Last week really belonged to James ‘Son’ Fitz-Allen Mitchell, its highpoint being Saturday, December 18 with a farewell ceremony that lasted practically the whole day. It was a job well done and went into the early evening with his internment in Bequia.
His was a remarkable political journey in the course of which he spent thirty four years and six months in the country’s legislature, sixteen years as prime minister and two years as premier. His political career was launched, as he put it, “in a hail of stones”, in Kingstown, as supporters of the entrenched political parties reacted to a political trespasser. He left active politics after passing through something that gave the false appearance of a fire storm. But as people were able to reflect on his years in politics and as political leader, they recognised the contribution he made to the development of the country. What I found remarkable was that his erstwhile critics were mostly singing his praises. Of course, you could be critical of someone but still recognise his contribution or his valuable attributes. But many who were loud in their praises were among those who felt that he did nothing of significance during the period he headed the government of the country, a position I always considered laughable.
What I found significant was the number of persons who described him as decent and ‘not vindictive’. To say that of a politician in our part of the woods is remarkable. I cannot claim to have known Sir James closely, in fact I can only remember interacting with him on about four occasions; at a panel discussion at which we were both panellists, at a wedding reception when we sat at the same table and twice at the Frangipanni when with friends I was having a meal or a drink,and all after he had retired from active politics. He did, however on one occasion send me a copy of his book. I had close friends who held senior positions in his administration, all persons whose opinions I respect.
They all sang his praises. They were persons who never felt that their job was merely to carry out his wishes. He never interfered with what they were doing and respected their opinions even when they disagreed with positions he took, and sometimes was even prepared to re-examine and change his own position. It is for this reason that I liked the eulogy done by Monty Maule whose focus was on the man he knew. He was, I pulled from what they were saying, a man who was concerned about the development of the country but would remind them on occasions that he was also a politician with a constituency to please and a cabinet with which to work.
I remember Sir James for a number of things. The role he played as the single opposition member between 1974 and 1979, Mrs Joshua, then being placed as a figurehead in the opposition while her husband held a ministerial position. Then with Calder Williams between 1979 and 1984.
His marathon sessions debating the budget will long be remembered; his land settlement programmes that included the Orange Hill Development Program and the Agricultural Rehabilitation and Divestiture Programme with Langley Park, Grand Sable, Colonaire, Sans Souci, Cane Grove, Wallilabou and Richmond estates. His capture of all fifteen seats at the 1989 election was something only done once before, but with eight seats by what was dubbed the “Eight Army of Liberation” and in a different political context. This led to some differences of opinion between Sir James and Acting Governor General, Henry Williams, Williams being of the view that he was allowed to appoint two independent senators. Of interest here was that I was one of two persons invited by the Acting GG to sit as an independent senator. Fortunately for me this was overruled for it would have meant switching into an area I never wanted to, but really didn’t want to disappoint Henry Williams.
Sir James assumed the leadership of the country just after five years of Independence, a period when the country was adjusting to the realities of being an independent country. What he did was to continue the process of developing the institutions in a manner befitting an independent country. A new life was given to the Central Water and Sewerage Authority and the St. Vincent Electricity Company (Vinlec); a Community College was established, being built in different phases.
My object here is not to try to identify what ‘Son’ had done to develop the country, although I have listed a few that I considered important. It says a lot, that after serving for over thirty years in active politics the nation was able to pay tribute to him in the manner it did, and I refer here also to the many persons who called in on the radio and who used social media platforms to highlight the impact he had on them. I also thought that the party he formed and led until his retirement gave him the kind of respect and honour that he was due and was central to his final farewell. He batted well and scored for his country!