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Nation talk – One

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The 1951 Elections

The period around the 1950s is a good time for us to go back to. It was a formative time. In fact, in Africa, the UNESCO historians call 1950 YEAR ONE – a turning point for the history of Africa in the world and on the continent. For us in SVG and in the Caribbean generally, around the 1950s we created and encountered a network of conditions that has been shaping our reality in 2011. Let me name 3 generators of change that have impacted us from the 1950s.{{more}} They are: the birth of general elections with all citizens having the right to vote (1951); the sustained banana production export sector (1957); and the British government’s decision to invite West Indian people to come and help build Britain (1948). These 3 events, in no small way, affect the SVG that we are building today, 32 years after our 1979 constitutional independence. I want us to reason together on them one by one, not neglecting to see the connection that they have with one another. Today, we look at the birth and the offspring of “Adult Suffrage”, its path and passage up to 2011.

ACCEPTING A FORM OF THE BRITISH STATE

Dominican Bill Riviere, looking at the period 1935 to 1951, makes the point that the British colonial office had to bow to two social truths in SVG and the Eastern Caribbean. First, they could no longer postpone the bringing of the full population into politics, and secondly, they had run out of methods to keep the white group in power. In fact, as Riviere put it (British) “Political control is no longer necessary for (effective) colonial exploitation.” The struggles of the Vincentian working people as in October 1935, and the agitation of the black educated and business elite (2 arms of the civil rights/nationalist movement) drove the British colonial office to bring on the civil rights of all Vincentians to vote in general elections in 1951. But what type of ‘Parliament’ did Vincentians vote for in 1951? While we go there, let us also look at what happened in the 1st elections where class, colour, meritocracy, nor property or education mattered. All could vote and 2/3 of Vincentians turned out for their 1st vote in life.

In the new 1951 legislative council or Assembly, there were 14 seats. The British Administrator was the head of government (under the Governor of the Windward Islands) and head of the council. Two senior government officials/civil servants were also in the council, as well as three others whom the Administrator appointed. Alongside those 6 pro-British members, for the 1st time, the council now had a majority of 8 representatives whom the people elected under Adult Suffrage. 8 out of 14 people’s representatives in Parliament/legislative council and the Administrator had 2 votes, if there was a “tie” in deciding any matter. The executive council or cabinet was made up of 7 persons, with only 3 from the elected members. That was the new narrow democracy that SVG received 60 years ago, the last week in October 1951.

The 1951 general elections in SVG had a volcanic eruption of a result. The condition of trade union leaders, small to medium business people and farming interests came together in a militant party called “The Eighth Army of Liberation”. It had a distinguished world war name; it was led by George H. Charles and all 8 of its election candidates won their seats. The Vincentian people – their voice repressed, suppressed and silenced, roared a defiant “no” to the old colonial and planter coalition and to the more moderate politicians. The system and its leaders were shaken. Of all the British colonies in the region, only SVG seems to have had a party which won unqualified victory in every seat in the elections! While in Antigua the result was the same (8 out of 8), in 4 of those seats, the party of conservatives boycotted the polls; and in Belize, the socialist oriented party won 8 of the 9 seats. Were the people of SVG on the road to revolutionize colonial ‘democracy’ and challenge estate and colonial power, as well as the economic policies of reproducing mass poverty for their sake of elite and British accumulation? When the people spoke in 1951, what was the consequence? In “Round Table with Oscar” next week and the following week, we will reason on some aspects of these questions.

Let us observe here briefly, the direction in which our “democracy” has travelled since 1951.

Is it not possible that, out of our history of subjugation, white racism, land deprivation and want, there was a people’s shout of hope and a call for deliverance in the 1951 election results? I still hear it echoing in our land, 60 years later. I translate that “uhuru sasa” and “amandla ngawethu” of 1951 in these exhortations: “For heaven and earth’s sake, let us stand together, think together, plan together, move together, and build – different from the British – another world, spreading out from SVG. 200 years is enough degradation.”

Look at us now in 2011, and listen to that cry. Look back at 1979, watch the conduct of our leaders and the distress of our people, and listen to that 1951 shout, that appeal and anticipation.

Where do we stand and think outside the colonial box as the American State did, as the Haitian state tried, as the Cubans are attempting: our leaders stand firmly and fearfully in British political hand-me-downs. They triumph when they divide and desecrate the people. They dress up our development in their ego designed projects. They betray 1951. Comrades and friends, it’s over to us, to take up from 1951.

Riviere, Bill 1990 State Systems in the Eastern Caribbean, ISER/UWI, Mona

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