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Vincies and their democracy

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We Vincentians are a strange people, perhaps I might even say funny. We are like the guy who was looking for his keys under a lamp post. When asked where he had lost his keys, he pointed to the far corner of the road.

Then, why are you looking here for them? Well, he responded, there is no light over there. What makes us tick? What drives us? We seem to put up with anything. In fact, we applaud often without knowing for what we are applauding. We give the impression that we are the happiest people in the world, although we grumble under our breath. We seem to feel most comfortable when we are told what to do, for the simple reason that we do not have to think or to face reality in doing so.{{more}}

We are friendly to the extent that any stranger can do us anything and we smile. We put up with a lot from strangers and incidentally, with things we will not tolerate from our own. In the 1930s, William Benedict Reilly, a visitor, wrote, “We hope the name ‘the Gem of the West Indies,’ which we have given to St Vincent is original, for we should like to enjoy the honour of having been the first to call it by a name so appropriate and one which it so richly deserves.” We attach historical significance to this and seem to act as though it is embedded in our DNA. There is nothing we need to do, because we are already a blessed people and country.

We take pride in our democracy. We might disagree on how we see ourselves, but I doubt that there will be any question about our need to preserve our democracy. If we do not agree on this, then I have to accept that we are a lost people. We have to ask ourselves this question: ‘Is our democracy being undermined before our very eyes?’

Some time ago The Economist, in examining democracies around the world, said that many democracies maintain “the outward appearance of democracy through elections, but without the rights and institutions that are equally important aspects of a functioning democracy.”

The Church and school have always been the pillars of our society. They were expected to transmit values to the younger ones and so become a critical force in our socialization. The story of the Church is a sorry one and some of its guardians seem more bent on preserving a place in society than in doing what a church is supposed to do. To a large extent some churches continue to take a position that they had taken during slavery. The slaves were advised to accept things as they were, because true freedom and salvation would only come at death. I am of the view, as can be seen by the ministry of Pope Francis, that the Church should be involved in the promotion of justice, and to that extent is a part of civil society.

Our education today misses perhaps its most important function in our complex society that has been transformed by a revolution in technology. That role is to develop critical thinking. Without this, our education loses its significance, for we then become mere robots, regurgitating what we had read or been taught. Needless to say that critical thinking is an important ingredient in any democratic society where an informed public is so essential. The media has expanded significantly, but fails to play the role it should in terms of informing us and commenting critically on issues. Its rapid expansion means that many of its practitioners have not been trained. Our people become fixed on the individual units that say the things they want to hear. So much for an informed public!

Our democracy is built around the Westminster system of government that was given to us. This has evolved into a system where ‘The winner takes it all’. Our Prime Minister said it best when, on assumption of office, he declared that prime ministers have too much power. For this he was celebrated around the region. He then proceeded to demonstrate that what he said was true. There has always been a debate about the power of a prime minister vis-a-vis a president, as in the case of the US. It is now believed that prime ministers have more power. This can be seen particularly with small countries like ours that are not equipped to tolerate ‘backbenchers’. Population is, of course, a factor here. A prime minister in Britain has always got to be aware that his backbench might not necessarily support the views of Cabinet. In our small countries, they don’t face that problem. In any event, the prime minister’s power to call an election at any time means that he can always silence his dissidents. This normally keeps them quiet. In the US, on the other hand, there are a number of institutions and systems that serve as checks and balances.

But didn’t we have a chance in 2009 to change things with our Referendum? First, the proposed changes were not going to fundamentally alter the nature of our system. Even then, we made things difficult for ourselves. There was broad agreement by all parties with the changes contemplated. Where the mistake was made was in not identifying the areas over which there was disagreement and looking at these with the understanding that compromises would have to be made.

We must agree to disagree, but at the same time try to ensure the freedoms and rights of our people and in this sense protect our democracy and country.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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