August 27, 2004
Civilising our democracy

by Dr. Richard A. B. Cox

Before I get into the subject of this piece, I wish to congratulate Parnell Campbell Q.C.
on his elevation to chairman of the CRC.
I encourage him to do the best job possible, as this is a singular opportunity history has granted him to make an eternal contribution to the development of SVG. Also, a good acquittal by him would show that black born and bred Vincentians are capable at any and every level.{{more}} Yes, there are those who continue to deny the latent racial prejudice that still exists in SVG so evident in the practice of foreign firms operating here when appointing CEOs; evident in our tourism and in our government’s limited faith in local expertise, for it is accepted that white and foreign is better. So P. R., be reminded that as Fidel Castro would say, history shall observe you, make sure that your work will stand the test of time and be a credit to Vincentian expertise and patriotism. Now down to business.
Joseph Bronovsky in his “Ascent Of Man” described culture as “a learnt behaviour”. I rather like calypsonian Duster’s definition, emphasising, “is the way how we do we thing”. Today in SVG the changeover of political power from the hands of an outgoing to those of an incoming prime minister reminds one of a sinister little back-room affair. It’s more like legalised power grabbing than democratic transfer. Something like a bloodless palace coup in a democracy depraved banana republic where the dethroned is, without the use of violence, forcefully hurried out of office, rather than a change civilly agreed to by the mature electorate of a confident, stable democracy.
A surviving anecdote of one of these instantaneous changes clearly illustrates our present mind set as regards the dispatch of the defeated. The story goes that on the morning after the ’84 elections, a passer-by, seeing the sentry on duty at the prime minister’s residence at Old Montrose, advised the latter, “Ah wa yo ah do dey, put down de gun and gowan home, yo na know say Kettoe na prime minister no mo.” You might say this was one person; truth is, however, this was John Public. Now irrespective of what Mr. Cato was or wasn’t as an individual, here we are dealing with the office of the prime minister, not Cato the person, and that office must not suffer such indignities.
I remember Mr. Mitchell saying that they thought he would wait a few days to be sworn in, but upon the results of the election he was on the boat heading for Government House. After his 16 years as the most powerful person in the country and with the title of Sir, Mitchell himself only avoided being unceremoniously put back on the boat, and shipped back to Bequia because he was smart enough to hand over to Mr. Eustace, realising that the NDP was mere inches from the political power precipice. He, Mitchell, more than anyone else understands that this is our learnt behaviour or recalling Duster, “The way how we do we thing” in a power change. It is known that on seeing the mock hanging and burning of effigies of Cato and cohorts in 1984 he remarked, “It is the same way you will treat me when my turn to go comes.” No wonder he made Eustace skipper sensing the ship was all but sunk.
Now if this was just about the treatment of those kicked out of power it might not be that bad. After all many of these politicians deserved no better having during their reign trampled on the people, expecting to have their feet kissed and their dictates unquestioningly carried out by all and sundry.
However, the implications and consequences of this hurried and unorganised change go way beyond the personalities involved. It signals the continuance after elections of a “no peace beyond the line” political practice, where conscious effort is made to strip the loser of even his personal dignity as he departs. Worse than that, it underlines that the new administration is the antithesis of the old in every sense and so a major task is to dismantle and destroy all that was done, positive or negative, by the outgoing “corrupt and bad” government. The house must be swept, so a host of legal, political, administrative, economic and social “righting of wrongs” are initiated irrespective of the resulting economic and social dislocation some of these inevitably breed. Many are sometimes merely actions of spite, giving vent to pent-up political bitterness accumulated during the time in opposition.
So our practice in this regard is more akin to a “break in power” rather than a transition, a starting over more than a building upon, so important for stability and maturity. It is as if the office of prime minister is like any other in the country with no particular legal status of its own in the hierarchy of state power. So the leader of the conquering party rushes up to Government House at any old time, under any condition and literally orders the Governor-General to administer the oath of office. Upon being formally confirmed as the new Bad John in town, he then boots his predecessor out on the street like any persona non grata.
While this is legal for our present constitution and demands neither decent protocol nor decorum be observed in this exercise, it is not civilised democratic behaviour. Is this how we want to continue in the future? Bearing in mind that our present prime minister is on record boasting that SVG is the second best organised black country in the world, our culture, our behaviour must confirm this; after all, actions speak louder than words.
So our changing of the chief must be orderly, decent, dignified and beautiful. Yes, beautiful, for SVG is the gem of the Antil-les, beautiful in every way, from our people and our hills and valleys to our precious Grenadine islands.
It is no accident that the national anthem begins, “St. Vincent, land so beautiful.” The new constitution must therefore institutionalise a decent and civilised transfer of political power, worthy of this beautiful nation and befitting our intelligent, cultured and organised people.
Our democratic culture must advance and mature and here the new constitution is key. My suggestions as regards this I will share next week.