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The big clash, the UWI’s regional focus

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The Big Clash

Andrew Cummings’ article captioned “The Big Clash” that appeared in the Searchlight newspaper of last week was a very timely one indeed, coming as it did after discussions over the past weeks about calls for the Attorney General to resign on a matter of principle. The matter of course goes beyond this, and as Cummings suggests, goes to the heart of the relationship between ethics and politics. {{more}}

The author fittingly uses an English example, since it was from Britain we inherited the Westminster system, which is now being widely debated throughout the Caribbean to determine its suitability for independent West Indian societies. The case of David Blunkett is the one used: Blunkett resigning over an issue in which he was not directly involved and which, in any event, was not of major proportions. Cummings speaks of our political transgressions finding “a comfortable home and welcoming host in our political, social, cultural and economic environment”.

The British constitution grew out of the social norms and kind of society that existed in Britain. Unfortunately the Westminster model of government came to us minus the social values of the “mother country”. So there has always been a disconnect between the practice of politics and the principles which, at least in Britain, had sustained the political system.

Cummings is right when he says that in our situation, when there is a clash between politics and ethics, politics emerges as the winner. In fact, in our societies, whenever politics clashes with anything at all it is likely to be the winner.

The call for integrity legislation is meant to embrace or at least to focus attention on, the issue of conflict of interest and ethics. These are obviously matters too that help to define corruption, for a corrupt person is really a morally depraved person.

There is seemingly no law that was contravened by Blunkett, but he took ultimate responsibility. There are many such situations in different parts of the world where political leaders, in particular, might not have been directly involved, but under the prevailing circumstances have found it necessary to resign from the positions they held. This is hardly, if ever, done in our part of the world. Conflict of interest, for instance, means very little to us. What matters is politics and power. Many of us turn a blind eye to transgressions even of a more serious kind, and this makes it easier for the politicians to proceed as if they were paragons of virtue. What is at stake and guides the process is our culture, political culture being only a subset of that broader cultural environment.

The author of the piece in question also introduces another important issue by saying that the press was unanimous in its position that the misuse of office “is not allowed in British politics”. Could you imagine our press taking such a position?

For many of us, once our basic needs are met, little else matters in the short run. But man does not live by bread alone, for a society is but a totality of social relationships as defined in the dictionary. The word relationship in this sense is a key one and determines the nature of the society.

Deeply, we are aware of the significance of these matters for we are generally agreed on the need for integrity legislation. But to take that further step is the big issue. Politics and greed get in the way. It would be interesting to see if the Constitutional Review Committee considers this an important issue. It is, however, a matter that goes beyond legislation. We have to become convinced about it and ensure its applicability. That is the only way. The values that underlie the constitution are going to be as important as the actual words written into the constitution. There has to be a social and political context that gives meaning to all of this.

UWI and Regional Focus

The Prime Minister is to some extent correct in making the point that the University of the West Indies is in danger of losing its regional focus. This is really not surprising. The Caribbean that existed when the Prime Minister was a student or even when he lectured at the University, was a completely different one from that of today. More of the countries that make up the English speaking Caribbean have achieved independence since then. The larger countries that have campuses have grown and hardened in their status as independent countries and with the trappings that come with it.

In the early years the main focus was on Mona, Jamaica and students from all parts of the region met there. Many relationships involving persons from different parts of the region developed and with them Caribbean families. A bond developed among graduates of the University scattered throughout the region in their different fields of endeavour; something that it was hoped would facilitate the move toward regional political unity.

Circumstances have changed and the challenge is how do we maintain the regional focus? Indeed, the situation will get even worse as the non-campus countries develop their own programmes and offer more full degrees. Cost is definitely a factor. Perhaps the major factor! Governments, particularly of the campus countries, would have to facilitate the movement of their students to different campuses through scholarships and the payment of economic costs. One other area worth considering is that of developing more areas of specialisation among the different campuses. At the moment all non-Barbadian students have to attend Cave Hill to complete two years of their law programme. All students have to go to Trinidad for agriculture and engineering and medicine is done mainly at Mona and St. Augustine. There are also other examples.

But on the other hand, the development of community colleges would take some of the students who might normally have gone to the University, particularly when those colleges have special relationships with UWI. Ultimately, it will be the desire of Caribbean leaders to maintain the regional focus that will matter.