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Tribute to Sir James Mitchell – As the career unfolded

Tribute to Sir James Mitchell – As the career unfolded
FORMER PRIME MINISTER Sir James Mitchell (left) is having a light moment with present Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves.

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by Dr. The Hon. RALPH E. GONSALVES, Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines

SIR JAMES Fitz-Allen Mitchell KCMG PC, former Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, died on November 23, 2021, at the age of 90 years.

Sir James’ basic biographic data are well-known: He was born on May 15, 1931; he received his formal education at the Bequia Primary School, the St. Vincent Boy’s Grammar School, the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture in Trinidad, and the University of British Colombia in Canada; he was formally trained as an agronomist; he entered politics in St. Vincent and the Grenadines and represented the Grenadines/Northern Grenadines for 34 years (19661979; 1980 – 2001); he held ministerial office in the Labour Party administration under Milton Cato (1967 – 1972); he became Premier of St. Vincent and the Grenadines (1972 – 1974); in 1975 he founded the New Democratic Party (NDP); and he held the Office of Prime Minister from July 1984 to October 2000.

He was married and had four children — all girls.

These are the basic facts of this remarkable man of achievements and distinction who holds the record as the longest-serving parliamentary representative, in the aggregate, in St. Vincent and the Grenadines and the second longest-serving Prime Minister in this our magnificent nation.

He was a true servant of the people of his native land and of our Caribbean.

James “Son” Mitchell’s first entry into politics in the mid-1960s in St. Vincent and the Grenadines (then known as “St. Vincent”) was like a breath of fresh air: Tall, handsome, bearded with unkempt hair, articulate, highly educated, sophisticated yet indifferent to his attire or any formal dress code, and possessed of progressive instincts.

He endeared himself not only to his home-base in Bequia, but to the farming and fishing communities and young people with both his message and idiosyncratic style.

After a brief, and unsuccessful, attempt to launch his own political movement, he joined Milton Cato’s Labour Party. He and the Labour Party parted ways in 1972. In the 1972 general elections he won his Grenadines’ seat as an independent candidate and became Premier in a coalition with Ebenezer Joshua’s People’s Political Party (PPP).

That coalition government dissolved in 1974. Over the next ten years James Mitchell was the principal opposition voice in Parliament to a commanding Labour Party. In this period, his founding of the NDP stands out as a major legacy achievement of a political kind. The NDP still remains one of the two principal parties of state in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, although it has been in the opposition continuously, for almost 21 years now since Sir James retirement from active politics.

In 1984, as Cato’s Labour administrative faltered, the electorate turned to James Mitchell’s NDP to form the government in preference to any other party on offer; the promising United People’s Movement (UPM) of 1979, racked with divisions and splits, was a shadow of its former self.

Over the next decade (1984 to 1994), Mitchell’s NDP ruled the political roost as the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Labour Party consumed itself with internal bickering and an absence of message; and none of the other aspiring political entities had as yet arrived at centre stage.

Between 1994 and up to the time of Sir James’ demitting as Prime Minister in October 2000, opposition to the NDP’s governance grew, slowly at first, but more pronounced, as time went on.

PERSONAL RELATIONS WITH SIR JAMES

I first met James Mitchell on the street in Kingstown sometime in 1966; I was not yet 20 years old. It was a brief encounter. I introduced myself to him.

He was friendly; I appreciated his warm and engaging response to me. I again met him fleetingly in my home village in Colonarie; he was campaigning with the Labour Party. At that time, my mother liked him and Milton Cato; my father had an instinctive preference for Joshua.

In 1968 or 1969, we met again at the Mona Campus of the University of the West Indies where I was a student leader; he was in Jamaica for a regional trade ministers’ gathering; there was a symposium on regional integration on the campus. Sir James and I spoke passionately about regional integration; he lamented the slow progress on this vital matter which we both saw as critical to the development or our region.

The next time I met Sir James was in 1970 when I was conducting field research for my MSc dissertation. He gave me an appointment at his office at the Ministry of Agriculture. We spoke engagingly about St. Vincent, its developmental prospects, its politics, and the state of the regional integration movement.

As we chatted for quite a while, he informed me that he had a personal matter to attend at Customs and requested that I accompany him.

He drove us in his Mini-Moke to the Customs; we conversed along the way. It was past mid-day. He enquired as to whether I was going to lunch; I replied in the affirmative; he then generously gave me $20 to buy my lunch and pay my return passage to Colonarie. I thanked him; I always remember this act of kindness, though I have not said anything publicly about this until after his death; I told his daughter Louise.

Sometime in late 1972 or 1973 when I was at Makerere University in Uganda as a doctoral exchange student from Manchester University (UK), I wrote a lengthy paper (over 50 pages) on “Land Reform in St. Vincent”.

I sent three copies to St. Vincent: One to Sir James; and one each to my comrades: Caspar London (of blessed memory), and Hugh Ragguette. I believe Hugh still has his copy. James Mitchell, then Premier of St. Vincent, wrote to me with gratitude for the paper upon which he commented favourably. In late 1974, after his coalition with Joshua fell apart, we spoke on the phone and he reminded me about my paper on land reform.

He was deeply committed to this as a matter of public policy. Land reform constitutes part of his legacy.

In the general elections of December 1974, the Mitchell-Othniel Sylvester group lost badly; only Mitchell won his seat in the Grenadines. My older brother Thorald Gregory Gonsalves (known popularly as “Bruds”) ran in North Central Windward under Mitchell’s leadership.

From 1975 when I joined YULIMO (Youlou United Liberation Movement), a socialist political organisation, Sir James and I were definitely on different political paths. However, despite our political differences we respected each other very much; and we recognised each other’s contributions to the development of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

Between 1979 and 2001, those differences were magnified on the political platform. Between 1994 and early 2001, we were combatants in Parliament. As fate had it, he was obliged to negotiate with me as the ULP leader in late April – early May 2000 at the Grand Beach in Grand Anse, Grenada, consequent upon the massive protests led by the Unity Labour Party and civil society groups. This recent history is well-known and need no repetition here. In any event, I have written extensively about all of this in my 2019 book entitled The Political Economy of the Labour Movement in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. I regret very much his opposition to the 2009 referendum on constitutional reform.

After I became Prime Minister on March 29, 2001, up until Sir James’ death in November 2021, he and I kept in touch with each other.

Amidst all our differences, we had long telephone conversations and in-person engagements on a wide range of issues. The last time I spoke to him was at the Milton Cato Memorial Hospital. Two medical doctors, Dr. St. Clair Thomas and Dr. Franké Joseph (son of Deputy Commissioner of Police) heard parts of our touching conversation.

Over the years, Sir James and I shared views on books which we were reading; and we also gave or lent books to each other.

He spoke to me about a book which he was writing at the time of his death. He loved wines of high quality; I never shared his passion for wines.

On the last issue of importance facing the country, that of COVID-19 and the vaccine, he and I were on exactly the same page. I continue to thank him for his support in this regard.

FINAL COMMENT

Sir James Mitchell had a long and distinguished career as a servant of the people. He loved people; and they loved him in return. He made an important contribution to our sustainable development. We thank him sincerely for his service.

I accordingly express, on behalf of the government and people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, sincerest condolences to his immediate family and friends.

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