed the Cato government’s handling of the independence issue in 1979. Today he is at odds with the Labour Party’s successor, the government of the Unity Labour Party, on the issue of constitutional reform. He appears to have taken the mantle of the lead spokesman of the NDP, which he no longer leads, on the constitutional reform process, leading the campaign to vote “NO” in the November 25th referendum. At an NDP public meeting in Calliaqua last Saturday, Mitchell made it plain that what he was against (and we can assume the NDP as well) is any attempt to “tamper with” the present Constitution, warning that can only be done “over my dead body.”

Wittingly or unwittingly, Sir James has let the cat out of the bag. The NDP, while from as early as 2007, backing out of the constitutional reform process it helped to initiate, and while clearly raising the “NO” banner, has been waffling on its reasons for doing so. Now there can be no doubt. Sir James has said, without contradiction, on an NDP platform, that they are AGAINST CHANGING THE CONSTITUTION. No ifs and buts, DON’T TOUCH THE BRITISH-CRAFTED CONSTITUTION! For him, the Whitehall document is sacrosanct. No wonder he came out so strongly in favour of retaining the Privy Council. Such institutions represent, in his words, much of what “is of lasting value”, the elements of “civilization” bequeathed to us by British colonialism. That tells us why in 17 years of NDP rule, even with 100 per cent support in Parliament, we had no serious reform.

If one were to go back 30 years, one would find that today’s “NO” to constitutional reform is part of a common thread given expression in the political struggles over independence. It was the same Mitchell who as early as 1978 exposed his fondness for the colonial cloak as he revealed his opposition to independence:

“From the time you say Independence, that is all the British government want to hear since they are glad to get rid of us” (Sep 24th, 1978).

Mitchell’s NDP at its 1978 Convention passed a Resolution (No.8) opposing the march to independence and calling for a referendum (Note ) or general election “as to ensure that the will of the people is reflected.” The party’s position in the run-up to independence was to call for “elections before independence.” (See any familiarity there?)

The NDP also refused to play its part as Parliamentary Opposition in helping to decide the fate of the country or the shape of the Independence Constitution. That same resolution No. 8 also said that the NDP “would not take part in any Constitutional Conference until such procedures (referendum or general elections) are observed.

“NO” in 1978, “NO” in 2009. That’s consistency for you! But not only did Sir James refuse to actively engage in the independence process, including that of constitution-making, limited though the opportunities were then. His party filed a motion, by barristers Othneil Sylvester and Emery Robertson before the High Court, asking that the motion passed in the House of Assembly in March 1978 empowering the government to embark on the course towards independence, was “ultra vires” and seeking to put a halt to advancing the constitutional status of our country. That ploy failed, but it did not stop the NDP from irresponsibly refusing to participate in the process, refusing to join the broad popular movement which was insisting on people’s participation in framing a democratic Constitution, and in finally boycotting the Constitutional Conference in London in September 1978.

The same tactics are being reused today. Opposition to a process approved by Parliament. Then it was a boycott of the Constitutional Conference, today another boycott in the House, a refusal to nominate a representative on the drafting Committee, all in the negative. But the NDP, without Mitchell, agreed to the Constitutional reform process, establishing a Constitutional Review Commission charged with the responsibility “To do all and every act necessary to review the existing Constitution of St. Vincent and the Grenadines…” (motion approved by the unanimous vote of the House of Assembly on 8th October 2002). Is it now being taken for a ride by those who want to hold on to the trappings of British colonialism and to deny our people the right to shape their own destiny? Have thirty years of independence taught us nothing about governance, political responsibility and faith and confidence in our own?

We cannot afford to go down that road. For young countries like ours, constitution-making is still a work in progress. The proposed Constitution represents another step in that direction but it not the final one. Our march in history must inexorably lead to the way FORWARD.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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